Greek traditional phyllo ‘pites’ (phyllo pies)

 Greek traditional phyllo ‘pites’ (phyllo pies)

Greek ‘pites’ are simply phyllo pies filled with different fillings.

They are one of the most traditional Greek food dishes passed down from generation to generation, and they are very versatile and delicious!

They were created from the need to feed large families during challenging times, like wars, when food was scarce. People would use staple foods like wheat flour,  olive oil and water to make a dough, fill this with any seasonal produce they had in hand and bake.

When cooked, they could be kept outside the fridge depending on the filling, and they were a convenient food to take to work in the fields.

A type of a Greek phyllo ‘pita’, the traditional spanakopita, is well known worldwide. In 2016 it was even added into the Oxford English dictionary and was described as a filo pastry stuffed with spinach and feta cheese (www.lexico.com/definition/spanakopita).

Traditional ‘pites’ can be made with a variety of fillings and types of crust.

Most are made using a thin phyllo pastry covering the top and the bottom of the filling, but it is not uncommon to also see some made with puffed phyllo in the same way.

They can also be made without using any phyllo. Some flour is added to the vegetable or meat filling and is mixed together with the eggs, feta cheese and olive oil to create a thick batter. This batter is then poured into a baking dish and baked in the oven like a cake.

There are also differences in the way these are cooked. Some are baked in the oven, and others are made into smaller sizes and fried in olive oil.

In Greece each region is known for its local phyllo ‘pites’ recipes. This usually depends on their individual climate, their traditions and history and the ingredients available to each area.

In northern Greece, you will find more hearty pies, rich in meats and fat because of their colder winters, whereas in the South, ‘pites’ are made a little lighter in fat because of the warmer climate.

The unique flavour of the Greek traditional phyllo ‘pites’ (phyllo pies) can also depend on the wild weeds available to the area and their locally made cheeses.

Let’s talk about the different filling options.

‘Pites’ can be savoury or sweet depending on the filling used.

Traditional Greek savoury ‘pites

Made with edible wild greens…

I grew up in Greece, and I remember making spanakopita with Yiayia Maria (my grandmother) but never really paid attention to what wild greens she was using. To me, it all looked the same back then. 

Many years later, when I was visiting her in Greece, I was eager to learn more, so I asked her. I recall her saying that it all depended on the time of the year and what was available and accessible in the area.

She would collect wild edible weeds like myrrh (myronia), Mediterranean hartwort (kaukalithra), poppies(paparounes), dandelions (radikia), nettle (tsouknides), sow thistle (zohos), rumex (lapatha) and many more.

If you are lucky enough and have these growing in your backyard, do include them in the ‘pita’. Some of these varieties can be a little bitter but are great for digestion and can mix well with other wild weeds and greens to mask the taste. A good mix would be 30% wild edible weeds to 70% other greens from your greengrocer or veggie garden.

When collecting wild weeds from your backyard, you need to know what to pick. If you are lucky enough to have someone show you what is edible I suggest that you take some photos’ and use them as a guide for next time.

Made with other greens and vegetables…

A great variety of greens or vegetables can also be used to make ‘pites’. When possible always use local seasonal produce.

Green leaves like spinach, leeks, spring onions, silverbeets or chard, rocket, lettuce, endive, non-bitter dandelions can be used in combination (xortopita) or individually to make a variety of Greek traditional phyllo ‘pites’ (phyllo pies).

Phyllo ‘pites’ can also be made with potatoes (patatopita), sweet pumpkin, onions (kremidopita), eggplant (melitzanopita), zucchini(kolokithopita), mushrooms or olives (eliopita).

Made with meat…

‘Pita’ is also made with mince (kreatopita) or shreded cooked meats like chicken (kotopita), turkey, fish, lamb, goat or pork mixed in with herbs, spices and eggs.

Optional extras like grains, cheese, and sometimes leeks, spinach or zucchini, are mixed in the meat filling. Different parts of Greece use different combinations.      

Other ingredients usually added …

  •  Cheese

Cheese has always been a staple in the Greek kitchen from the olden days. Cheeses are primarily made from sheep or goat’s milk or, most times, a mixture of both.

There is a wide variety of Greek cheeses, with many regions making their own.

It is worth noting that cheese sold in Greece retains a common name and usually specifies the area it comes from but can have a different taste.  For example, the ‘kasseri’ cheese from Thessalia will taste slightly different from the ‘kasseri’ cheese from Makedonia but retain the basic characteristics of the soft texture and the mild taste.

It is very hard to know precisely how many types of different cheeses you find throughout Greece, but I assure you it’s close to the hundreds.

Therefore, depending on what you like, sharp or mild, hard or soft, salty or not, you are bound to find a texture and taste that you will love.

Traditionally in the spanakopita, we use feta cheese. Feta cheese is usually made from sheep’s milk, which gives it a soft texture or goat’s milk, giving it a harder texture that doesn’t melt quickly and retains its form.

The feta cheese can be mixed into the filling before pouring into the baking dish or cut into cubes and scattered over the filling before putting the last phyllo sheet over.

I usually scatter the cheese over the filling. My mum has taught me this way, and it works well. With the bigger chunks of feta added, you can taste the cheese in every bite.

In other types of Greek traditional phyllo ‘pites’ (phyllo pies) like the tiropita (cheese pie), which is traditionally only made with feta cheese, you can also add a mixture of Greek yellow cheeses.

