I love Greece. I know they are going through a terrible economic time at the moment, and they have become Europe’s examplar for how things can go fiscally wrong, but you have to understand – like other countries involved in the financial crisis, the average Greek had absolutely nothing to do with it. They are victims, like everyone else, only it’s harder for them because it’s worse there. Greeks are survivors, though and I’m sure they’ll come though it, not least because they know how to make the best of local produce – and they have some of the best local produce in the world.
Wherever I’ve been in Greece there is always a local bakery. It opens early and closes early, and everything is fresh. When things sell out, they’re gone for the day, so timing is of the essence, and a perennial favourite is the cheese pie. In this post we’ll be making Greek cheese pies, or a version of them that you’ll be able to make with the ingredients you can purchase near home. Delicious as they are, they don’t quite compare to the real thing, which has local cheeses, and hand made pastry, but these are still very good.
First, a word on Feta. Feta is the Greek word for ‘slicing’ so if you go into a Greek supermarket and ask for a quarter-kilo of feta you are going to get some strange looks. You want ‘slicing’? The famous cheese is tyrosfeta, or slicing-cheese, but you can equally well have slicing-sausage, or slicing-ham, so make sure you ask for the right thing.
- 125g feta cheese (one block)
- 185g cottage cheese (small pot)
- 25g grated parmesan cheese (or similar)
- A small handfull of fresh mint (dried will do, but fresh is better)
- 2 medium eggs
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 rolls of ready-rolled puff pastry
- Sesame seeds
- Weighing scales (though this is the sort of recipe that benefits from estimation).
- A knife for cutting pastry, and a plate to cut around
- A pastry brush (the silicone ones are really good)
- Flour sprinkler with plain flour
Pre-heat the oven to approximately 180 degrees C.
Strip and wash the fresh mint, and then chop finely. In a large bowl, mix together the mint and cottage cheese. Grate in the salty feta cheese and parmesan. Break the eggs into a mug and beat together. Tip three-quarters of the eggs into the bowl, keeping about a quarter back. Grind some fresh black pepper over the top of the cheese mix. Stir together to form a thick mixture.
Wipe the surface of two large (or three medium) baking trays with a little oil on some kitchen towel to prevent the pies sticking. Take a small plate – about 6 – 7 inches is about right – and gently ease flat your puff pastry onto a work-surface. You will notice that I’m using shop-bought puff pastry. If it were shortcrust I would be making my own, but for puff pastry the shop bought is better than anything I can make myself. Life is too short.
Cut out circles of puff pastry using the plate as a guide, keeping as far to the edge as you can to maximise the number of circles you can make. You can dust the work surface with a little plain flour from a sprinkler to prevent them sticking. You should have a circle of pastry. Using your pastry brush, dip into the reserved egg mixture and paint a circle of beaten egg round the outside of the pastry circle. This is to help seal the edge. Then place a serving spoon sized dollop of mixture in the centre of the circle. This is the hard bit: too little and it will only taste of pastry, too much and it won’t seal. About a medium serving spoonful is usually enough.
Fold over the circle to form a pasty-shaped semicircle, and then crimp around the edge of the pastry with your finger and thumb, sealing in the mixture. Don’t worry if they don’t entirely seal – they will still taste good. Place the pie on the baking tray and do the next one.
When you have filled a tray with pies, use your pastry brush to coat the top of the pies with egg mixture and then sprinkle sesame sees over the top as decoration. They will give a wonderful nutty scent as the pies cook. Place in the hot over for 20 – 25 minutes until golden brown. Once cooked, remove and place on a cooling tray for ten minutes, though you may find that passers by are too tempted to keep hands off.
If you make too many to eat in one go (how many is too many?) you can freeze the uncooked pies and keep them in the freezer for a couple of weeks in a sealed freezer bag. They will cook from frozen (an extra ten minutes in the oven) and they make a great Saturday morning breakfast.