I think the greatest high any new cook can experience is when something they always thought would elude them becomes something they can make without anxiety or pre-scripting excuses. By that thinking we’ve been high quite a bit over here in the past year. We’ve gone “from scratch” with a lot of our cult favorites. We healthified and made our own corn dogs. I made brownies from scratch. Neil made a rack of ribs. We still have a ways to go though, and one of the areas that constantly eludes our pwnage is pastry. There’s nothing more aggravating then a trip to the bakery, seeing all the Danish and doughnuts, and knowing that you just haven’t properly captured the morning splendor of pure sugar and puff pastry.
Enter my guardian angel of a neighbor Mary. Phyllo has been a member of her family longer than she has.
Growing up, a mysterious black-and-white photograph of a stocky, muscular person always hung over the family kitchen table. She always thought it was a man, but years later found out it was a woman, rolling out phyllo dough by hand on a large round table. She still doesn’t know the identity of the woman. A grandmother, possibly a great-aunt? The identity is still a mystery as the photo hangs in her own kitchen.
Mary and her husband John
Like me, Mary grew up in a dual culture family. Her father was an immigrant from Bulgaria, her mother an American. While I grew up watching my grandmother make enough Kraut and Spaetzle to feed my football team of a family, Mary has been eating phyllo since the time she could eat solid food. So when I had a failed first try at using the thin, seemingly impossible dough, she volunteered to help.
So last Friday after work, she imparted wisdom and beautiful family history and taught me to make Tikvenik (TEEK-vih-NEEK) a rolled phyllo or “banitsa” with a slightly sweetened pumpkin filling. Both savory and sweet (because I like pastries that are both), it’s perfect for fall.
Turns out I was totally overcomplicating phyllo. The “rules” are really quite simple. Mary writes:
It’s not difficult stuff, and never should be feared—Daddy always said to let the frozen dough thaw properly in the refrigerator before using it; keep it under a slightly damp towel after taking it out of the package; don’t use too much filling; and if it breaks, you can patch it! And he preferred using butter over margarine or oil—he believed in, as he said, “the real thing”! He taught me a special way of drizzling the butter over the layers of phyllo before rolling them, so there was always just the right amount.
1 pkg. Phyllo (filo/fillo/phylo) dough, defrosted
1 can (15 oz) pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
1 egg, beaten
1 cup white sugar (or half brown /half white)
1 tsp. Cinnamon
½ tsp. Cloves
Fresh grated nutmeg to taste
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1-2 sticks butter melted (alternately, ½ cup vegetable oil, warmed)
1. Preheat the oven to 375. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. Open the package of phyllo dough, gently unfold it on a dishtowel covered with waxed paper, and cover it with a lightly dampened dishtowel until ready to use—this keeps it from drying out.
2. Melt the butter over low heat; alternately, warm the vegetable oil over low heat, taking care to keep it only warm, not hot. We warmed ours in the microwave.
3. In another pot, mix the pumpkin, the sugar, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg with a tablespoon of melted butter or oil—stir to combine. Heat the mixture until the sugar is melted and incorporated, and all is the consistency of a somewhat dry pumpkin pie filling; let cool a bit, then mix the beaten egg in. At this point, stir in the walnuts if you are using them.
4. Have the phyllo facing lengthwise away from you. Take the towel off the phyllo, take the first two sheets, and fold them up and away from you about 2 inches or so. Spread about 2 spoonfuls or so thinly across the phyllo–enough to cover the width of the phyllo you have folded, but leaving about a ½ inch border. Dip a spoon into the melted butter/oil and drizzle it across the phyllo sheets in front of the pumpkin. Gently take up the part with the pumpkin on it and roll it—like a jelly roll—just enough to enclose the pumpkin. Spread more filling thinly over the rest of the phyllo sheets (leaving a small border all around), drizzle more butter/oil, and roll up gently (not too tight) to the end. Place on the cookie sheet, and cover with a damp towel.
5. Repeat until all phyllo is used up. Brush finished pieces with melted butter/oil; bake 15-17 minutes until golden brown. Makes 8 Rolls.
Tip: If your phyllo begins to come apart as you are rolling, you may brush it with some butter/oil and patch it with another piece of phyllo—just roll it around the previous piece! Consider the butter/oil an “adhesive” in this case.
This recipe may seem simple, and it is. But to Neil and I it feels like another window has been opened. It gave us not only the opportunity to learn something new, but see someone through someone else. I will never meet Mary’s father. He passed away several years ago. But regardless, I know him to be an incredible man. A legend. Someone who always had the right thing to say in every situation. A man who delighted everyone, whether they be family or the fruit clerk at the grocery store. He wasn’t with us, but he was. His guidance literally felt like hands on our shoulders, his humor in our every laugh, and his wisdom imparted through his brilliant, caring daughter. For that, we’re doubly blessed.
