When Marge Gogian died on February 26, 2013, seventy-nine years of history died with her. The daughter of George, “The Turk,” and Isabelle, “Ma,” Gogian, Marge kept serving guests at The Turk’s Inn until shortly before her death. Her mother and father would have been proud of her.
The last time Jerri and I had dinner there, Marge was still overseeing the kitchen and making guests comfortable. For an appetizer we had one of The Turk’s specialties, cheese børek, a savory filling of Wisconsin cheese wrapped in phyllo dough and baked to a golden brown. Børek is a Turkish word used for many different varieties of filled pastries made with phyllo (or filo), paper-thin sheets of unleavened flour dough.
Børek is pronounced “burr-ek, borr-ek or bare-ek” and phyllo is pronounced “fee-low.”
I don’t remember when I had my first taste of “The Turk’s” cheese børek, but it was before my second year in high school, because I recommended it to my Prom date when I was a sophomore. My oldest sister. who worked at the Turk’s when she was in high school, likes cheese børek too and brought a batch she had made to the cabin not long ago. Though she saw “Ma” making them many times, she never got the recipe. Her børek was not the same as The Turk’s, but it was still good.
Tasting børek again inspired me to track down the recipe. With the help of Marge’s friend and executor, one of my younger sisters and a couple of other Hayward ladies, I can now share the recipe for this delicious appetizer.
The ladies who gave me the recipe emphasized that I should get white Wisconsin brick cheese from the cheese factory in Comstock, Wisconsin and real cottage cheese, not a low fat type. Her specification of quantities was not very detailed. When I asked how much cottage cheese to use with the brick, she said, “Just put some in the shredded cheese and stir it. You know how to cook. Add more until everything is moist, but not too moist.”
If my børek didn’t taste quite as good as what Marge brought out to us last time, it’s possibly because we weren’t sitting in the Sultan Room surrounded by beautiful things that George, Ma and Marge collected over the years.
If you exclude the task of folding the phyllo dough to form the pastries, cheese børek is not difficult to make. You get the phyllo dough from the freezer case at the supermarket and simply have to make the filling, which has only six ingredients.
When you bite into one, take a moment to consider the fact that you are eating something enjoyed by Presidents, Governors, Senators, food writers and thousands of ordinary people who shared a love of the wonderful food served them for nearly eight decades at The Turk’s Inn.
1 lb. white Wisconsin brick cheese
2 cups small curd cottage cheese
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/8 tsp. salt
Dash or two of freshly ground black pepper
Two packages phyllo dough
2 sticks unsalted butter
Begin by following the directions on the phyllo packages telling you how to thaw the dough.
Wash and finely chop the parsley, preheat the oven to 350º and shred the brick cheese into a mixing bowl. Add two cups of cottage cheese to the shredded brick and mix well. Beat the egg into the cheeses and stir in the salt and pepper. You should have a smooth mixture. If not, add more cottage cheese.
Stir the parsley into the cheese mixture. Melt the butter in the microwave or over very low heat. It should be melted but not hot when you butter the sheets of phyllo.
Line baking sheets or pans with parchment paper. Dampen a towel to cover the phyllo dough. Start by opening one package of phyllo dough.
Take two sheets of phyllo dough and cover the unused dough with the towel. Lay the two sheets together on a flat surface and paint the top sheet with butter. Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut the dough lengthwise into four strips.
Put a generous teaspoonful of the filling on one end of a strip and fold a corner over the filling to make a triangular fold. Fold the dough as if you were folding a flag, so that you end up with a triangular pastry of stuffed dough.
Put the børek on parchment paper on a baking pan and continue until you have a panful of the pastries. Paint the tops of of the børeks with melted butter and bake them fifteen to twenty minutes until they begin to turn golden brown.
Let them cool on the baking sheet for a couple of minutes and transfer them to wax paper to finish cooling, or serve them warm from the oven.
NOTES: This recipe makes enough filling to stuff about eighty børeks. They are a wonderful appetizer to offer before dinner or to serve with a good wine when friends gather at your home. They taste best if they are slightly warm.
You can freeze unbaked børeks and bring them out as you need them. Layer them between sheets of wax paper, and store them in a sealed freezer bag or container. Bake the number you need at 350º for twenty to thirty minutes until they are lightly browned.
If you have a deep fryer, you can omit painting the børeks with butter and deep fry them until they are golden brown. This was how they were usually cooked at the Turk’s Inn.
Baked børeks tend to get a little soggy after the first day, but they still taste just fine.
Phyllo dough is very thin and tender. It dries out very quickly, so keep unused sheets covered with a damp towel. Even so, be prepared to have a few tears (and tears) the first time you work with the dough. Many recipes call for using single sheets of phyllo, but I find that it is much easier to work with double sheets.
Once you taste your first cheese børek or a piece of homemade baklava (which is also made with phyllo dough), you will realize that a little frustration is worth it.