The Bulgarian Grandmother With the Golden Touch
Shared by Ron Levy-Arie
Recipe Roots: Plovdiv, Bulgaria > Tel Aviv and Izmir, Turkey > Tel Aviv
On Friday afternoons when Ron Levy-Arie was little, the family would gather for lunch at his grandmother Hilda’s home in Tel Aviv. The table in her small dining room was set with her best dishes and silver and out of respect for the occasion, Ron recalls trying to sit up straight in his chair.
The table was often dotted with numerous salads, cold yogurt soup, and baked goods, “but she had the aces she used to draw occasionally,” he says. Among them were cheese-laden recipes from Plovdiv, a town in central Bulgaria where she was from. There was almodrote or a pie of roasted eggplant and kashkaval cheese, chushki burek or roasted red peppers stuffed with white cheese, battered and fried, and a simple cheese and egg souffle with the nickname “dunce’s pie” — so simple that anyone can make it.
“Bulgarians eat a lot of dairy,” Ron jokes in an Israeli accent tinged with a warm lilt giving away his deep love of Jamaican music and culture, which he works to promote in Israel through festivals and DJing. “It doesn’t require a holiday,” like Shavuot, to eat a cheese-filled meal, but Hilda’s recipes match the traditions of the upcoming festival perfectly.
She held to them tightly as her family escaped Europe in the early 1940s when she was a teenager. In Bulgaria, her father was the local doctor and her family was part of the prominent Arie family, but they had to leave behind nearly all of their belongings. Like many emigres from the Balkans, they settled in Tel Aviv in the Levinsky neighborhood and struggled in the 1950s during a national era of austerity.
Still, Hilda managed to develop a philosophy of l’art de vivre, or the art of living. She embraced the beautiful things in life and had a golden touch with her work. She was a painter and archeological restorer, she sewed her clothes. “She had the hands of an artist...anything she touched — it was the golden touch,” Ron says.
His grandmother never taught him to cook. But from the time he was in 8th grade, Ron spent nearly every afternoon after school with her. “I just observed her and tried to get as much information” as he could, he says. When he began cooking on his own as a young teen, “I used to call [her] every time before I started.” He would ask her about the ingredients and process. “Then after years of practice,” he says, he hosted Passover dinner and invited Hilda as a guest to try his rendition of her recipes. He remembers waiting for her reaction. “She fully endorsed my cooking,” Ron says.
Today when Ron makes Hilda’s recipes, he does so to Jamaican music or sometimes old Turkish music, an influence from his father’s side of the family, much of which came to Israel from Izmir in Turkey. His aunt Ketty was the cook for that side of the family, carrying on Ron’s grandmother’s recipes like handrajo, a Ladino word for a rag you use to clean the floor. “It’s a kind of nasty name for a dish,” Ron concedes, but the result is anything but. It’s a crisp log of puff pastry filled with eggplant, onions, and tomatoes, that he says pairs well with Bulgarian recipes from Hilda.
Ron, who went on to cook professionally and to organize private dinners in Tel Aviv focused on Jamaican cuisine, hopes to host a tribute dinner focused on “Hilda’s recipes from A to Z, the stuff you don’t find [anymore],” he says. Until then, he’ll continue to make them at home — jamming to reggae as he goes along.
Handrajo (Eggplant, Onion and Tomato Pastry)
Time: 1 hour 45 minutes + time for the puff pastry to thaw (overnight or morning of)
¼ cup neutral oil (like sunflower, grapeseed, or canola)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium eggplant (~1 ¼ lbs.), peeled, washed in water (to absorb less oil), cut into ½” cubes
1 garlic clove, unpeeled
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2 medium onions (~¾ lbs.), finely chopped
3 medium tomatoes (1 lb.), halved and grated on a box grater, peels discarded
½ tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 packages puff pastry (28 oz.), preferably butter based, thawed in the fridge overnight
1 egg, whisked
1. Heat the neutral oil and olive oil in a large sauté pan over high heat.
2. Add the eggplant cubes and garlic to the pan in an even layer, sprinkle with a ½ teaspoon of the salt, and sauté undisturbed for 5 minutes, until the eggplant starts to brown.
3. Add the onion and stir to combine. Cover with a lid, lowering the heat to medium, and let cook for 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft.
4. Remove the lid and cook for 5 more minutes until all liquid has evaporated.
5. Add the grated tomatoes, sugar, paprika, pepper and the rest of the salt, and mix well. Keep cooking for 5 more minutes, mixing from time to time and breaking up any large chunks with a wooden spoon, until the mixture is even and melded together. Taste and add more salt if needed. Remove from heat, discard the garlic clove and let cool completely before filling the dough (you can place it in the fridge or prepare in advance and let it cool overnight).
6. When ready to bake the pastry, preheat the oven to 425° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
7. Spread the puff pastry sheets on a clean work surface, and cut each sheet in half lengthwise (you should end up with 4 rectangles of about 10x7” or similar). Divide the filling between the 4 pieces (about ¾ cup each), spreading it on one half of the length of each rectangle, leaving about an inch of rim around it. Fold the other half of the dough over top of the filling, bringing the edges of the rectangle together. Using a fork, press down along each edge of the rectangle to seal the pastry together. Carefully move each pastry to the prepared baking sheet and brush with the beaten egg.
8. Place in the middle of the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until well browned and crisped.
9. Cut into individual portions on the diagonal, and serve. It doesn’t need to be served with anything, but in Turkey there would always be amazingly rich yogurt on the table. You can’t get it in Israel, so in Hilda’s home there was always old-fashioned sour cream and that’s how Ron serves it too.