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yeay, glad to be the first here 😛 thank you for posting something that is really new to me. one thing i appreciate in this challenge is that i get to learn a lot about culturally diverse foods. through your post, you’re transporting me to Bulgaria! 🙂 job well done!
It may be a simple recipe to some but the contest asked us to challenge ourselves. This recipe looks fabulous! Glad Project Food Blog gave me an opportunity to find your blog 🙂
Tikvenik! That’s exactly what I loved about Bulgaria from a visit this summer. (it is also slang for fool in Bulgarian from what I read- so I am a fool for tikvenik)
BTW, my Kurdish grandmother makes bread exactly like the mystery woman in the photograph. http://www.sarahmelamed.com/2010/01/kurdish-flat-bread/
I wonder if she also has a saj next to her? very interesting. I wonder if there are still Bulgarians who continue to make phyllo like this
I am Bulgarian and I can tell you that yes, there are Bulgarians who still can make the phyllo that way. Also, Phyllo is the Greek word for it. In Bulgaria we call it “Kora”… Let me know if you have any questions or need more information. There are so many recipes … 🙂
They look beautiful! I adore pumpkin. If you ever cook with it you should try roasting a small pie pumkin, delicious! Good luck on your PFB!
@Jan/Thella and Carol Thanks for stopping by, we’re so humbled!
@Sarah, those pictures are amazing! I’ll be sure to share them with Mary, she’ll love them. I noticed as I was doing research for th post that a lot of different people use the technique. We really are all connected!
@healthy mama I’ve been craving these and pumpkin pie since I made them. I love fall!
Oh my gracious these look outstanding!!!! I love phyllo, and I love pumpkin, and I love love love trying out new things. You guys have my vote!!! Can’t wait to try these soon, toon 🙂
Wow, Jessica. This looks incredible. Great job!
Thanks Ashley! They’re pumpkin and delicious and SO. RIGHT. UP. YOUR. ALLEY.
This looks amazing! In my trip to Bulgaria I rarely had room for dessert but I’m sure if I had seen these beautiful pastries I would have made room! You have my vote!
What a great way to learn a new dish–a little friendship a little history. This looks like it was divine. I’m putting it on my list of Thanksgiving potentials.
@Katie Thanks for your wonderful comment and I hope your trip was amazing even without these. I hear the food is fabulous!
@baking barrister I was just telling Neil that I’m definitely making these for Thanksgiving at his parents, and possible every day between now and then lol.
GREAT JOB, wonderful photos and excellent choice of recipe!!!
Your tikvenik looks soo tasty! :))
I love to make tikvenik, too and I like it with lots of suger…so,
You can try to brush finished pieces with egg yolk and frost with granulated sugar or with butter ( like you did ) and when your tikvenik is baked with powder sugar.
I agree with you that newbies definitely deserve more than a fighting chance, and your dish looks beautiful and I am sure it tastes great. Good luck, just voted!
Well done – loved your post! Your photos are beautiful…good luck!
I can’t believe no one knows who that woman is! I’d go crazy pestering everyone to try and find out, but then that’s my issues 😀 Your dish looks beautiful and pumpkin is becoming one of my favorite ingredients. You get my vote 😀
A beautiful entry! I love getting to know about family histories, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. The recipe alone sounds incredible!!! You’ve got my vote.
XOXO best of luck!
Being Bulgarian, i really appreciate this post. Very nice Tikvenik, the same that my grandmother made and which I do now, except phylo dough, which we made by hand.
Phyllo is quite challenging to work with! I have a patchy track record myself. But the end result is always worth it. Love the sound of this filling – sweet & savoury is right up my alley.
I have so many Bulgarian friends and they made this at my request for every work party! I was looking for the instruction and found you! I cannot wait to go home and make it. If you want it to look a bit fancier, one of my friends (Vessela) would make it in a round baking dish and it looked like a coffee roll. It was wash with eggs and sugar. If you have not tried this please do, it is addicting!
I love TIkvenik! It’s better if you roll it in a circle though the pieces remain more moist rather than if it’s separate strips of it. Also the lady in the black and white picture must be from Bulgaria or if not one of our neighbors such as Macedonia.
It’s fantastic! Thanks for sharing!
So.. aside from the beauty of phyllo, or Kora… has anyone made this? Is it good? I am use to spanikopita and baklava with phyllo… is the pumpkin good?
It’s really good. It was my neighbor’s recipe, so I’m pretty objective.