The following entry is not my own story. It is another immigrant’s recollection of how food got her and her family through some of the hardest times imaginable to our generation: the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia. I would like to thank Rose for agreeing to share her beautiful skill, recipe and story.
“I’m the only one in our group of friends who makes this,” Rose says to me simply, but her eyes are glinting with pride. She knows that few people nowadays take the time to make a true Bosnian pita. Few of us have the time or ability to roll out dough, make filling, and assemble one of the most complicated pastries I have ever seen. And yet, back home, this was “everyday food,” even during the turbulent civil wars of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. “Now, it’s for special occasions,” Rose remarks, and I can’t tell if this disappoints her, or makes her even prouder to be one of the last bearers of this skill.
Rose grew up in the former Yugoslavia, in the Bosnian town of Tuzla. She is a slight woman with dark curly hair, big eyes that crinkle at the edges, and a captivating smile. She keeps an immaculate house, full of tasteful personal touches and lots of light. Little Bosnian artifacts are displayed in various corners, bringing a touch of the Middle East to her otherwise modern home. Rose is a little shy, slow to open up at first, but her warmth radiates through her words, breaking down barriers and making one feel welcome at her home and table.
After many years of practice, her Bosnian pita-making technique is flawless. She moves through the kitchen with confidence, gently massaging the dough, tugging at the edges of paper-thin pastry, stretching it to a seemingly impossible size. Yet Rose didn’t start making pita until “The War” started, when she could no longer go to her mom for this traditional pie.
Learning how to make Bosnian pita herself proved to be the perfect solution for days of war, when transport was cut off, supplies were uncertain, and people often had to make due with very little for very long stretches of time. “You can put anything in a pie. Whatever came from the garden, or whatever comes from humanitarian aid,” Rose says nonchalantly, as though the experience of waiting on Red Cross and UN planes to drop off food and bandages was a regular occurrence for me as well.
On the day we cook together, Rose assembles three fillings: butternut squash, cottage cheese, and apples with cinnamon and brown sugar. They are simple, free of superfluous ingredients and shock-me spices. The resulting flavours are clean, vibrant. But the fillings could really be anything: add some spinach to your cottage cheese, or some raisins or walnuts to your apples. Rose is as resilient today as she was during the war. “Until today, that’s how I cook. Open the fridge, and [I take] whatever is in it, as long as there’s no waste.”
This adaptability is a hard-earned skill, an openness to changing circumstances that is familiar to others who have experienced strife, food shortages, poverty, or uncertainty. Yet not everyone who makes Bosnian pita is that open to improvisation. Not everyone adapted to the war, Rose says. “My mom couldn’t adjust to the limitations. She stopped making it (pita),” she lowers her eyes, her voice getting taut.
When Rose rolls out her dough to make Bosnian pita, she brings this history with her into the kitchen. She brings in the days when the fridge was bare and the garden overflowing with nothing but spinach. And above all, she brings in that sense of resilience, the make-do-out-of-nothing attitude that I recognize from my own grandmothers. I believe it is precisely this that makes this immigrant’s table so welcoming.
P.S. – I have since tried finding the round, enameled pan that Rose says is traditionally used for making pita. This 9″ enamel round pie dish was as close as I’ve gotten, but it’s really nowhere near big enough for the pita Rose rolls out. You can roll the pita into small spirals inside several pie dishes to get that beautiful slice. Or, make little spirals and arrange them in any large casserole dish, and serve them individually.
- Butternut squash filling:
- 1 medium-sized squash, peeled and shredded
- a pinch of sugar
- ½ teaspoon of salt, or more, to taste
- Cottage cheese filling:
- 2 cups cottage cheese, drained
- 2-3 eggs (depending on egg size)
- 1 Tb olive oil
- ¼ cup of feta cheese (optional)
- salt, to taste (hold off until the last minute)
- Apple filling:
- 4-5 sour apples, shredded (use Granny Smiths, crab apples, or preferably apples from your own apple tree)
- 1 cup of walnuts, crushed
- 2-3 Tbs brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 4 cups of AP flour, unbleached
- 1 cup of AP flour, reserved for dusting counters, etc
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 cups warm water (use a mixture of boiling and cold water)
- To make butternut squash filling:
- Mix squash, sugar and salt. If you want to add more salt, only do so at the last minute (otherwise, the squash will get soggy and bleed, making the dough too wet).
- To make cottage cheese filling:
- Mix cottage cheese, eggs, feta cheese and olive oil. Add salt at the last minute, to taste.
- To make apple filling:
- Mix cinnamon, brown sugar and walnuts in a separate bowl. Keep apart from shredded apples until the last minute (otherwise, the apples will get soggy and bleed, making the dough too wet).
- To make dough:
- Place 4 cups of flour in a large bowl. Add water gradually to it, until dough is soft but not sticky.
- Flour work surface generously. Place dough on counter and knead down gently for about 10-15 minutes, until the dough is springy to the touch. Knead in soft motions, almost stroking the dough and transferring it from hand to hand. Do not be too violent.
- Divide dough into 4 pieces. Flour surface lightly, and roll each piece into a ball, transferring from hand to hand gently. Then, adding a bit of flour as needed. roll out dough thinly with a rolling pin, like thin pizza dough.
- Cover another area with clean kitchen towels, and arrange rolled out dough circles close to each other, edges touching. Drizzle a tiny bit of olive oil on each disc, and spread it out evenly across the surface with your hands. Cover the discs with plastic wrap, and let rest in a warm place for about 30 minutes. Afterwards, dough should be very elastic, like good pizza dough.
- Cover a large dining room table with a clean tablecloth. Transfer one dough disc to the table, laying it in the middle. Start spreading the dough very gently, pinching the ends with your fingers (never touch or pull from the centre, only from the edges). Pull the ends towards you gently, going around the table clockwise (or counter-clockwise, just try to go in one direction all the time), spreading the dough into a very thin layer as much as you can. Continue expanding the dough by pulling on the edges gently until the paper-thin dough covers the whole table like a tablecloth, draping over the edges.
- Preheat oven to 400F.
- Start spreading filling onto the dough with a tablespoon, dropping dollops all over its surface, but leave one line, the width of about 3 inches, empty all across the middle (please see photos for this). Drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Fold the corners of the dough that are draping over the table, making the dough contained on top of the table.
- Now, gently raise one edge of the tablecloth, allowing the dough to roll towards the empty part in the middle. Stop when the dough gets to that part. Repeat on the other side. You should now have two long snakes of dough and filling, with a thin layer of dough separating them. Cut that line in half with a sharp knife, separating your two snakes from each other.
- Oil a casserole dish. Arrange the rolls in the dish, shaping them into spirals and tight coils, like tightly-wound snakes that are ready to pounce.
- Repeat with three other dough discs. You can vary the fillings in each disc (which separates into two rolls), using half of one and half of the other in the same disc (because the coils will be separated from each other, it really doesn't matter).
- Bake for 40 minutes at 400F, until pita is golden brown on top. Serve right away, or eat in room temperature for lunch the next day.