Mention the word dessert and many Romanians think of plăcintă, a layered pastry that dates back to ancient Rome and Greece.
The ancient Greeks ate a bread called plakon made with oat flour, cheese and honey, according to Irina Georgescu, the author of Romanian cookbook Carpathia. But the recipe likely spread through trade routes and ended up in Rome.
The Romans adapted plakon to a bread dish they named placenta. It contained the same ingredients, but they stacked the flatbread and used sweet cheese between each layer. Then they wrapped this with more dough.
To avoid using direct heat, they baked it on bay leaves, a cooking method that continues today. Georgescu tells SBS Food, "It is still traditional today in Romania, when we bake bread and pies on cabbage, grape or horseradish leaves, and sometimes even acacia and linden leaves."
Placenta layering has also survived the times and is characteristic of Romania's plăcintă.
Georgescu explains that filo pastry or dough are used to make two different plăcinte. "The dough can be a flatbread, leavened bread or in the style of puff pastry.
"So in Romania, we have also kept the ancient way of making the pies, with dough rather than just filo."
The most common filling is made from grated apples mixed with walnuts and cinnamon. "It makes a refreshing, sweet and tangy pie that is slightly addictive."
At Easter, apple plăcintă graces the tables of Romanian Orthodox Christians.
In Melbourne, Romanian home cook Ioana Logan is observing the Easter fast. "We are making the dough and filling with no ingredients from animals during this period of fasting," she says.
After Logan breaks her fast on Easter Sunday, she will be able to make another popular plăcintă, one that is filled with sugar-sweetened curd cheese.
Cheese plăcintă is special for Ana Ciortuz, another Romanian home cook from Melbourne. "My mum was the best plăcintă maker," says Ciortuz.
"I grew up having pies in my house and she was very good at making it. Her neighbours would ask her to help them or to make it for them. The cheese was her best."
"Being raised in a poor family, my mum would bake a pie for a nice dinner or a nice lunch. It was something surprising and meant a celebration in our family. It was for Easter, Christmas, and any other celebrations."
Georgescu echoes this sentiment. "Coming home to plăcinte on the table feels reassuring and we know that the food was made with love.
"Besides being baked for guests of honour, they are also baked when people know that one's journey was long and difficult. They are almost like a warm hug and a proof of love when you most need it."
Ciortuz laughs when she recalls that the first time she made plăcintă, she wasn't only making it out of love but to satisfy a childhood longing.
"They are almost like a warm hug and a proof of love when you most need it."
Being raised in a family with 10 children, her mother would make large quantities of plăcinte, but these were always polished off on the same day. Ciortuz says, "As a child, I used to dream that when I got married I'd bake some pies in a big tray and have some of it today, some of it tomorrow with my husband, and I'd have leftover pie for a few days.
"I got married when I was 20 and made my first pie. My husband said, 'oh you made pie, how nice!' and he had some for lunch, some for dinner and some for later that night, and there was nothing left for the next day!" says Ciortuz.
"I told him straight away, 'I've wished all my life that once I got married I would have leftover pie for the next day, but with you, I don't think it's going to happen!'"
Perhaps Ciortuz's husband needed an extra helping of love that day. And plăcintă was perfect for that.
Recipe by Irina Georgescu
- 100 ml water
- 55 ml sunflower oil or olive oil, or mixed
- 125 g caster sugar
- 1 lemon - juice and zest
- 400 g plain flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 6 medium-sized apples - grated
- 150 g caster sugar or more if you like your desserts very sweet
- 2 tbsp of cinnamon
- Handful of chopped walnuts and sultanas are optional
1. Mix the water, oil, caster sugar and lemon juice well, then sieve in the flour with the baking powder. Bring the dough together kneading briefly, then rest in the fridge for 1 hour.
2. The dough needs to be quite soft but you should be able to roll it. If you think it needs more flour, please add one tablespoon at the time. You can do this one day ahead, and rest the dough overnight.
3. Mix the grated apples with the sugar and cinnamon (and the optional ingredients) then allow to sit for 30 minutes.
4. Grease and line a 28 x 28 cm baking tin, or if you have a springform tin you don't need to line it.
5. Divide the dough into two and roll to roughly the shape of the tin. Place the first layer in the tin and stretch it with your fingertips to fill in the corners. If you rolled it too large, you can trim the excess.
6. Add the apples on top, but not before squeezing them of their liquid. Place the other layer of dough on top and prick with a fork.
7. Bake at 200°C for 25 minutes or until the top turns a light golden brown.
8. Allow to cool in the pan and only slice it when it is completely cold. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve.
Recipe by Ioana Logan
For the dough
- 500 g flour
- 1 tsp of sugar
- 7 g dried yeast
- 350 ml warm water
- 50 ml of oil
- ½ tsp salt
1. Mix all of the ingredients above in a bowl and form a dough.
2. We cover and let it rise for 15-20 min.
3. While the dough rises, make the filling.
For the filling
- 1 kg of ricotta
- 5-6 eggs
- 2-3 g sugar
- 1-2 vanilla
- 1 full lemon zested
- 2-3 tbsp of sunflower oil
- 1 extra egg (to spread on the placinta before baking)
- 1 tbsp of milk
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C.
2. Mix all the filling ingredients to make a paste. Then set aside.
3. Remove the dough from the bowl onto a floured surface and divide into 4 equal pieces.
4. Roll into a thin pastry. On top, spread a part of the filling and spread it evenly all over the filo.
5. Line a baking tray with 20 ml of oil.
6. Roll it and we put it in a baking tray.
7. Repeat these steps until there is no more mixture.
8. Then mix the extra egg with the 1 tbsp of milk and using a brush, coat the placenta and put in the oven for about 45-60 minutes or until golden brown. While it bakes regularly poke the placinta to see if it is ready to be pulled out of the oven. If nothing sticks to your stick then it is ready.