Sunday, November 18, 2007

Gibanica, Guzvara: a flaky, savory cheese pie

This is a classic dish among Serbians. Gibanitsa (pronounced GEE-ba-nee-tsa), or guzvara (GUZH-va-ra), as near as I can figure, belongs to a class of savory cheese-and-sheet-pastry dishes known as pita. Others include burek, zavijaca, uvijena pita zeljanica and just pita.

It's made with pastry leaves, stuffed with a creamy, savory, feta-based filling and baked into a golden-brown, flaky pie. Like other custard-based dishes, it's best served at room temperature, and is tastier the day after making. I don't know what it is about baked egg-and-dairy things -- quiche, cheesecake, pumpkin pie -- but they are oddly tasteless when you pull them from the oven. Its got to be something about the protein coils of the egg and milk being tightly wound in the heat, and then relaxing so that the flavor can be released on the tongue, or something like that. If anyone knows, I would love to find out.

For the pastry dough, filo is used in America. That's the paper-thin dough used in baklava. These days, it's not hard to find in the freezer section of supermarkets, as well as European ethnic groceries. But some say a thicker-leaved product called "kore" should be used. The dish is originally more rustic than the delicate sheets of filo make it.

The name "guzvara" is a form of a verb meaning "to crumple together something that's drenched." This refers to the practice of dunking the dough sheets into the filling, and placing them, soggy and loosely crumpled, into the pan, The pan is first lined with flat sheets of pastry. The creation is covered with flat sheets cut to fit the pan. The overhang from the bottom sheets is folded over the top. Then it's baked. Traditionally, it's round in shape and served upside-down.

Years ago, I found a gibanica recipe on the Internet and made it several times. This year, I was distressed to discover that I'd never printed out or saved a copy, and it took me hours to find it again. (Thanks, Donald for suggesting Here it is. A man named Vojin Janjic in Chattanooga, Tenn., posted it on soc.culture.yugoslavia in 1996! Is the Internet amazing, or what? Vojin's post includes a lot of background detail that's missing in the other recipes I found on the Net. The recipe itself also has cool features that the others lacked.

No other recipe that I found made any mention of the dunking and squashing. All were layered dishes, like baklava. I suspect that "gibanica" can be either layered or else dunked and stuffed, and that "guzvara" is the variation that's specifically dunked and stuffed.

Many used a combination of regular and low-fat cottage cheese (the latter of which is, of course, a fabricated, additive-filled abomination). What's up with that? Some didn't even use feta, or the flavorful Serbian "white cheese" that authentically belongs in the dish. Well then, why even bother?

Another difference in this recipe: sparkling mineral water. I'm not sure what that's for. Since mineral-laden water is base, and leavening agents work by pitting acid against base to form explosively foamy chemical reactions, I speculate it's for puffing up the giba. (Buttermilk + baking soda works like this. Baking powder does, too: it's a combo of acid and base powders that react in the presence of water or heat. (Double-acting baking powder has two combos: a liquid activated and one heat activated.)) But what's the acid? Maybe the tangy feta.

Vojin has you separate the eggs and beat the whites stiff. You fold it into the cheese-egg mix for added puff. Easy enough. He says you can substitute baking powder, but he doesn't recommend it.

For all this attention to leavening, the giba is not especially airy. It's dense and moist. Maybe the idea is that without these steps, it would be leaden. As is, it's just right.

What follows is based on Vojin's post. Some of his instructions were incomplete or admitted guesses. I've written here the specifics that I've found to work, and some clarifications of method. The words below are my own. (Don't you hate when people copy and paste into their Web pages with no attribution?)

3/4 package filo (phyllo) dough
[11/15/2009: This post originally specified a full, one-pound package. But in 2008 I discovered that with less dough you get a prettier, puffier, much cheesier pie. And with 25% less starchy carbs!]

2 cups (2/3 pound) feta cheese, crumbled
1 cup sour cream
1 cup ricotta
3 tablespoons of sparkling mineral water
2 eggs, separated

olive oil for greasing pan

First, prep the baking pan. A clear, deep, round casserole is ideal.

Generously grease the pan with olive oil. Gently press a sheet of filo into the dish, letting the rest hang over the edges. Repeat with another sheet, placed crossways from the first. Repeat for a total of four sheets. Use scissors to trim the overhang all around to a length of about 2".

Take a stack of four filo leaves. Use scissors to trim them into a circle that just fits inside the top of the casserole dish. This will become a lid a little later on. (You do it now so that you don't run short of filo at the end.) Put it aside.

Stir together yolks, feta, sour cream and ricotta. If mixture is stiff, thin with a little milk. Stir in mineral water.

Beat egg whites stiff. Gently fold into cheese mixture.

Dunk a sheet of filo into the mixture. Gently crumple it and place it into the pastry shell you've created. Repeat until all the filling is used. You'll want to keep one hand clean for picking up the filo sheets, or have a friend pass you the sheets.

Place the filo "lid" on top. Fold the overhanging rim of filo over top. Cover with foil.

Bake at 400F. Bottom should appear crunchy and golden brown (this is why a clear dish is handy). The top should also be browned. You can remove the foil to help along the top browning. Don't worry about overcooking, as long as nothing's burning.

