Sunday, February 22, 2009

Kolokithopita (Greek Cheese & Pumpkin Pie) & How to make (the best) Greek cheese pies

When we arrive in Greece, we always take a bus from the airport to the bus station that services the Peloponnese. The bus joins the chaos steaming along newly built highways and speeds past half-completed concrete buildings, through the industrial outskirts of Athens. From the other side of the bus window the chaotic momentum of this magnificent, sprawling, modern city begins already to weave its magic spell on your jet-lagged eyes, making them big and wet again. And then you pull into the big old bus station made of painted tin and it's a different world altogether. Gypsies and business men wait by suitcases and bundles of fabric, while priests read newspapers and old men sell lottery tickets. Old, old Greek music spills through crackling speakers at a volume they can't handle. And people sit down for something to eat before long journeys. I love this wait for all these reasons - and because I always buy a tiropita from the cafeteria.

It's one of the things I do to make sure I'm really there - because in Greece tiropita, or cheese pies, are everywhere. They're sold at stations, through shop windows on the street and in bakeries all over the country, and there are so many varieties that I've accepted I'll never be able to try them all. Outside of Greece, the most well-known seems to be spanakopita, the cheese and spinach pie - but I sometimes worry that it's become one of those dishes people make only when they have a vegetarian coming over. A good Greek cheese pie - let's start calling them pita - should be something everybody loves, something perfect to take to parties, barbecues and to have for dinner with a salad.

This is also a recipe request from my darling friend Yardena who wants the recipe for spanakopita. Instead, I made a kolokithopita (cheese and pumpkin), but have included instructions for turning this into a number of Greek cheese pie delights. And I've also included photos and instructions on how to make Greek cheese pies village-styles, because whenever I make them like this, people swoon. For some reason, many people are scared of using filo pastry. Which is a damn shame because it always seems to me to be the easiest to handle of any kind. In fact, the whole dish is superbly simple and can be thrown together in very little time.

In Greece when you buy tiropita or spanakopita they're often hand-sized and made with flaky pastry, which contrasts wonderfully with the salty, creamy filling. At home, they're usually made with filo like mine below - for this style filo is best. I've used a non-commercial filo that I buy from a Turkish grocery store - you'll see that it's a little thicker and easier to deal with. It also goes wonderfully crispy when brushed with butter and baked. Try Middle Eastern food stores and continental delicatessens, but if you can't find it, just use the commercial variety and adhere two sheets together by brushing with butter to make a thicker piece.

The pumpkin pita has everything that is excellent about the cheese pita, with the sweetness of the pumpkin to contrast with the salty creamy filling. You simply grate the pumpkin into the cheese mixture raw and it cooks inside the pie, lending moisture and lightness without ever becoming soggy. The ricotta, with the help of an egg, sets the filling just firm, and the best thing about making it into a round whirligig is that this spiral of sweet and salty cheese and pumpkin is encased in layer upon layer of thin, crispy casing. To take it to the next level, add a grating of nutmeg and a swirl of good honey to the filling. Trust me, everyone will ask you for the recipe.

Kolokithopita (Greek cheese and Pumpkin Pie)
Note: the amount of pastry (and filling) will depend on the size of your tin or tray. To make spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie), substitute the pumpkin for a bunch of spinach, wilted, strained and finely chopped. Instead of honey nutmeg, use some dill or fennel fronds. For tiropita (plain cheese pie), increase the ricotta and feta by 100g of each. I leave the nutmeg and honey in, but do as you please!

100g butter melted
3 large round sheets of handmade filo pastry, halved or around 12 sheets of commercial filo pastry

For filling:
500g fresh ricotta
400g feta (goat or sheep milk is best)
1 egg
350g pumpkin, grated
a grating of nutmeg
1 tbsp honey
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 180ºC/350ºF.

Crumble ricotta and feta into a mixing bowl. Add egg, nutmeg and honey, then mash and mix up with a fork until combined. Add grated pumpkin and season with salt and pepper, remembering that the feta is salty. Mix with fork.

Brush tin or tray with melted butter to grease.

Spread pastry out and brush all over with melted butter. If using commercial filo, join two sheets with butter and use as one. Spoon filling along one long edge of pastry almost to the edges. Fold in edges, then roll the pastry away from you to form a tube. Fit into tin, bending gently to curve. Repeat until the spiral is complete. You should have some butter remaining - use this to brush over the top of the pie generously.

Pop into oven for 40 - 50 minutes or until golden brown. In a rental property oven (like mine), you may need to turn the pie halfway through cooking and/or leave it in a little longer. Cut into wedges and serve straight from the pan.


  1. That looks fantastic! I'd definitely be using the nutmeg and honey. :-)

  2. I love Greek food and as soon as I saw this I printed it out. Can't wait to try. Thank you!

  3. Oh, that looks so good! Thanks for the recipe.

  4. Hi ya.

    I'm going to try this one as part of my "convalescence" - I feel like something tasty and I'm so over chicken soup! tee.

  5. I just made Kolokithopita and it was very delicious! Thank you so much for the recipe!
    Greetings from Denmark!


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