A few weeks ago Spyros came home with two plastic-handled shopping bags filled with 10 pounds of feta, a gift from a farmer. I stuffed the bags into the refrigerator and wondered what to do with it. Feta is a fresh cheese which spoils quickly if not used. I worried we’d never eat it in time.
“We’ll finish it,” Spyros reassured me. “We can make a few trays of cheese pie and freeze them.”
It was a good idea and one that would solve a problem for me. I have a lot of pie recipes on this blog, like this one for pumpkin pie and this one for mushroom pie but I haven’t blogged about cheese pie, or tyropita, the first pie I tasted in Greece.
One morning during my first trip to Athens, Spyros and I walked to Kifissia where he brought me to a tiny corner bakery for breakfast before we took the train for downtown. He ordered two puffy cheese pies. The pastry pockets crackled as the woman behind the counter lifted them from the display case with a metal spatula and slid them into small paper bags. Spyros handed one to me. Biting into it, I encountered a thousand layers of pastry enclosing a thin layer of feta. Between mouthfuls, I glanced at the Greeks around me. A man in a lavender dress shirt rushed passed us; a woman in a sundress, newly perfumed, strode up the hill. I wondered if one day I could be one of them, rushing off to my own work, with a life in Greece.
When I moved to Greece after college, I visited the bakery every other Friday after my work at school had ended. I bought the same cheese pie and munched it on bench in a park across the street. I liked to think about that first cheese pie and about how different Greece seemed now that I lived there. It had become every day; I had the same worries as I did at home, though the surroundings and people had changed. The bakery closed when Spyros and I left for Grad school and I’ve had difficulty finding a cheese pie to replace it.
I found this simple recipe for cheese pie in Tessa Kirou’s Greek Cooking. It’s a good recipe with little I’d change, though I did tinker with a few bits to serve my taste. Tessa’s original recipe asks for a higher ratio of feta to anthrotyro (a soft cheese similar to ricotta). The feta I had was a bit sharp in flavor, so I decreased the amount of feta and increased the anthrotyro (if you don’t have feta where you are, ricotta is a fine substitute).
I also went a bit rogue with the pastry. Instead of greasing a glass dish and lining it with layers of phyllo, I decided to free-form this one, making it a little like a cheesy galette. I found this encourages the cheese filling to thin during baking, resulting in a lighter overall taste. Spyros and I have been defrosting small squares for lunch over the past few weeks. It’s soft, chewy. The thin cheese layer reminds me of that first cheese pie all those years ago.
Serves about 7
1 batch homemade phyllo dough or 1 (1lb) package frozen phyllo dough, defrosted
olive oil, for brushing
350 g feta, crumbled
300 g anthrotyro or ricotta
80 ml (1/3 cup) milk
sesame seeds, for sprinkling
In a large bowl, combine the cheeses and milk with a wooden spoon or with the paddle attachment of an electric mixer until well combined. Set aside.
If using packaged phyllo, grease a 9×13 glass baking dish with olive oil. Open the phyllo and lightly cover the pastry with a moist cloth to prevent it from drying. Line the baking dish with about 10 sheets of pastry, brushing with olive oil between layers. Pour the cheese mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly with a spoon.
Cover with 10 more sheets of phyllo, brushing each layer with olive oil. Roll up any overhanging phyllo at the edges and brush the entire pie with olive oil. With a sharp knife, score the top layer into pieces, without cutting through to the filling. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
If using homemade phyllo, grease a large baking sheet with olive oil. On a lightly floured surface, roll 1 ball of dough into a ¼” thick rectangle and place it on the baking sheet. Spread the cheese mixture evenly over the phyllo, leaving a 1-inch border. Roll another ball into a similar-sized rectangle. Place it on top of the cheese mixture. Roll up the edges to form an uneven pie shape. Brush the top with olive oil and pierce the pie all over with a knife; this pie needn’t be scored. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Note: If you made my phyllo recipe, you will likely have left-over dough. You can use it to make another pie or freeze for another use.
Bake in a 350oF (180oC) oven for about 30-35 minutes until golden. Cool slightly before serving.