Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Tyropitakia are small cheese pastries made during Apokreos, the period before Lent when dairy products are eaten. Tyri means "cheese" in Greek and this cheese pie is typical of a wide range of dishes that cover cheese with pastry. There are many recipes for this dish, the ingredients depending on the region or even the island. For instance, in Thessaly, a short dough of flour, water, and vinegar is used. Sometimes a puff pastry is used or shortbread, as in a cheese-and-egg pie called kouroumbougatses. In the region of Rumelia in northern Greece, they make a tyropitakia that includes nearly a dozen eggs. Another name for this pie is kalitsounia, as it is known on Crete. In Greece they are all generally called pittes or pies.
These pastries contain a mixture of feta cheese and mezithra (also transliterated mizithra and myzithra), a kind of Greek ricotta salata, or kefalotyri, a hard grating cheese usually made of sheep's milk, though sometimes goat's milk. Another traditional cheese mixture would use manouri, a soft, unsalted white cream cheese made of whey of sheep and goat's milk, and grated kefalotyri. It is made as one large baked pie, although pastry triangles are typical too.
Many Greek-Americans replace the Greek cheeses with an Italian pecorino Romano and with cream cheese, cottage cheese, or Muenster cheese. Because I have never had difficulty finding Greek cheeses in this country, I prefer the traditional way of making tyropitakia (also spelled tyropittes) and provide this recipe from Navplion (Nauplia).
[photo: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 8 servings
Preparation Time: 1 hour (1 1/2 hours for variation)
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
3 large eggs
6 ounces mizithra or kefalotyri cheese, crumbled or grated
14 ounces imported Greek or Bulgarian feta cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon very finely chopped parsley leaves
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 pound phyllo pastry, defrosted, if necessary
1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and keep warm. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, then stir in the mezithra cheese, feta, parsley, and nutmeg.
2. Unravel the phyllo pastry following the directions on the package. Keep the phyllo pastry sheets humidified with a wet kitchen towel draped over them as you work. With a pastry brush, butter the bottom of a 9 x 12-inch baking pan and layer in seven or eight sheets of phyllo pastry, brushing butter on each layer. Let the phyllo edges droop over the sides of the pan. Pour in the cheese mixture, making sure it is spread evenly over the pastry. Fold the edges of the phyllo over into the pan and butter them, too.
3. Preheat the oven
to 350 degrees F.
4. With the remaining 5 to 6 phyllo sheets, cover the pan, buttering each sheet and tucking the edges over and into the pan. Bake until the top is golden brown, about 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, let it rest for 15 minutes, then cut into squares. Serve warm.
You can make about 50 individual cheese pies by cutting the phyllo into 3 x 14-inch strips. Place a heaping teaspoon of the cheese mixture at one end and fold one corner over to the opposite edge of the phyllo to form a triangle. Continue in this way up the strip until you end up with a triangular pie. Continue the remaining filling and phyllo. Bake them in a single layer on a buttered baking sheet until golden, about 25 minutes at 350 degrees F. These individual cheese triangles freeze well unbaked and make very appetizing mezedes for surprise guests.