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What is Zelnik?

By Kelly Andersson
Updated May 17, 2024
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Zelnik is a traditional Macedonian dish, somewhat similar to Greek spanakopita and very similar to Bulgarian banitsa. Popular in the winter and traditionally served on Christmas Eve, zelnik is a yeasted filo dough with a filling of spinach, cheese and eggs — often with leeks or potatoes, and sometimes containing cabbage or sauerkraut. It can be formed and baked in individual servings, like Cornish pasties or other savory pies, but it's more often made with the filling rolled up inside large sheets of filo dough and the rolls arranged in a spiral and baked in a pan in the oven. It's eaten hot or cold.

The filling may vary considerably, depending on the cook and on tradition. The main difference between zelnik and banitsa is the dough — the filo used for banitsa is plain, and the pastry for zelnik is traditionally made by hand with yeast added for extra body and flakiness. Zelnik also typically has a more substantial filling than banitsa.

During leaner years, zelnik was often made with whatever green leaves or vegetables were available, including nettles, dandelion leaves, and beet greens. When made in individual portions, it's a portable meal, like Russian pierogis or German bierocks. In regional Balkan cuisine, zelnik is traditionally a savory dish but can also be made in a sweet version, with pumpkin or apples and honey.

The origin of the name zelnik is not clear; some say it's derived from the Macedonian or Bulgarian word for cabbage, and others say it's a variation on the word for green or greens. Zelka in Bulgarian is cabbage, and zelen in Bulgarian is green, so either claim has merit. Bougatsa is another similar dish; it's a Greek pastry but is often made with custard and is usually considered a breakfast dish. Tiropita is a similar Greek layered pastry; it's usually baked with a cheese and egg mixture.

When zelnik is served for special occasions, such as Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve, good luck tokens or charms are sometimes baked into the pastry for one lucky person to find. This is most often a coin wrapped in gold paper, or perhaps a dogwood twig with a bud on it to symbolize health, longevity, or prosperity. The surprise is sometimes just a happy wish written on paper, wrapped in foil, and tucked into the spiral of pastry.

In some parts of Bulgaria, a similar dish with a rice filling is popular. Other variations include fillings with browned beef or pork, onions or other vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms. Sweet fillings are more popular in some regions. In some areas, a walnut and cinnamon filling is common. A variation with apples is called shtrudel and a pumpkin version called tikvenik is also regionally popular.

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