Bulgarian Cheese Bread

A fascinating story of language, trade, migration, and Renaissance-era Jewish cheesemongers.

In these early weeks of autumn, I’m sure I’m not alone in craving comforting, cozy meals. This recipe from the cookbook archive at AJHS, found in From My Grandmother’s Kitchen: A Sephardic Cookbook (1984) by Viviane Alchech Miner, is a cheesy Bulgarian bread perfect for a crisp fall day. 

From My Grandmother’s Kitchen is largely a record of the culinary legacy of Miner’s maternal grandmother, Oro Sultani Benaroya. It is also, more broadly, a celebration of generations of Sephardic food culture. Miner’s lineage weaves throughout the Sephardic world, out of Spain in the 1400s to the Balkans, North Africa, Middle East, and Western Europe. Oro Sultani Benaroya was born in Romania, the second youngest of twelve children with parents from Turkey. Her family moved to Greece, and Viviane, born in 1945, was raised in Geneva, Switzerland. This multinational story results in a cookbook that combines Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian and Spanish cuisines; a truly Sephardic culinary experience.

Oro Sultani Benaroya, and her grandfather, Isaac Benaroya, in 1915Miner recalls her grandparents’ Sunday morning tradition of bread baking. Although her grandparents spoke five languages, it was always the Sephardic language Ladino that was spoken and sung on those mornings, as her grandfather prepared dough that her grandmother stuffed with fragrant fillings. This recipe calls for three types of cheese: farmer’s, feta, and kasseri. I’m lucky enough to live around the corner from a Balkan grocery store, so I swapped Greek kasseri for Bulgarian sheep’s milk kashkaval in my version, to stay truer to the recipe’s name. In swapping kasseri for kashkaval here, I unwittingly stumbled onto a fascinating story of language, trade, migration, and Renaissance-era Jewish cheesemongers. 

In a three-part and deeply-researched piece for Balkan Insight in 2016, Albanian journalist Altin Raxhimi investigated the historic roots of kashkaval. Kasseri and kashkaval have so much more in common, it turns out, than I originally suspected. Most western languages base their words for cheese on a Latin expression: caseus formaticus, meaning curdled milk set in a form. France and Italy used the second word, formaticus, as the basis of fromage and formaggio, but most everywhere else used caseus, which becomes cheese, käse, queso, Southern Italy’s cacio, and many more. The Romanian caş is pluralized to caşuri, and, as Ottoman expert Robert Dankoff explained to Raxhimi, is widely recognized by scholars as the etymological root of the term kosher

Makes sense, right? Cheese was made by curdling milk with the rennet from a calf’s fourth stomach -- obviously not kosher -- which necessitated both an industry of Jewish cheesemongers and a linguistic system denoting which cheese had not made contact with meat and was therefore acceptable for Jews to eat. Thus, caşuri became kosher.

The semi-hard yellow cheese that the Western Roman Empire called caciocavallo is in the east known as kashkaval or kaçkavall. In Greece, it’s kasseri. The Sephardic spelling of kosher is kasher, and in Southern Albania, parts of Greece and Turkey, many cheesemongers don’t even bother with deciding between kashkaval, kasseri, caciocavallo, kaçkavall, or all the other names -- the cheese is just called kasher. It even bears a resemblance to Spanish manchego, which is a rare deviation from calling it, etymologically, ‘Jewish Cheese’. 

These cheeses, as you’ll find them today, are not identical. Depending on where it’s from, for example, kasher can be cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, or a blend of the two, which can significantly affect the taste. That said, the similarities are striking beyond name alone. 

The stories of this cheese and this bread recipe are in the migration history of the Sephardim. Along with religious traditions and Ladino, kasher cheese followed Jewish migrants, merchants and mongers from Spain through the Ottoman Empire and into the Balkans, until it arrived in Oro Sultani Benaroya’s kitchen, and Viviane Alchech Miner’s cookbook, and the archive of the American Jewish Historical Society, and the homes of Sephardic families to this day. That’s what’s so interesting about histories of food and language -- they are at once both hyper-regional and completely borderless. 

Bulgarian Filled Bread

From My Grandmother's Kitchen: A Sephardic Cookbook (1984) Recipe by Viviane Alchech Miner, adapted by Aurora Clare 

**Recipe note: If you can’t get your hands on kashkaval or kasseri, any semi-hard, grateable cheese like swiss will do the trick! 

1 tablespoon plus ½ tsp instant yeast

6 cups flour

⅓ cup olive oil, plus more for greasing pan

1 tsp salt

¼ cup granulated sugar

3 large eggs

1 ½ cups warm milk

2 egg yolks, beaten

Grated kasseri or kashkaval cheese 

In a large bowl combine flour and yeast. Stir to mix in oil, salt, sugar and eggs. Add warm milk and mix thoroughly until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. It will be sticky. 

Knead on a floured surface for 15 minutes (dough should be easy to knead). Return to bowl and cover with a clean towel. Let rise in a warm place , free from draft, until doubled in bulk (about two hours). Punch down and divide into 4 equal parts. 

Generously oil two 9 or 10 inch round baking pans at least 3.5 inches deep. Roll out two pieces of dough and press each into the bottom of a pan, spreading it evenly with your fingertips. Cover each with the filling. Cut each of the two remaining pieces of dough into 6 equal strips and place them evenly over the filling, as if they were spokes of a wheel, to let steam escape during baking. Brush tops with beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with grated cheese. Allow to rest 15 minutes. 

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 1 hour or until the top is golden brown. Remove from pan and cool on rack before slicing. Bread will keep for several days in the refrigerator (slice and serve at room temp or warm).  

Makes 2. Each loaf serves 6-8.

Cheese Filling: 

½ pound farmer’s cheese

1 pound kasseri or kashkaval cheese, grated

½ pound feta cheese, finely crumbled (I used Romanian goat feta, but Greek sheep’s milk feta will work too)

1 teaspoon garlic, minced

1 tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

3 large eggs, beaten

Combine all ingredients - makes enough for two loaves of bread

 

**Photo: Viviane Alchech Miner's grandparents Oro Sultani Benaroya and Isaac Benaroya in 1915.

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About the Author:
*Aurora Clare is a historian and educator based in New York City. She completed a Master’s Degree in History from New York University in 2016, with a thesis on domestic space and public housing in twentieth-century New York. Aurora has worked with institutions including the Tenement Museum and New-York Historical Society. Aurora loves to bake, and especially loves to put food in broader historical context -- she catalogues her historical sweet tooth on Instagram at @historybakes.

 

 

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