Cheese-filled Serbian Gibanica is savory, slightly salty, and altogether addicting pastry. It is perfect party food. In fact, I first tasted it at a party, served as an appetizer.
After I’d eaten more than my fair share of the tasty morsels, I asked who had made them. It was a Serbian friend of the hosts, who learned to make Gibanica from her mother. When I asked for the recipe, she began reciting it by memory. My husband was standing nearby. Well trained as the spouse of a blogger, he grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote down the ingredients and the oven temperature/timing as she spoke. I gave him a kiss for being so thoughtful, stashed the scrap of paper in my purse, and looked forward to re-creating the Gibanica at home.
The party was delightful. While good food helps, it’s the people who are key. In this case, the crowd was fun loving and diverse. The Serbian woman who gave me the recipe is married to a Bosnian Croat. The couple who gave the party are a Brazilian Catholic woman married to an American man whose Jewish father fled Hungary in the lead-up to World War II. They all met at the Voice of America where the Brazilian woman works in a section that provides broadcasts to the Middle East. Others at the party included an Israeli, several Irish Americans and me, the granddaughter of a Romanian Jewish immigrant. We laughed, ate, and talked for hours.
Back to Gibanica. I kept thinking about this savory pastry, and not just because it was delicious. My only knowledge of Serbia before the party was the terrible ethnic violence between Serbians and Bosnian Croats in the mid-1990’s. It was hard to imagine that the couple I had just met had married, defying all my limited understanding of those two ethnic groups. To hear them talk about their family and realize that they had not allowed hatred swirling around them to interfere with their marriage was truly inspiring.
So it seemed to me that making Gibanica would be my own way of paying homage to the idea of bringing people together through food. Celebrating each other’s traditions and eating together is so much more productive than each staying in our own little worlds, relying on stereotypes about people we really know little or nothing about.
When I retrieved the notes about Gibanica my husband had so thoughtfully written at the party, I realized that they didn’t include any instructions except for the baking time. Oh well. I set to work with the list of ingredients and my memory. After adding dill, modifying a few other ingredients I made the pastry from memory, writing directions as I went along.
I baked my version in a 9 x 11″ pan and cut the pieces somewhat larger than the dainty ones I had the first time I tasted Gibanica. With a salad and soup, the Serbian Gibanica made a wonderful dinner.
Serbian Gibanica is a simple concept; a filling of eggs, dairy, and just a hint of herb and pepper, between stacks of fillo dough sheets and baked until golden brown on top.
The filling is a cinch to make. Basically just throw all the ingredients together, including the one my friend-of-a-friend said was essential – seltzer. I love homemade ricotta, but in this case I used store-bought. I doubt that it made much of a difference.
The only part that might throw you – and that may cause some to avoid this recipe entirely – is the fillo dough. If you’ve had baklava, a Greek and Middle Eastern sweet, honey-and-nut pastry you’ve eaten fillo dough. Like baklava, Serbian Gibanica has layers of fillo with oil or butter sprayed or brushed on each one. For photos of how the layers work, check out my 2012 post on my pal Jeannie’s baklava. (Please excuse the quality of the photos. They are from the days of my point-and-shoot camera with almost no editing. Still, they show how the fillo looks and how to use it.)
Many, or maybe even most large grocery or Middle Eastern groceries, sell fillo dough in the freezer section of the store. It comes in long, thin boxes containing 1 pound of thin dough sheets, piled on top of each other and rolled or folded.
Though it may look intimidating, there is no need to “fear the fillo” if you follow these few tips :
Using Fillo in Serbian Gibanica or Other Recipes
- Fillo dries out easily once exposed to air, so your goal should be to keep it covered and work relatively quickly once you begin using the delicate sheets of dough. Follow the directions for thawing the dough and when you are ready, have all your other ingredients and the pan nearby.
- Gently unroll the stack of fillo sheets (one roll at a time if there are 2 rolls in the package), and immediately place a clean towel over the stack.
- Be gentle when taking off the top sheet to use it. Think of the fillo as if it were delicate tissue paper. Start at the top and gently pull off the top sheet, then immediately cover the remaining fillo sheets until you need to go back for the next one.
Cheese-filled Serbian Gibanica
- 3 large eggs
- 1 pound ricotta cheese
- 1 pound feta cheese rinsed if in salt brine, cut into small cubes or crumbled
- 2-3 tablespoon sour cream
- 1/3 cup milk
- 1/3 cup seltzer or sparkling water
- 1 teaspoon dried dill
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 pound fillo dough
- 4 tablespoons melted butter/oil or a combination
Combine the eggs, ricotta, feta, sour cream, milk, and seltzer or sparkling water in a medium-large bowl. Mix well and add the dill and freshly ground pepper. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Set up your fillo dough, pan, bowl of filling, and butter/oil.
After defrosting the fillo layers according to the directions on the box, lay them next to a 9 x 11" oven-safe pan. LIghtly brush or spray the pan with butter/oil. Put down the first sheet of fillo dough, brush it lightly with butter, oil and continue to do that until you have used about 1/3 of the fillo sheets.
Spread half of the filling smoothly over the top sheet of fillo dough and continue adding fillo dough sheets, one at a time, brushing with butter/oil after each one, until you have used another 1/3 of the fillo dough sheets. Spread the remaining half of the filling on top of the last sheet of dough and use up the remaining sheets of fillo dough. Brush the top sheet of fillo dough.
Bake for 35-45 minutes until the top is golden brown, especially around the edges.
Let the Gibanica sit for about 5-10 minutes before you cut it.
No salt is required because the feta is salty. If the feta is in a block stored in brine (as is the feta pictured in the ingredients in this recipe), I taste it to decide how well to rinse it to eliminate some of the salt. You want it to stay a bit salty, but not overly so.
I used a half melted butter/ half olive oil mixture for greasing the pan and brushing on the fillo sheets.