Poetry Sunday: “Making Zelnik at the Sibling Reunion,” by Karen Paul Holmes

Making Zelnik at the Sibling Reunion

Though the Babas mixed filo dough from scratch,
rolling it thin as onion skin, we use frozen.
But the feta must be sheep’s milk in brine,
and we never make zelnik without
heeding Mother’s warning in our heads:
Sand can hide inside the leeks!
Fill the sink with water, separate, swish, scrub.
Philip chops the stalks with a chef’s precision,
channeling our father. Eileen touches his shoulder,
sautés the hillock of pale green
crescent moons to tender in a bubbling inch of butter.
We discuss how many eggs, what ratio
of cottage cheese to feta—zelnik needs its salty sour bite.
Nancy and Beth handle the thawed filo quickly
so it won’t dry and crumble like a dragonfly wing.
They peel and place each translucent sheet
while Phil and I swiftly brush with running butter,
Eileen at the ready to melt another stick.
After eight layers we spoon and spread the leek filling,
then finish off with filo, buttering more
and more to brown and crisp.
Our 50 fingers roll the crust’s edges to seal the hollow
we’ll feel tomorrow. We each peer into the 350° oven,
discuss if it’s time. No one waits for our pastry
to cool—though it tastes better warm than hot-hot.
Next day, we split the last piece five ways, then
fly off to five cities in three states, crossing ourselves
on takeoff as Mother instructed
when she kissed us goodbye.



A recipe passed down through oral tradition. The Paul kids (ages 55-65) still compete to see who can make the zelnik taste most like the one we remember eating at St. Nicholas on Sundays after fasting for communion.

1 box of filo, thawed according to package directions (maybe overnight)
2 bunches of green onions, chopped
6 large leeks, trimmed of thick green leaves, chopped
2 sticks of butter
½ pound ricotta
1 pound small curd cottage cheese
12-16 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
6 eggs, slightly beaten

Preheat oven to 375°.

Sauté green onions and leeks gently in about 2 Tbsp of butter, until transparent (not browned).

Mix ricotta and cottage cheese in a large bowl. Add 12 ounces feta and the leeks/onions. Taste, add more cheese if necessary.

Mix eggs into cheese mixture. Use waxed paper to cover remaining filo in box as you work, so it won’t dry out.

Melt 4 Tbsp butter (have more ready, just in case). Peel off filo sheets one at a time and layer half the box on cookie sheet, brushing lightly with melted butter between each layer. Spread egg mixture over filo.

Continue to layer the filo (brushing each with butter) over the egg mixture—use the rest of the box. Roll edges to seal and brush with butter.

Turn oven back to 350° and immediately put zelnik in oven. Bake for 30 minutes—check for brownness. Allow top to get quite brown, as it will look lighter after you take it out of oven.

Cool for 15-30 minutes before eating (if you can wait). Refrigerate leftovers (if any!) and serve warm or cold.


Poem and recipe are from  (Terrapin Press 2018), reprinted here with permission of the press and available here.


Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Books, February 2018) and Untying the Knot (The Aldrich Press, 2014). She was named a Best Emerging Poet by Stay Thirsty Media (2016), and publications include Prairie Schooner, Poetry East, Crab Orchard Review, diode, and Lascaux Review, among many journals and anthologies. To support fellow writers, Holmes founded and hosts a critique group in Atlanta and the Writers’ Night Out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She’s also become a freelance writer and writing coach since leaving her position as a marketing communications vice-president at a global financial company. (Author photo credit: David Finlayson.)



Poet’s Note

My new book, No Such Thing as Distance, was partly inspired by the Macedonian culture in which I grew up. How better to reflect that heritage, and also the closeness of my family, than through a cooking poem? When I brought “Making Zelnik at the Sibling Reunion” to my poetry critique group, they wanted the recipe, and thus the idea was born to include this recipe and others in the manuscript. The article I wrote about starting a critique group is here. An interview about my writing process is here.

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