Roman Urosevski is used to early mornings. At 15, he left school to work with his dad at Alexander's Bakery in Sydney's south, baking bread and Balkan pastries.
"I used to catch the 6:09am bus from Miranda to Rockdale every morning. It's funny the things you remember," he tells SBS Food.
Alexander's Bakery is famous for its burek: flaky, moreish pastries filled with mixtures of meat and cheese.
Getting the dough right is a complex process that requires deft, experienced hands. The dough is mixed, rested and expertly stretched before it's layered with fillings and baked. As an apprentice, Urosevski was tasked with making the ricotta while Alexander oversaw the dough.
"I always helped make the ricotta cheese, manually squeezing it out, adding hot water and salt so it would be nicely textured to layer it on the pastry," he says.
"I'd also be upfront serving customers and, you know, I used to be very obsessive about the floors. I'd always be sweeping. You're forever cleaning when you're in a bakery – flour, semolina, sesame seeds. I never felt comfortable working unless it was as clean as possible."
Those formative years left their mark on Urosevski. In 2018, he left Alexander's to open the Son of a Baker, a Sans Souci-based café and bakery that later opened locations at Miranda and Botany. The Sans Souci space is pristine. Morning sun floods in the front windows, illuminating the white marble benches, the glass pastry display and tidy uniformed staff.
Urosevski's workspace is at the back of the room. By the time customers arrive, it's wiped down and there are no signs that bakers had been there from 4.00am, stretching and throwing burek dough and preparing piles of photogenic, sweet pastries.
While the offering at Alexander's is pastries from Macedonia where Urosevski's dad was born, at home the family ate much simpler fare, mostly prepared by Urosevski's south Italian mum.
"The food we ate at home was really different from the product offering at the bakery, because my mum was the one cooking," he says. "She's from Calabria, and I remember her making things like lasagne and big pots of pasta."
"I always helped make the ricotta cheese, manually squeezing it out, adding hot water and salt so it would be nicely textured to layer it on the pastry."
Urosevski has long tried to unlock the mysteries of those comforting dishes. "I would cook with my mum because I always wanted to know how grandma makes her penne Bolognese.
"But even though you do it step by step how you're taught, you can't get it the way they make it. Maybe it's the love they put in it, or maybe they deliberately left an ingredient out, but I could never get it tasting the same."
Urosevski's dad would occasionally take to the family kitchen, making Slavic food like pljeskavica, a burger-shaped patty mixed with capsicum and beans.
A favourite dish he remembers his dad cooking doesn't have a name. It's a creation that effectively and cheaply filled the bellies of four growing children. Urosevski just calls it "potato bake".
"It had beef mince and potato with a little bit of cheese through it, and he'd bake it in a glass dish like a lasagne, but with no pasta."
Urosevski has taken the dish and adapted it as a filling for burek. "It's quite simple. The handmade pastry consists of four packets, each one wrapped inside the next. In layer one, you put the beef mince, and in layer three you put the potato. We cook the beef mince separately with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and the potato is baked for about 15 minutes, and then it gets finished off inside the pastry."
He says that while the burek has few ingredients, making the dough takes skill. "It's similar to puff pastry, flaky, but sort of rustic and handmade."
A professional would prepare the dough by flinging it in the air in a circular motion, keeping hold of the side to stretch it, a bit like a pizzaiolo does. For punters at home, Urosevski says stretching it on the kitchen bench is sufficient.
When Urosevski branched off to open his own bakery, Alexander's Bakery was making the same four traditional burek flavours it has made for the last 23 years. Son of a Baker does 12. And even though Urosevski's recipe is based on his dad's original potato bake, the traditionalist in Alexander doesn't approve.
"My dad isn't too impressed with the new fillings. He just thinks that you should stick with the traditional ingredients and that's it. I've tried to tie in the legacy of my dad's bakery, but I wanted to have a go on my own."
- 568 g 00 or special white flour
- 409 ml water
- 13.6 g vegetable oil
- 15.9 g salt
- 175 g beef mince
- 100 g Sebago potatoes, washed, peeled, sliced to 2 cm rounds
- 2-3 pinches nutmeg
1. Combine dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on low speed for 8.5 minutes in a clockwise direction. Then mix on high speed for 8.5 minutes in an anti-clockwise direction. This will tighten the dough.
2. If mixing by hand, combine ingredients in a bowl until dough comes together, then turn onto the kitchen bench and knead by hand until you have a smooth dough. If the dough sticks, add a few drops of vegetable oil to your work surface.
3. Rest the dough for 20 minutes.
4. In the meantime, prepare the filling. Brown the beef mince in a saucepan with a teaspoon of vegetable oil, two to three pinches of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.
5. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Slice the potatoes to one centimetre, season with salt, drizzle with vegetable oil and place in a baking pan in a single layer. Bake for about 15 minutes until golden and almost cooked through.
6. Set the fillings aside separately.
7. Split the dough into four equal portions, each weighing 200 g. Shape into balls. Rest them for 20 minutes.
8. Add a few drops of vegetable oil to each ball before working into a 10 cm disc. Add a few more drops of oil to each disc and rest for 20 minutes.
9. Take one disc and stretch it carefully and evenly, pulling one side, turning the dough slightly and pulling and turning again until you arrive where you started. Continue stretching and turning until the dough is almost translucent. You're aiming for the thickness of a single sheet of filo pastry. The diameter of the sheet should be roughly 90 cm. If a tear or two appear, don't worry. The sides will be folded in at the end.
10. Preheat the oven to 210°C.
11. Spoon the cooked beef mince into the centre of the dough sheet, spreading it over an area about the size of your baking pan, roughly 30 cm. Fold the two sides in so they overlap over the beef mince. Then fold the top and bottom flaps over in the same manner.
12. Take the second disc and stretch it as above. Place the minced beef parcel in the centre and fold the four sides in as above.
13. Take the third disc and stretch it as above. Spread the sliced potatoes evenly over the sheet, then place the beef mince packet on top and fold the four sides in as above.
14. Repeat these steps with the fourth disc of dough, wrapping the parcel once more. Place in a greased pan and bake at 210°C for 30 minutes or until golden and crisp.
Love the story? Follow the author on Instagram @cultofclothes. Photographs by Roman Urosevski.