I nearly cried when they cut it down, my sister said about the maple tree in our parents’ backyard. I understood how she felt. The tree was magnificent; its branches spread like a child’s fingers straining to touch the sky, stretching farther each year (hence our parents’ decision to ax it). Come October, its leaves turned shades of crimson and spiced pumpkin, a real fireball against the grey skies. It’s this tree that I think of when I remember autumn in Pennsylvania.
In Greece, the evening temperatures are too warm to result in much foliage. Although the days have become shorter and more blustery, we have yet to feel real autumn cold. It’s pleasant, very pleasant, but it’s not what I’m looking for right now. What I want is a cold day, an excuse to cook something cozy.
Luckily, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Greece has its own repertoire of fall comfort foods. Greek pumpkin pie is one of them, a savory squash pie enveloped by an olive oil pastry. I first tried one in November about 7 years ago at a taverna in the Peloponnesian mountains called To Petrino where a mother/son team bakes fresh bread every day and serves up homemade chickpea stew, boiled greens, and rooster in tomato sauce, to name a few. Like most tavernas, the menu varies according to the season and what neighboring farmers produce.
Spyros and I had gone there for lunch one Saturday afternoon in November with his parents. The mountain air was chilly so the owner/son lit a fire in the stone hearth. We sat at a heavy table and I did what I typically do in Greek group dining situations; I waited to see what everyone else would order. Spyros’ mother recommended the fried eggs and greens which seemed to be the best complement to the basket of sourdough bread in front of us. We ordered fried eggs all around and Spyros’ mother tacked on a Greek pumpkin pie.
Inwardly I fist-pumped the air and said yessss. I had heard of Greek pumpkin pie, but had never tried it. Here was my opportunity. When it arrived at our table, Spyros’ mother cut it into four pieces, revealing sautéed pumpkin, feta cheese, and—of all things—hilopites pasta. I hadn’t realized that Greeks put pasta in their pies, but I liked it. Sweet and salty, Greek pumpkin pie was not like any pumpkin pie I had tasted before. It reminded me of my mother’s pumpkin soup, with feta. As I finished the final bites, I whispered in Spyros’ ear, I think this might be my new favorite pumpkin pie. He nodded in agreement.
The next October in our apartment in Maroussi, I tried to recreate To Petrino’s pumpkin pie. I made it one evening after work, just a few days after I took—and passed—the GRE. I was overjoyed to cook instead of study and prepared the pumpkin; peeled and grated it. Then I scooped it into a pan and sautéed it. As the scent of cooked pumpkin filled our little apartment, I thought of my mother’s kitchen in October and how similar it smelled when she made pumpkin bread and cake. I felt cozy and, for once, at home. So at this time of year, when I think about a maple tree that no longer exists, I try to cook something that brings that warmness to me. Sometimes it’s Greek pumpkin pie.
Greek Pumpkin Pie
1 fresh pumpkin, 1800 grams (4 pounds) (or
3 cups canned, cooked pumpkin)
¼ cup olive oil, divided
2 medium onions, diced
½ cup hilopites pasta or any short, egg pasta
450 grams (9 ounces) feta cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup chopped fresh spearmint or 2 tablespoons dried spearmint
1 medium egg, beaten
a large pinch of cayenne
oil for brushing
15 phyllo sheets or homemade phyllo dough for 1 pie
- If using canned, cooked pumpkin, skip steps 1 and 3. If using fresh pumpkin, cut the pumpkin in half and remove the pulp and seeds; reserve for another purpose if desired. Cut the pumpkin into wedges and, with a sharp knife, carefully slice the pumpkin flesh away from the outer skin. Grate the pumpkin flesh and place in a large bowl.
- In a large, deep saucepan sauté the onions over medium heat in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until browned and softened. Remove the onions and place in a large bowl.
- Heat the remaining olive oil in the same pan and cook the grated pumpkin with a pinch of salt over medium heat until soft and some of its liquid has evaporated, about 6-8 minutes. Remove the pumpkin from the pot, strain, and let cool; place in the mixing bowl with the onions.
- While the pumpkin cools, begin boiling the water for the hilopites. Salt the water and boil the noodles until al dente, about 4 minutes. Strain well and stir into the pumpkin/onion mixture.
- Add the feta, spearmint, beaten egg and cayenne to the pumpkin mixture and stir. Season with salt and pepper.
- To assemble the pie: lightly oil a 9×13 glass baking dish and line with 4-6 sheets of packaged filo dough, brushing with oil between layers (keep the other phyllo sheets covered with a wet tea towel while you work, to prevent them from drying). Allow any excess dough to hang over the pan.
- Pour the pumpkin filling into the pan and spread evenly. Cover with remaining phyllo dough, again brushing with olive oil between layers. Roll the excess dough at the edges and lightly press to form a crust. Brush the pie all over with olive oil and score the top into pieces, but do not cut all the way through.
- Bake for 40-45 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm.