It's 5 o'clock on a cold Saturday morning and I'm at Balkan Treat Box in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves learning how to make Turkish flatbreads. A chef friend had told me that Balkan Treat Box was one of his favorite restaurants, and suggested I hang out with them. So I contacted the owners about spending a day in their kitchen learning about Balkan cuisine, and they replied: "How about Saturday morning for breads? Be there at 5 a.m.?" New opportunities to expand my culinary skills always excite me but having to get up at 4 a.m. was a bit rough.
Balkan Treat Box first popped up on my culinary radar back in 2018 when the St. Louis food truck was named to Food & Wine's list of "The Best Bites of the Year." Its restaurant editor wrote: "I fell deeply in love with the city of St. Louis, thanks in no small part to Loryn Nalic's stuffed Turkish Pide bread slicked with tangy red pepper ajvar at Balkan Treat Box truck." A wildly popular addition to St. Louis's burgeoning food truck scene, Balkan Treat Box was getting rave reviews for its flatbread-based street foods served out of a brightly painted truck outfitted with a traditional wood-fired oven. When the popularity of their food truck led to opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Webster Groves, Bon Appetit magazine named Balkan Treat Box to its list of "America's Best New Restaurants 2019."
The Balkan peninsula is composed of 11 Southeast European countries and a section of Turkey. The region was part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years and the Balkans are a melting pot of different cultural influences. Balkan cuisine is very diverse, and many of its hand-held foods are flatbreads filled or topped with meats, vegetables or cheese.
The region has a long history of ethnic divisiveness and political upheaval. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s resulted in the displacement of over two million people and the worst genocide since World War II. Over 60,000 Bosnians emigrated to St. Louis, which now hosts the largest Bosnian community outside of Europe.
Edo Nalic arrived in St. Louis as a refugee from Bosnia in 2004. He was working at Taft Street Restaurant and Bar when he received a deportation notice. His co-worker, Loryn, offered to marry him to avoid deportation. Loryn, a St. Louis native, had a culinary background, but was not well-versed in Balkan cuisine, so she learned from Edo's relatives. When they decided to start a food truck, Loryn traveled to the Balkans and immersed herself in its food culture. After she returned, they outfitted a food truck with a wood-fired oven and named it Balkan Treat Box, a riff on the band Balkan Beat Box. Now their food truck and brick-and-mortar restaurant are among St. Louis's most popular dining destinations.
My favorite dish served at Balkan Treat Box is their pide (pronounced pee-day), a pizza-like dough that is formed into a canoe shape and filled with various toppings. A pide is typically cooked in a hot (700-degree) wood-fired oven, but the following recipe has been adapted for home cooks with a conventional oven. I've scaled down the restaurant recipe and strongly suggest weighing your ingredients on a kitchen scale. A scale makes baking so much easier and precise. The dough needs to ferment in your refrigerator overnight, so be sure to plan ahead. If you have children who are picky eaters, consider making their pide with just cheese.
Adapted from a recipe by Loryn Nalic
Yield: 2 flatbreads
217.5 grams AP flour (about 1 ¾ cups), plus more for rolling
1.1 g yeast (½ teaspoon)
1 gram salt (½ teaspoon)
110 g ice water (½ cup)
20 grams sourdough starter (Optional. See note below.)
1/4 cup onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 lb ground lamb (or substitute ground beef)
½ teaspoon fish sauce
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
Equal parts drained feta and mozzarella (the kind that comes in an 8 oz. block), blended together in a food processor
½ stick unsalted butter, browned
Red onion, thinly sliced
Sumac (or substitute lemon zest)
Note: If you don't have sourdough starter, you can combine equal amounts of flour and water (10 grams of each) in a bowl and let sit for several hours before you prepare the flatbread dough.
Make the pide dough:
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl with a wooden spoon) combine the flour, yeast, salt, ice water and starter. Attach the dough hook and mix on low for 6 minutes. Increase speed to high and mix for an additional 12 minutes (or hand knead until smooth).
Divide the dough into 2 portions. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight.
Make the lamb filling:
Purée onion, garlic and salt with a little water in a blender. Add purée to a mixing bowl with the rest of the filling ingredients and thoroughly combine.
Assemble the pide:
Preheat an oven to as high a temperature as possible. Place a baking stone or inverted sheet pan in the oven.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. The dough is easier to shape when cold. Liberally dust your work surface with flour, then use a well-dusted rolling pin to roll out each piece of dough into an oval approximately 10 inches long and about 4 inches wide.
Wet your fingers and spread a thin layer of the lamb filling down the middle of the dough in a pointed oval shape. Starting at the center, push the filling towards the sides, stretching out the dough. Even out the filling with your fingertips.
Add small amounts of cheese around edges of dough, then fold the edges of the dough over the cheese and filling by ½ inch and pinch both ends together to create a canoe shape.
Lightly flour a wooden peel or inverted sheet pan and transfer the pide onto it. Slide the pide onto the hot baking stone or heated inverted baking sheet.
Bake in the hot oven until the crust is cooked through and golden brown. Depending on the heat source, this could take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes.
Brush the finished pide crust immediately with the browned butter. Garnish with red onions and parsley and sprinkle with ground sumac or lemon zest. Serve with lemon wedges.
Balkan Treat Box is at 8103 Big Bend Blvd in Webster Groves, Missouri. It is open from 11-3 Tuesday-Saturday. If you go, tell them Dr. Chef Peter sent you!