Spanakopita? Kaltsounia? Hortopita? Cretan “Samosa”? What’s in a name? This week’s unexpected culinary controversy started when we were staying with our Greek friends in Corfu last week. One day for lunch our friends’ daughter, Annie, made a wonderful dish—spinach, mizithra (a ricotta-like cheese) and dill wrapped in layers of fine phyllo pastry—which we devoured on their wisteria-shaded terrace while watching boats bobbing in the bay down below and gazing out to Albania beyond.
“Cretan Pies,” Annie called them.
Back in Delhi, I decided to try and recreate a bit of Greek island magic. I found spinach, dill (sowa in Hindi) and phyllo at INA Market and even rustled up some homemade ricotta. The pies turned out so well—the only thing lacking was the sound of cicadas—I decided to share the recipe here.
Confusion started to set in when I decided to cross-reference on the Internet and discovered that Cretan Pies, or “Skaltsounia”, sometimes known as “Kaltsounia”, are usually sweet cheese pies served with honey. I quickly called my best friend Jane back in Corfu for clarification but her on-the-ground investigation, while leading to much animated Greek debate, only muddied the waters further. Some thought Annie’s pies were technically “Hortopita” (greens pie), others said “Spanakopita” (spinach pie), but no one was willing to stake a culinary reputation on either.
Later, however, when Mint photographer Pradeep came to take the pictures, he needed a name for the captions. I confessed I wasn’t exactly sure what to call them. He studied the pies long and hard, then took a bite. “How about ‘Cretan Samosa’?” he suggested brightly. “They’re the same shape.”
Of course, it doesn’t really matter what they’re called. To me, they will always be quite simply the delicious pies made for a memorable family lunch by my best friend’s daughter. But I’m sure no one will object if we call them “Cretan Samosa”.
Makes about 10-12 pies
Phyllo pastry, available in delicatessens and with grocers selling imported goods, about four sheets
1 large bunch of spinach, thoroughly washed, stalks removed and roughly chopped
100g soft ricotta-like cheese (shop-bought or see below for a ridiculously easy way to make it at home)
A handful of fresh dill leaves (sowa), chopped. Mint can also be used
Zest of one small lemon
A handful of breadcrumbs
1 egg, lightly beaten
Grated nutmeg, salt and pepper
First make the cheese. Bring 1 litre of milk to the boil, then switch off the heat. Stir in a teaspoon of salt and a few tablespoons of yogurt and stir until the milk splits into curds and whey (as if making paneer). Strain the curds into a muslin bag and hang it over a bowl to drain off the whey (keep it for bread-making though). Don’t press the curds as you would for paneer, you need this cheese to be very soft. The cheese is ready after about an hour or so and can then be used in any recipe calling for ricotta or the Greek equivalent, mizithra.
Put the spinach in a large pan with a lid and cook until the leaves are all completely wilted. Press out as much liquid as possible and chop finely.
In a bowl, mix together the spinach, cheese, egg, dill, lemon zest, breadcrumbs and seasoning. Taste the mixture and adjust until the balance of flavours is to your liking—I like it quite salty and cheesy (Annie puts Parmesan in too, though this is not traditional) and with a definite taste of dill.
Unwrap the pastry but keep it covered with a clean tea towel as the fine sheets dry out and crack very quickly.
Cut each sheet into three strips lengthways. Brush each strip with a little olive oil— important for keeping the pies crisp. Put a teaspoonful of filling on the bottom left corner of one of the strips. Take the bottom right corner and fold it over the filling to make a triangle shape, sealing the edges to stop the filling escaping. Now continue to fold the pie in triangles all the way to the top of the pastry strip.
When you’ve used up all the filling, you can either shallow-fry the pies in a little sunflower oil or bake in the oven for about 15 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius.
After baking or frying, let the pies cool down a little. Incidentally, the Greeks believe the flavours of their food are much better lukewarm or at room temperature—something we have difficulty with in Britain, where there is an obsession with everything being piping hot.
Serve with wedges of lemon and a glass of wine—instant Mediterranean sunshine.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at http://eatanddust.wordpress.com
Write to Pamela at email@example.com