After it's cooled a bit, turn upside-down onto a platter. Serve when completely cooled. Also great chilled.

Enjoy! Or, as the Serbs say, "Prijatno!" (PREE-jat-no)


  1. Gibanica sa maslinovim uljem? hm... to se u Srbiji ne sprema tako.

  2. It is so great that I came across to this recipe. I am studying in the States, I am not that great cook, and I just have to present something authentic from Serbia to my American friends. And yes, my mum never used foil to cover gibanica. I guess it does not make that much difference. My granny always used original pork fat, homemade. Though it sounds awkward, it is delicious. We, Serbs, usually say 'prste da polizes' or it makes you lick your fingers.

  3. I link to you from here:
    and here:

  4. @Vanja, thanks for your comment. What do the people you know use, if they don't use olive oil?

    @Anonymous, write back and let me know how this recipe works out for you! Homemade pork fat, how wonderful -- I'm swooning! I've never had the pleasure, hope to some day. But the best is that you got to enjoy your grandmother's and mother's cooking.

    @Barb, I just visited the links you posted and I am honored! Thank you so much for linking here and for crediting my work. Also for getting the word out about these wonderful Eastern European recipes.

    It seems the main difference in your recipe using butter, rather than olive oil. I would like to give that a try! Also cottage cheese rather than ricotta. An excellent variation; I did that last time I made this.

  5. I'd have to say sunflower oil if not pork fat - the most usual one here. :) Prijatno!

  6. I make my Gibanica, aka Guzvara or Banica by greasing baking pan, then putting 3 sheets of filo on the bottom of the pan, and sides.Save 3 sheets for the top of the gibanica. In big dish I pour a pint of butter milk, and mix it with 4 eggs, and some oil.I never use baking soda, but you can use one tablespoon. It will rise even without baking soda.In this solution I tear rest of the filo and mix it.If is to dry I ad more sour cream or Buttermilk.Pour all this in the pan, spread it evenly, and cover with the remaining 3 sheets. Brush with oil, or melted butter, or any fat you like or have. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees, and after it turns the right color, golden brown, take it out. Cool enough not to burn your self and enjoy it. The best is to reheat it next day.

  7. Hi Krnja. THANK YOU for sharing your recipe! I will have to try it with my homemade buttermilk -- here's the recipe - . It sounds very different from mine, so I am eager to see a different take on it. Do you usually use butter, or what? The name Banica is a new one for me. There's so much to learn!

  8. Hi Vesna:
    I am a first generation American Serbian and have visited Serbia many times. My mother who was born in Serbia still cooks and bakes like her mother and grandmother. I also remained loyal to my Serbian Church and my roots. The gibanica recipe that I have grown up on and other women from serbia prepare is a very simple recipe.

    1 Lb Feta Cheese (Usually Bulgarian or Greek. If you like something less salty, French extra creamy is excellent) You can find these cheeses at a Ethnic Store

    Phyllo Leaves Number 2 this makes the gibanica lighter and flaky. depending what area of Serbia you are from a thicker phyllo usually number 4 is also popular.

    6 whole eggs

    1 container 24 oz large curd cottage cheese, usually in serbia they only use feta. this combination of feta and cottage cheese is lighter and not so salty.

    oil (corn or vegetabe is fine)

    salted butter 1 stick used to dot the gibanica before it goes in the oven.

    I combine all the cheeses and eggs in the bowl. I heat the oil till its warm. I oil the pan a 9 x 13 or little larger. Place 2-3 leaves on the bottom to begin. Instead of lying it flat, I usually crumple the sheets while I am layering the gibanica. this make it lighter and gives it more air during baking. Before I sprinkle the cheese mixture on the layer of phyllo, I brush the warm to hot oil lightly on the layers and then sprinkle the cheese mixture.
    The top of the gibanica I just brush it with oil and dot it with butter. I also take a meat fork and punch some holes in the gibanica. If you sprinkle cheese on top, the cheese just burns.
    Baking it at 400 for about 50 to 60 minutes depending on your oven. just so the top is a golden brown. avoid using the enamel pans, these pans tend to burn the bottom and dry out your gibanica. alumnium baking pans work for me. It is an even baking on the bottom and top. The church uses the disposable alumnium pans you will find at the supermarkets. It works okay. I am partial to the cake pans. Also, I hear from people the coated pans do not bake/ brown the bottom making the end product soggy and unbaked.

    The gibancia will rise during baking just from the eggs. There are people who use soda water for the gibanica to rise and make it fluffy, but all it does is make it soggy. Others use baking soda, sometimes you can taste the soda and there are times the gibanica will turn purple from a chemical reaction from the ingre.
    Adding cream cheese or ricotta with the feta only makes it creamier and richer. Also, you will lose the lightness and flavor from the feta.

    There are many ways to prepare gibanica and this is another way.

    1. I will try a combination of what you and Vesna have listed here today, and will provide feedback tomorrow. Thank you both and HNY.

  9. Hi Mike. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation! Great tips on the baking pans.

    I will try these suggestions. I'm first generation also.