We are always after some new thing. Which is fine in many ways, but in matters of food often disastrous. We are so busy running after the latest dish, that the good things we have known for centuries are forgotten as quickly as the boring things. -Jane Grigson (English Food)
The wise Jane Grigson wrote these words in 1974 and, forty years later, I--and I imagine many of you reading this--stand guilty as charged. Ours is an age that seems to shun tradition. I wonder sometimes if it's the desire to be new and innovative that drives us or if we've simply moved beyond doing things "the old-fashioned" way. Or it may be that, because we live in a multicultural and increasingly global society, both we and our palates have changed and are no longer satisfied by "traditional" flavors (I am not the only writer to explore this question, nor am I saying things that haven't already been said. For example, David Lebovitz recently wrote an interesting piece about the changes in French cuisine that is worth reading); we want miso in our turnips, fish sauce on our Brussels sprouts, daring desserts with parsley that include a frozen component, not to mention a different ethnic cuisine, sometimes "fused," sometimes not, each and every night. The extent of our options can be exhilarating, but it can also be downright exhausting. There are times when a bowl of pasta Carbonara is all I want to come home to and moments when just a bowl of fresh lettuce, simply dressed, is all I crave.
But then, after sating the part of me that longs for simplicity, I again find myself on the prowl for something new--a dish that will test the limits of my palate in some unexpected way.
Despite my constant urge to fiddle with things, I find that, when I prepare Greek food, I usually stick with tradition. Yes, I have voiced my impulse to put sun-dried tomatoes in spanakopita many times (mainly because I find that spinach, at least to me, has a somewhat metallic aftertaste that needs to be offset by something more than tangy feta), but I have never acted on it. I have also fantasized about Chocolate Baklava, which, according to the Greek food writer, Diane Kochilas, can be found in certain sweet shops in Athens. But when I suggest these things to the Greek, he usually looks at me like I've grown two heads; sometimes, the word "heresy" is even used.
This was the case when, after one of my Tuesday evening Greek classes--those magical evenings when I go and sample the many offerings of SF's Chinatown (oddly enough, my Greek class is in the Chinatown branch of CCSF) and feel like a young Ruth Reichl eating my way through many holes in the wall in the city--I came home bursting with excitement about a recipe one of my new friends and classmates, Eirini, had told me about. After 3 hours of asking each other, "Theleis pagoto i tiropita? Poso kanoun dio tiropites?" [Do you want ice cream or cheese pie? How much do two cheese pies cost?], we became hungry and, on the BART ride back to the East Bay, we discovered a mutual love of cooking. I soon learned that Eirini, who has friends and family in Athens, had a very unique recipe for cheese pie (tiropita) that she had gotten from her friend Matoula. Unlike most Greek pies, you don't brush butter or oil on the individual "leaves" (or sheets) of phyllo, nor do you lay each leaf flat in a long baking dish and score the top for easy cutting after baking. This recipe, veering from tradition, called not only for pleating the phyllo (as you can see from the photo above, there is no need for perfection; folding phyllo isn't easy, but fortunately this is a very forgiving method of preparation and small tears are not the end of the world), but also for using a round springform pan. While these things alone more than challenged the Greek's definition of what Greek pie should be, he primarily used heresy to describe it because of the recipe's final step: after poking holes in the pie using chopsticks, you pour a mixture of eggs, flour and sweetened condensed milk over it. To the Greek palate, sweet and salty things are unacceptable; a dish should either be savory or (really) sweet. There is no middle ground (that being said, I've never seen him object to Salted Caramel Ice Cream, but that is most definitely not a Greek creation).
I was too intrigued to let this one go, however, so I decided to make the pie while the Greek was in Texas for a conference. I invited some friends to join me and they were just as delighted with the pie as I was (even the half-Greek, whose grandmother had urged him to show me the correct way to use phyllo, seemed impressed, albeit reluctantly so). Because of the sweetened condensed milk and egg mixture, which acts as an egg wash, the pie bakes to a beautiful shade of gold; in particular, the sides of the pie, hugged by the springform pan, become especially dark. Despite the Greek's worries that the sweet and salty combination would prove too much, the pie is perfectly balanced, with an generous sprinkling of sesame seeds (this is an especially nice touch, since it calls to mind traditional Greek bread, which is topped with sesame seeds) and clearly falls into the savory camp.
While it's true that the pie bucks tradition in a lot of ways, for me it's enough that it was invented in an Athenian kitchen; to my mind, it doesn't get any more Greek than that. I should also add that as soon as the Greek, the heretical cheese pie naysayer, heard that I had gone ahead and made the pie, he sent me a text message asking me to save him a piece. It turns out that, even for traditionalists, heresy can sometimes be too good to resist.
Yields about 6-8 rich servings
This pie, which uses a combination of cottage cheese, feta and Pecorino (in Greece, the cheese of choice would be kefalotiri, a hard, salty cheese that is similar in flavor and texture to Pecorino) is quite rich and should be paired with roasted vegetables and a salad (a plain green salad would do well here, although I opted for something a little more flavorful).
I recommend baking this on a sheet lined with parchment or aluminum foil because, as I've discovered, even the best springform pans leak. Also, although you will open a whole package of frozen phyllo, you will not use all of it for just one pie; to preserve the remaining phyllo, I would recommend rolling it back up in its original plastic wrapper and wrapping a damp towel around it before placing it back in the fridge. If, however, you are serving a crowd, one package of phyllo should easily yield two pies.
Finally, as my friend Eirini told me, when you serve and eat this pie, be sure to thank Matoula, who is more than deserving of our gratitude.
1 package phyllo, defrosted and ready to use
1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 pound feta, crumbled
1 cup Pecorino cheese, grated
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
one heaping tablespoon all-purpose flour
sesame seeds, for sprinkling on top
-Butter a 9-inch springform pan.
-In small bowls or on a sheet of parchment, divide the cottage cheese, feta and the Pecorino into three even portions.
-Then, lay three sheets of phyllo, pleating and folding them to make them fit in the round springform pan. There is no need to be overly neat about this, nor is there any need to bring the sheets up the sides of the pan.
-Top this layer of phyllo with one portion of all three cheeses.
-Then, add two sheets of phyllo, again pleating and folding, and top with another portion of the cheeses.
-Repeat the previous step, but this time top the cheese with three sheets of phyllo. This is the final layer.
-Once the pie is assembled, use a chopstick to poke a series of holes in it; be aggressive. The goal is ensure that the holes go all the way to the bottom of the pan.
-Whisk the beaten eggs, the sweetened condensed milk and the heaping tablespoon flour together in a small bowl. Once mixed well, pour over the surface of the pie.
-Set on a plate or a baking sheet and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours (experience has shown that 2 1/2 will suffice if you're in a hurry).
-About 20 minutes before you will bake the pie, start preheating the oven to 350 F.
-Remove the pie from the refrigerator and generously sprinkle the top with sesame seeds.
-Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the top is golden.
-If you can resist, let the pie sit for 10-15 minutes before cutting it.