It must have been just over two years ago that I came across an article in a magazine; something about dying cultural art forms that are unlikely to survive the next few generations. Egg-painting, leather-crafting, and even cursive writing are all things that are considered by some to be in danger of extinction.
But it wasn’t really the risk of losing the cursive script that caught my attention (let’s be honest, we all hated it in elementary school and ditched it the second we got the chance). What caught my attention on that list was something I never would have thought of as a dying art form. In fact, it never occurred to me that it even was an art as opposed to just a necessity to make one of the staple dishes in my household: stretched dough.
Stretching dough dates back centuries into the deep rustic roots of Central/Eastern Europe.
(Close cousin, the drier phyllo, has its origins in the old Anatolian provinces of the Ottoman Empire). Needing only a few simple (and inexpensive) ingredients, peasants came up with a way to create something intricate and delicious from the small amount of things available.
Whether it is wrapped around spiced ground meat, salted fresh cow’s cheese, or peppered potatoes, (or perhaps made sweet) the crisp layers of buttery paper-thin dough offer the perfect balance for any such filling. Today, far from what was once a simple peasant food, a properly made strudel is a delicacy and evidently, a scarce delicacy that is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
Reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and merged with Ottoman influences, it doesn’t take more than a trip to the local bakery to see that stretched dough is still very prominent in Croatian cuisine. Whether it be called burek, pita, strudla, or savijaca, there appears to be an unspoken consensus deeming it the lunch of choice (a consensus on the dish, that is, not quite on the name).
So, how is it that something so readily available is risking extinction?
Well, you see, there’s a culprit in all of this; an offender so perverse that it has continuously interfered with the traditional, authentic recipes passed down from our grandmothers: premade dough.
Now, let’s get something straight. If you’re in a hurry or simply aren’t in the mood to dedicate a full two hours to kneading the dough, then waiting for it to rest, then stretching it, then sweeping up the fallen flour, fine. Go buy the premade phyllo dough for strudel and we’ll forgive you. In fact, we’ll even pretend it’s as good as the real thing. But when you have a bit more time on your hands and are up for a challenge, why not make it a point to learn? After all, there are very few things in the culinary world as rewarding as making a strudel from scratch.
It’s not quite the easiest thing to conquer, especially when you’re just starting out. Truth be told, practically everyone fails on their first attempt (even me), but that’s no excuse to give up. Just pretend it’s your driving test. The key is to knead aggressively and stretch carefully (not the other way around). Also, holes happen and are supposed to happen, so don’t worry. Take a deep breath, put on some mood music, and follow the instructions. We’re making meat burek (evolved from Turkish börek) from scratch!
What You’ll Need:
(for the Dough)
3 cups instant-blending flour (also known as oštrog brasna or bread flour; it’s a flour with a high level of gluten which is easier to stretch) (375 g)
about 1 1/3 cup warm water (about 300 ml)
3 tbsps oil (canola or sunflower)
1 1/2 tbsps white vinegar
pinch of salt
2 tbsps melted butter
2 tbsps oil (a neutral one; canola or sunflower is best)
(for the Filling)
1 lb ground meat (I use a mix of beef and pork, but it’s really to your preference) (500 grams)
1/2 a medium-sized onion
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vegeta
½ tsp paprika (I prefer spicy paprika, again whatever you like)
pepper, to taste
Note: For cheese burek, follow this exact same process. Replace the meat filling with 1lb (500 g) of a fresh cow’s cheese, combined with 2 whole eggs and salt (to taste).
1. In a bowl, combine the flour, salt, warm water, 3 tbsps oil, and vinegar together with your hands. When it’s incorporated, transfer it onto the counter (over a very generous sprinkle of flour). Knead it for about 5 minutes, adding just as much flour as is needed to prevent it from sticking to the counter.
2. When you’ve finished the first round of kneading, throw it (hard!) against the counter for about 3 minutes. Some people count precisely to 100 throws, I go by time. The objective of this is to break the gluten in the flour and allow the dough to be more elastic so that you can stretch it later. (Note: the dough should get progressively more sticky as you throw it, don’t add anymore flour other than just a bit on the counter so that it doesn’t stick.)
3. Once you’ve gotten out all your anger, knead it normally once more against the counter (a pushing motion using the palms of your hands) for another 5 minutes. Brush a plate with oil. Place the dough onto it and brush the top/sides of the dough with oil as well. Cover the dough with an upside-down bowl to prevent it from drying and allow it to rest for 1 hour.
4. Prepare your table by putting onto it a clean tablecloth (or an old clean bedsheet) and sprinkling bits of flour throughout. Use your hands to smooth out the flour into the tablecloth. When the dough is ready, gently flip it onto the center of the table.
5. Using your palms and fingertips (but no nails!) lift one side of the dough; reach into the center. Gently and carefully begin to stretch it outwards (towards you), working your way further from the center as it gets thinner. It should be see-through but not ripped (although holes aren’t a huge deal). Work your way around the table. If your table isn’t too big, try to get the edges of the dough to drape around the perimeter– then it will stretch itself further.
6. Once the dough is stretched, carefully rip off the very edge of it (the very edge should have a thicker part—you may use scissors to cut it or just rip it with your hands). Throw that away, you won’t need it. Now you’re ready to prepare the filling. Oh, and also preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 C).
7. In a little cup, mix together the melted butter and the 2 tbsps of oil. You can either brush the dough with this melted butter/oil mixture or you can use a spoon to drizzle it throughout the stretched dough. Prepare the filling by mixing together the meat, diced onion, salt, pepper, vegeta, and paprika.
8. Evenly distribute the meat mixture around the dough so that it’s an approximate 1” belt. Leave a about an inch from the perimeter free. Also, leave a couple-inch gap in between the belt of meat.
9. Down the center of the gap, use a knife to split the dough. Take the excess dough and fold it up over the meat. Then take all the excess dough around the table and fold it up over the meat as well.
10. Where you’ve folded the dough over the meat continue by rolling it a few more times. Every time you roll it, give it a gentle tug back towards you (this will keep it stretching even further).
11. Keep extending the initial cut further as you roll the dough so that you end up with one long roll, which you can slightly stretch even further (while it’s rolled) to make sure it’s even throughout.
12. Grease a baking sheet with oil. You can either make little individual bureks like I did (when you cut them, seal the dough with your fingers so the meat doesn’t fall out), or you can make one big one (start with one end of the roll in the very middle of a circular baking sheet and spiral the remaining roll around it.)
13. Brush with oil and bake for approximately 60-75 minutes, depending on your oven and your desired crunchiness.
Here’s a little old school secret: When you think they’re ready to be taken out of the oven (they’ll be hard to the touch), pour a bit of salt water onto them and leave them in the oven for 5 more minutes. This will add moisture to the meat and soften the dough a little bit.
Take them out of the oven, let them cool for a few minutes, and serve warm with plain yogurt.