The Christmas I was 12 my aunt Marlene gave me a copy of The Artful Pie by Lisa Cherkasky and Renée Comet. I was thrilled to have a cookbook all my own, especially one from my aunt, herself a fantastic baker.I plunked down with it beneath the Christmas tree, turning the pages one by one. It was the first real food photography I had seen; each pie was paired with a piece of art—think latticed cherry pie on an inked, broken plate or strawberry pie held aloft by a watercolor clown. The friendly instructions and gorgeous photos encouraged me. Perhaps I too could learn to make pie.
Lisa Cherkasky taught me that cold fat, ice water, and fast work the keys to a successful pastry. On my first try, a cran-apple pie, I was so nervous about making a mistake that I ran back to the kitchen table before and after each step to check and recheck the book. I cubed the butter and chilled it for fifteen minutes, then I blended it into the flour with a pastry cutter until the mixture was crumbly. I sprinkled ice water over it until my fingers went numb, then patted the entire mixture into a ragged disk and set it in the fridge. I rolled the pastry, chilled it, then rolled it again. In the end, the anxiety had been worth it; my first pie crust was flaky, buttery, and well-seasoned—I couldn’t believe my beginner’s luck.
Since then, I’ve been in love with pastry, sampling it in any form: apple dumplings, fruit pie, and crumbles in college; croissants, pain au chocolat, and quiche during my study-abroad in France. When I moved to Athens after college and noticed the Greeks’ savory and sweet pies, I knew I had found my second home. Greek pies had a number of pastry styles, I found, but I was drawn to the horiatiko, or country, phyllo. Thicker than commercial phyllo sheets and often made with whole grain flours, horiatiko phyllo was the most satisfying.
I made my first horiatiko phyllo for a kimadopita or ground meat pie when Spyros and I moved to our first apartment in Marousi. Prior to baking, I’d readied myself to roll-refrigerate, roll-refrigerate just as I had done with American pastry. But when I read the recipe, I saw that it contained no butter. Just two tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of vinegar and—horror of all horrors—warm water. Also absent was refrigeration. Didn’t all pastry require fat and cold ingredients? I took a deep breath and followed the instructions: mix together the dry ingredients; form a well in the center. Pour the olive oil, vinegar and warm water into the well and, little by little, stir the flour into the well. Mix until an elastic dough forms.
The result was a thick, chewy pie crust with an earthy flavor and slight tang. It paired well with the tomato-meat pie filling and Spyros was impressed that I’d made it myself. Most Greeks don’t make their own phyllo, he said.
It’s so easy and cheap, I said. I liked this new (for me) pie dough; its ease and forgiving nature. Over the years I’ve realized that there’s little Greek phyllo dough won’t adapt to. You can freeze it; let it sit on the counter for a few hours; roll and reroll it. The texture and flavor stays the same. It’s a hearty pastry for moments when you need heart.
I’ve made a lot of pie this fall. Each time I do I think of smiling Aunt Marlene and her gift, of the rich precise pie dough it introduced me to. Then I reach for my Greek phyllo dough recipe and feel grateful for its ease and durability; it’s health. Both are a part of my repertoire now, for that I am happy.
Horiatiko, Country Phyllo
Τhe recipe below calls for half all-purpose, half whole-wheat flour, but feel free to experiment with the ratio. When we have company, I’ll increase the white flour and decrease the whole-wheat for a softer texture. When it’s just Spyros and me I’ll go all whole-wheat which definitely makes for a denser crust. Experiment and find what you like best.
250 grams all-purpose flour
250 grams whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar
1-to-1 ½ cups warm water
1. Whisk together the flours, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a large well in the center with the back of a wooden spoon and pour in the olive oil, vinegar, and 1 cup of the warm water.
2. With the dough hook attachment of a standing mixer, combine the ingredients on medium-low speed until the dough pulls away from the sides and forms an elastic ball. If the mixture is too dry, add more of the water by the tablespoon. If mixing by hand, slowly stir the flour mixture into the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms, adding more water by the tablespoon if necessary. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
3. Divide the dough into fourths (for large pies) or small balls (for bite-sized pies). Set the dough into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 1-2 hours. At this point you could wrap the dough with plastic and freeze it or use it in a recipe.
Olive Pies with Thyme and Cheese
Makes about 5 dozen pies
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons brandy
Leaves from 6 thyme sprigs
2 cups chopped black and green olives
½ cup grated gruyere cheese
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 pound of homemade phyllo or frozen puff pastry dough
Black or white sesame seeds for sprinkling
1. If using frozen puff pastry be sure to defrost it. In a large skillet, heat the chopped onions, thyme and olive oil over medium heat; cook until the onion is soft and golden.
2. Add the brandy and when it reduces by half, stir in the sugar and chopped olives. Cook until the mixture has heated through, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, cool slightly, and stir in the grated cheese.
3. Heat the oven to 375o F (190oC). If you are using homemade phyllo dough, roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it is very thin. For defrosted puff pastry, remove the dough from the package and unroll.
4. Using a 4-inch diameter glass or biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds.
5. Place a teaspoon of the olive mixture in the center of each round and fold the pastry over it to form a half-moon; press the edges to seal.
6. Crimp edges with a fork and brush the top with the beaten egg yolk; sprinkle with sesame seeds. Place the pies on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes until golden.
We like eating these for lunch or with a glass of wine and some cheese for an evening snack. They also make great party food.
*Inspired by a recipe I adapted from Christina Panteleimonits’ Ta Mylelia: A Family Affair and published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 17, 2008 titled, How do you say ‘no meat’ in Greek.