Chef’s note: The puff pastry should be moved to the fridge the night before you plan to use it in the morning, or on the morning of the day when planning to use it in the evening. The filling is better made a few hours or a day before, so it has plenty of time to cool.
Chushki Burek (Bulgarian Roasted Peppers Stuffed With Cheese)
Chef’s note: Ron prefers to use chuska peppers (Bulgarian sweet peppers) which are long, red sweet peppers that have a short season and the most intense taste. They are much more delicate (perfect for roasted pepper salad). If you can’t find the chuska peppers, or it’s not the season, you can use an alternative small sweet pepper like the pimento or the red cubanelle. Regular red bell peppers will also work for this dish, just use the smallest that you can find.
Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
12 small sweet red peppers (like chuska, pimento, or red cubanelle) or 6 red bell peppers
1 cup Bulgarian cheese, preferably sheep’s milk 20% fat
⅓ cup farmer’s cheese
½ cup kashkaval cheese, grated on the small holes of the box grater
2 tablespoons ricotta cheese
¼ cup parmesan cheese, grated (optional)
Pinch of salt and pepper
All purpose flour for dusting
canola oil, for frying
1 tablespoon butter
1 garlic clove
1. Roast the peppers: Place the whole peppers on a baking sheet and place in the oven under the broiler (with 2-3 inches of space between the peppers and the flame) until peppers are wrinkled and charred, turning them several times during roasting. Smaller more delicate peppers will take less time to roast - around 10-15 minutes total - while larger bell peppers could take up to 40 minutes. Remove the peppers from the oven and cover with tin foil or plastic wrap while they cool. When completely cooled, peel as delicately as possible discarding the seeds and keeping the shape of the pepper for filling (smaller peppers should stay whole with one cut lengthwise, bell peppers can be halved). Refrain from using water during this process to preserve the flavor of the peppers.
2. Place the Bulgarian cheese, farmer’s cheese, kashkaval, ricotta, and parmesan in a medium bowl and evenly combine.
3. Beat the eggs with the salt and pepper in a shallow bowl, and prepare a small pile of the flour on a plate or a clean work surface.
4. Gently take each pepper and coat it in flour on all sides, shaking off any excess (this should prevent the cheese from ‘escaping’ mid-frying).
5. Place a heaping teaspoon of filling in the middle of the pepper and very gently wrap the pepper around to close. Flour the outside of the pepper heavily again. Repeat with the remaining peppers.
6. Fill a large pan with a ¼” of oil and warm over high heat. Add the butter and garlic clove.
7. When sizzling, take one of the stuffed peppers and dip it in the egg wash, gently turning to coat on all sides, then carefully place it in the hot oil. Repeat with the remaining stuffed peppers being careful not to overcrowd the pan (plan on two batches).
8. Turn the heat down to medium, the peppers should sizzle and form small bubbles around them. Turn the peppers gently after 2 minutes, then again after 2 more minutes. After another 2 minutes (fried on 3 sides for a total of 6 minutes), carefully remove them from the pan and place on a plate lined with paper towels.
9. Serve immediately.
Time: 45 minutes
1 garlic clove, un-peeled and halved lengthwise
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
¾ cup (8 oz.) sour cream
1 cup (half pint) heavy cream
4 cups (14 oz.) kashkaval cheese, grated on large holes of box grater
1. Position the oven rack at the middle position with no rack above it and preheat the oven to 425°.
2. Rub the inside of an ~1.75 quart baking dish (Ron uses an oval) with the open-faced half of garlic clove, going over the entire surface of the dish a few times. Generously grease the dish with the butter, sprinkle in the flour and coat the entire surface of the dish with the flour, tapping out any excess over the sink.
3. Place the eggs, sour cream, and heavy cream in a large bowl and whisk to blend until uniform.
4. Gently fold the cheese into the mixture until evenly combined. Pour the batter into the baking dish and smooth the top.
5. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until puffed and golden and the center is set. Serve immediately.
Almodrote (Roasted Eggplant and Kashkaval Pie)
Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes
1 garlic clove, un-peeled and halved lengthwise
Unsalted butter, for greasing pan (about 1 tablespoon)
All purpose flour, for the baking dish (about 2 tablespoons)
5 medium eggplants, stems cut and roasted (see 'make ahead' below)
1 small light green zucchini, grated on the small holes of a box grater, liquid squeezed out (optional)
3 cups kashkaval cheese, grated on the large holes of a box grater, divided
½ teaspoon salt
Sour cream, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 425° and place the oven rack in the middle position.
2. Rub a medium baking dish with the open-faced half of garlic clove, going over the entire surface of the dish a few times. Generously grease the dish with the butter, sprinkle in the flour and coat the entire surface of the dish, tapping out any excess flour over the sink.
3. Take the roasted and cooled eggplants and gently make a cut lengthwise in each eggplant. Open them up and scoop all of the flesh out into a colander. Drain, squeezing all the excess liquid out.
4. Place the drained eggplant in a large mixing bowl. Taste the eggplant - if it is sweet, you can skip the zucchini, if it is a bit bitter - add the grated zucchini for balance. Add the eggs, 2 ½ cups of the cheese, and salt and mix vigorously with a fork or whisk, breaking up the eggplant, until well blended.
5. Spread the eggplant mixture evenly into the baking dish. Sprinkle the leftover ½ cup of grated cheese over the top.
6. Bake for 25-30 minutes until well browned and crisp on top. Serve immediately or at room temperature with sour cream on the side.