Warka: Not worth it

When I made my bisteeya, I used phyllo for the pastry, cutting it into rounds to layer the pie. But traditionally, bisteeya is made using an altogether different type of pastry known as “warka” (and, transliteration being what it is, sometimes spelled warqa, warkha or ouarka).

The original method for making warka is to take a very soft dough and dab it repeatedly on a hot surface. A layer will stick to the pan, and once cooked, can be peeled off. Naturally, this pastry is extremely thin, fragile, and difficult to work with.

It also requires a great deal of practice to learn how to make it, so several writers (notably Paula Wolfert and Robert Carrier) have proposed an alternative method: instead of a dough, you make a thin batter; instead of dabbing it on the hot pan, you “paint” it on with a pastry brush, allow it to cook, and peel it off.

I attempted this technique using Wolfert’s recipe, making up the batter a day in advance, then carefully rigging up a non-stick pan over a pot of simmering water to provide a steady heat source.

But then it all went wrong: When I painted the batter onto the pan, it beaded, forming a sort of “lace” instead of the continuous sheet that would be needed. I tried to overcome this by adding successive layers of batter, or by pouring some of the batter into the pan and swirling it around, like a crêpe, but with mixed success.

I ended up with only 16 workable sheets of warka – barely enough to make the bisteeya – oiled and layered between paper towels, then placed in an extra-large zip-top bag and stored overnight in the fridge. Not oiled enough, as it turned out: when I went to form the pie, the layers of fragile warka stuck to the paper towels, and ripped when I tried to separate them, rendering my already-scanty amount of pastry utterly insufficient. Eventually I admitted defeat, and fell back to plan B, glad that I had planned a plan B by thawing some phyllo.

Despite this initial warka failure, I suspect I could, with some practice, produce something usable, and I may eventually try again just to see if I can do it. But it is enormously resource-intensive, in terms of both time and paper towels; I suspect I spent as much on paper towels alone as I did on the phyllo I ended up using. So I just don’t see how it would be worthwhile, unless you were striving for the utmost in authenticity. For now, I’m happy to make do with the less authentic, but cheaper and easier to use, phyllo.

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