Ariana Tolka’s childhood Thanksgiving memories involve turkey, stuffing—and burek. She remembers the smell wafting from the kitchen for hours while her Albanian grandmother’s traditional savory hand pies baked to a perfect golden brown.
A burek is a hearty, handheld phyllo pie, a beloved street food in the Balkans and parts of the Middle East (in Turkey, it’s known as börek). To preserve her late grandmother’s Albanian recipe, Tolka and her aunt, Alida Malushi, began perfecting their own on the weekends. Through the process, Malushi—a former Kosovo-based journalist turned pastry chef—lamented with her niece about the lack of high-quality, frozen, pre-made burek available at stores. Tolka, who has a background in marketing and partnerships, saw an opportunity. Balkan Bites, which sells handmade, frozen bureks, was born in 2019.
Balkan Bites began to gain momentum following a round of pop-up and holiday markets in New York and New Jersey, but when the pandemic hit the city in early 2020, the brand pivoted entirely online. Its six flavors can be purchased in bags of four bureks for $18.99 and range from the traditional (beef and onion, spinach and cheese) to spins on a classic (mushroom and goat cheese, chocolate hazelnut). They ship frozen and unbaked, so they have a shelf life of up to a year.
Each “bite” is shaped like a cinnamon roll, sized like a bagel, and stuffed like a pasty. They’re much bigger than bite-size, satisfyingly qualifying as a meal. They crisp up when you heat them—30-35 minutes in the oven, 15 minutes in the air fryer—with a buttery shell that crunches and flakes but never feels greasy. Real butter was important to Tolka, because she found most frozen versions at grocery stores used soybean oil or margarine in their phyllo dough.
Tolka recommends eating the spinach and cheese burek with a salty Turkish yogurt beverage called Ayran and pairing the mushroom and goat cheese with a salad. She also likes them with a side of pickles or hard-boiled eggs and dipped in a tzatziki-like sauce topped with paprika.
I like all of Tolka’s suggestions, but I also enjoyed mine topped with Everything but the Bagel seasoning (which I added before baking) and devoured in a matter of minutes. The spinach and cheese is my favorite: tangles of spinach with tangy, creamy feta and ricotta cheese housed in a tender crust. They are the ideal any-time, any-place meal and are much (much) more impressive than those microwavable pocket-size sandwiches of your early 20s. But just as easy.
And for those with pandemic wanderlust, Balkan Bites is transportive in the most delicious way.
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