For some reason when I hear about Bulgaria, I have always thought it is next to Russia and would have similar food and culture. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how surprised I was when I realized that Bulgaria actually borders Greece, Turkey, Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia. So the cuisine was much closer to Mediterranean cuisine than I expected. Not a bad surprise!
I was also surprised to learn how heavily yogurt seems to be eaten there! All of the dishes we selected included yogurt, and two of them recommended serving yogurt on the side. I learned that a type of bacteria used to make yogurt, Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, was named by a Bulgarian scientist upon discovery in 1905. As a side note, the linked article starts with a statement about how “there is hardly a person in the world who doesn’t know Bulgaria is the homeland of the yogurt.” So I guess that makes me a pretty ignorant person of the world.
I found several good looking dishes for Bulgaria, and it was tough to narrow them down. Stuffed peppers were a very close runner up, and the three winners were:
- Tarator: a cold, yogurt-based soup with cucumbers, dill, walnuts, and garlic
- Moussaka: a casserole dish with potatoes, tomatoes, and ground meat topped with a layer of egg and yogurt. There is also a Greek version of this dish that uses eggplant, but the consensus seemed to be that Bulgarians are the original moussaka makers.
- Banitsa: a dish made of philo dough layered with a filling of cheese, egg, and yogurt
We prepared the soup early in the afternoon–this gave it time to chill and took some of the pressure off the later dinner preparations. It came together very easily; we just had to do some chopping, measuring, and stirring. First I got a “bunch” of dill from our garden.
The dill and parsley (conveniently, the two herbs we need for this meal) have both been prolific lately!
Back to the soup. The cucumbers, yogurt, ground walnuts, finely chopped garlic, and chopped dill were mixed together.
Then enough water was added to reach the desired consistency. I like a thick soup, so we didn’t add much water. I also thought some liquid would seep out of the cucumbers over the time and make it more watery.
I didn’t take many pictures since this was a pretty simple casserole. The recipe calls for ground meat and says that ground pork is most common in Bulgaria, although after reviewing several different recipes for this dish, I found ground beef to show up in more recipes. So we used ground beef. This was fried with onion (big surprise there) first, then chopped tomatoes, parsley, potatoes, salt, and pepper were mixed in and transferred to a 9×13 glass baking dish.
This baked for 1 hour. I was worried that it would burn or dry out, but it was fine. Then the eggs and yogurt were mixed together, poured on top, and the dish went back in the oven.
I checked on it after the recommend 10 minutes, and although everything looked cooked and done, the top didn’t have the nice golden spotted color I saw on many pictures online. So we turned on the broil setting to give it some direct heat for a few minutes. It looked perfect after that. I forgot to take a picture until after I had scooped out my food, so we can just pretend the picture was set up this way to show off a cross section of the casserole. I may or may not have been very hungry.
We started preparations for this meal by setting the philo dough out to the thaw with plenty of time (at least 2 hours). We have had countless struggles in the past with improperly thawed philo dough breaking apart while being unrolled. Giving it adequate thawing time made a huge difference, as expected.
The next step was mixing together the filling. I couldn’t find the specific Bulgarian cheese that is referenced in most of the banitsa recipes, but feta cheese seems to be a close approximation. The crumbled feta is mixed with eggs and (you guessed it) yogurt. Then several sheets of philo dough were layer out, smothered in melted butter, and topped with this filling. The filling was very liquidy, so this was a bit of a messy operation. This was then rolled up and transferred to the baking pan. I felt brave and went with the traditional method, which involves creating a spiral with each philo dough roll you make (the “cheating” method is to just layer it all in a square or rectangular pan). I had reasonably good success with this process, although I had to use two pans since I didn’t have anything round that was big enough to hold it all.
About a half a cup of milk was poured over each pan before it went in the oven.
They looked and smelled amazing when they came out of the oven later.
And they looked even better when sliced open.
The final meal:
We liked everything in this meal. Despite the ridiculous amount of yogurt, was definitely one of our all around winners.
I’m generally not a huge fan of cold soups, but this tarator is the third time I have encountered them on this project. I liked aspects of the last two in Azerbaijan (which could be served hot or cold) and Belarus, but Tyler was stuck with most of the leftovers of them. I think the difference with tarator is the consistency. I like chunkier soups, and the diced cucumber made it chunky. I have heard that sometimes the cucumber is grated or even blended, and I’m really glad I stuck with diced cucumber. I couldn’t eat a lot of this in one sitting, but I did continue to enjoy it as leftovers.
The moussaka was good. I won’t say it was amazing, but it was a good, hearty casserole. Parsley was the only herb or spice (other than salt/pepper), and it wasn’t very distinct. The tomato, beef, and potato held their own, though. The side of yogurt was a nice additition, and I actually mixed in some of the tarator soup when I had it as a leftover to get some extra moisture and flavor.
The banitsa was the hands-down winner of this meal! I strongly dislike the flavor and texture of eggs, and with four eggs going into the filling for this, suffice to say I was nervous. But I absolutely loved it. The eggs mixed with the yogurt and feta well enough for it to not seem egg-ey. Overall, this had the delicious texture of a pastry (like a croissant or apple struedel), thanks to the philo dough, and when that mixed with the filling the flavor reminded me of macaroni and cheese. Each bite was a warm, cheesy, pastry-ish treat. They also recommended serving some yogurt on the side with this, which a nice enhancement but definitely wasn’t necessary to make the dish. I read that this is typically served as a breakfast dish, which we discovered was a great idea for leftovers.