• Borek is a Balkan pie made of layers of flaky golden pastry. (Marco Verch )Source: Marco Verch
From golden flaky borek to syrup-soaked baklava, Action's Albanian family baking traditions make us want to eat it all.
By
Kylie Walker

12 May 2020 - 12:26 PM  UPDATED 13 May 2020 - 12:19 PM

Action Bronson is getting a lesson in making Albanian pita, aka burek/bourek/börek, a golden flaky pie. "Use your hands,” admonishes his aunt. “Pita is all about using your hands.”

“I’m sorry, I know, I know, I was being lazy,” he apologises.

This is not what you might expect if you’ve seen the big bearded bloke doing what he’s best known for - no-holds-barred rapping to adoring crowds, or unapologetically dropping F-bombs left, right and centre as the host of several TV shows.

But when it comes to Albanian food, we see a different side of American musician, who was born Arian Arslani to a Muslim Albanian father and a Jewish American mother.

Well, sometimes a different side: in the latest season of F-ck That’s Delicious, he and his companions in eating everything in sight, Big Body Bes (aka Besnik Sadikaj, another Albanian-American), Mayhem Lauren and The Alchemist, visit Dukagjini, an Albanian burek bakery in New York. And yep, there’s the odd stray expletive along with the flaky golden pastries.

“Everybody has their version of a baked or a fried situation with dough and meat and cheese,” says Bronson. Watching the lads chow down on their burek (catch that action in episode 10) is enough to make anyone want to rush to their nearest burek bakery, or to the kitchen.

And in Bronson’s family, the women are the experts on the "dough situation" front (although his father, who owned a restaurant, also had a big influence on his interest in food).

His cookbook F*ck, That’s Delicious: An Annotated Guide to Eating Well is dedicated to his grandmother. “My Albanian grandmother, my nonna, baked three times a day,” he writes in the introduction to the book, which is a tribute to the best things he’s had to eat and the food influences on his life. “My father’s parents were originally from Kosovo, and for much of my childhood, they lived with me and my parents… My nonna was an incredible, incredible cook, baker, everything.”

Tucked in among the tales and, sometimes, recipes for everything from junk food to Jamaican pastries (and his mother Gloria’s challah and chocolate ganache-glazed coffee cake – she, too, is an excellent baker) is a section on “magical doughs from the Balkans”. There’s the story of the grilled Balkan bread he remembers from visits to family in Macedonia; and tasty tales of petla (an Albanian-style sweet fried yeast dough his nonna used to make) and kerlana (another dish his nonna made, a twice-baked dish dough rich with butter and feta, where the dough-filled baking dish is pulled out of the oven partway through cooking, and pieces of the still-raw dough in the middle pulled out, piled back into the dish and drizzled with butter; the cheese follows in two stages, creating a crunchy, crispy buttery shell with ripped up dough soaked in butter and feta). There’s also a tribute to the cheese-filled pita his mother makes.  

Reading Bronson’s tales of his nonna’s baking is enough to make you wish you, too, had an Albanian grandmother.

Next best thing? Get a lesson from Action’s aunt.

“After watching this, you’re going to be making Albanian dishes left and right,” says Bronson of his visit to his aunt Suzana to make burek.  

Twelve layers of dough on the bottom, another 12 golden buttery layers, he explains, “tender and crisp and flaky”, on top, with a savoury meat filling. It’s the kind of pie we all wish we could make.

Or if you lean to the sweet side, there’s his aunt’s syrup-drenched baklava.

That featured in an earlier series of F-ck That’s Delicious and it’ll give you yet another insight into Albanian cooking. “I'm not making sh**. My auntie is making it. I'm watching. I'm helping. You're not allowed to touch anything in an Albanian woman's kitchen. Men don't cook there. It's just — It's — It's unheard of,” Bronson says as he’s about the enter his aunt’s house.

In fact, he does get hands-on during the baklava, though it’s clear Suzana is the pastry expert in the family:

If all of this has you hankering to whip up your own Albanian pastries – that’s how we feel! – here’s where to start. For a meat-filled borek like the one Bronson’s aunt makes, try this one, make with purchased yufka dough; if you’d like to make your own dough, try these cheese byrek, a simple dough rolled by hand and filled with a mixture of salty cheese, milk and egg.  

Image of meat burek by Marco Verch via Flickr, made available under a CC licence 

Watch season 4 of F-ck that's delicious on SBS VICELAND, starting Tuesday, 12 May at 11.15pm, and then on SBS On Demand. Seasons 1-3 and the original 'Classic' series that started it all are all available now on SBS On Demand

More pastry perfection
Yiayia Marina’s baklava

Yiayia Marina’s been making it the same way for over 60 years and it continues to make an appearance at every family gathering, large or small. Our family’s recipe is for a large-sized tray, enough to make 100 tiny bite-sized serves, or 25 larger dessert sized portions. 

Macadamia baklava

Mark Olive adds his signature twist to the classic Levantine sweet, baklava, with the use of macadamia nuts and lemon aspen syrup.

Armenian baklava

The cinnamon and clove set this Armenian version apart from the crowd.

Village-style feta börek

The secret to making these spicy sausage and feta stuffed pastries is to brush a mixture of water, oil and a little bit of salt over the top before baking. This really is the difference between the amazing börek I had in Turkey and the ones I’d been cooking at home. It’s worth seeking out the yufka pastry, too – while filo is an okay substitute, it just isn’t the same! The smoked eggplant mayo will make more than you need, but trust me, it’s so good it won’t go to waste.

Lamb borek with cucumber, radish and parsley salad

Using filo pastry often means using lashings of butter which, while delicious, doesn’t do much for the waistline. Yoghurt is a great alternative and not only makes the recipe healthier, but adds another subtle flavour to the dish.

Cheese and herb pastry (borek)

Borek is traditionally cooked in a round borek tray, however, an oven tray or 30 cm cake pan will work just as well.

Meat-filled pastries (burek)

In Bosnia, pita is the broad term for this pastry which is made with sweet and savoury fillings. Burek is the meat version, but it is also sometimes filled with soft white cheese. This recipe is a great snack.