Some types of yellow cheeses like ‘kasseri’ (soft yellow cheese with a mild taste that melts well),  ‘kefalotiri’ (a hard, salty cheese used to make saganaki) or  ‘mizithra’ (a type of whey cheese that can be bought dry or fresh like ricotta) can be added for their unique flavor and to give the phyllo pie a different texture.

The choices and combinations are endless, with so many different types.

Next time you drive past a Mediterranean deli, don’t be hesitant to pop in and check out the various sheep and goats cheeses. You might find your new favourite cheese!

  • Grains

Some types of ‘pites’ are made with the addition of ½ a cup of uncooked grains like rice, bulgur, or ‘trahana’ (a traditional dried food ingredient made with a fermented mixture of grain and milk or yogurt). You can even substitute these with other ancient grains like millet or quinoa.

The grains absorb the juices from the ‘pita’ while it cooks and helps bind the mixture.

Sometimes a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs instead of the grains are added to the filling for the same reason.

  • Eggs

They are added in the filling to bind everything together. It can vary from 2 to 6 eggs depending on the type of ‘pites’.

  • Béchamel or semolina

Sometimes ½ to 1 cup of bechamel or cooked semolina is added to the filling before baking to give some creaminess. We see this addition more in the cheese (tiropita) and meat ‘pites’ (kreatopita).

  • Herbs

Parsley, dill, mint, fennel, thyme, rosemary and oregano, are some of the herbs commonly used in Greek phyllo ‘pites’.

  • Spices

The ingredients used in the phyllo pie will indicate the combination of spices added to the mixture. For example, nutmeg goes well with spanakopita whereas a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and/or clove powder is usually added to meat ‘pites’.

Traditional Greek sweet ‘pites’

Yes! ‘Pites’ can also be made sweet. These are just a few of the most popular dishes:

-‘Bougatsa’. This dish is found throughout Greece and is made with crunchy phyllo pastry and a layer of custard or local mizithra cheese.

-The sweet ‘kolokithopita’. This is made with cooked sweet pumpkin, sugar, eggs, nuts, raisins and spices and, after baking, dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon.

-‘Melopita’ is made with fresh mizithra cheese (a soft whey cheese similar to ricotta), honey and cinnamon.

-‘Baklava’ is made with many thin phyllo layers, filled with mixed nuts and spices and, when cooked, soaked in a citrusy syrup.

Phyllo pastry (dough)

Is it easy to make my own phyllo dough?

Of course! When making the Greek traditional phyllo ‘pites’ (phyllo pies), nothing beats kneading, rolling, making and using your own phyllo dough.

Touching, stretching, squeezing and rolling out dough engages all your senses and the whole process from start to finish is rather mesmerising and relaxing. Who wouldn’t want that!

As overwhelming as it sounds, please proceed!  Phyllo dough can be pretty forgiving.

If it breaks or you make a hole while rolling it out, so what? It doesn’t ruin the phyllo; you patch it right up and keep going.

It might not be perfect the first time, but keep practising, and once you gain the knowledge and build the confidence, you will become better at it. Remember that no matter how it looks on the outside, it will still taste delicious!

What flour can I use to make the phyllo dough for the traditional Greek ‘pites’?

Traditionally, hard white flours are used to make the dough. These flours are high in gluten protein resulting in an elastic dough that is easy to roll out to a thin translucent phyllo.

You can also use Stoneground whole wheat flour to make the dough. This flour is more nutritious than white flour. It is rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals because it contains all three grain elements (the bran, the germ and the endosperm).

It gives a heavier texture which tends to weigh down the dough and can result in slightly thicker phyllo when rolled out. Do not despair; you can simply use fewer layers when making the Greek phyllo ‘pita’ ( phyllo pie) because of its thickness.

Alternatively, whole wheat flour can be mixed with all-purpose flour or bakers’ flour in a ratio of 1 to 3 to produce a lighter dough that will make thinner phyllo layers. In this case, you will need around three phyllo layers to cover the bottom of the baking dish and two for the top.

Adding a percentage of whole-grain flour like rye, spelt, einkorn, emmer, khorasan, wheat or barley to the white baker’s flour is also a great way of adding a more deep, rich, nutty flavour to the phyllo. 

Try and source the best unbleached and stoneground flour you can find. Looking for certified organic or flour from biodynamic farming where possible will give you great nutritional goodness.

What are the different types of phyllo pastry used to make the Greek traditional phyllo ‘pites’ ( phyllo pies)?

Traditionally we see different types of phyllo recipes used throughout Greece.

The basic dough recipe of flour, water and olive oil might include additional ingredients such as vinegar, cornflour, mineral water, eggs or yogurt.

By varying the quantities and types of the ingredients added to the flour, you get different phyllo textures. It can be crunchy, soft or crumbly.

I like using extra olive oil and a tablespoon of vinegar when I make my dough as it gives a crunchier phyllo that the kids love.

Others prefer a crumbly phyllo and can achieve this with the addition of yogurt and eggs.

I remember helping Yiayia Maria make the dough for the phyllo. She would make me rub the olive oil into the flour in between my palms (before adding any water) until it was completely absorbed.

It took a little patience which, as a teenager, I didn’t have, but I remember how satisfying it was to see the flour transform into a grainy consistency and resemble wet sand.

Yiayia used to say that this was the secret technique to making the crunchiest phyllo possible, and I still use it today without fail!

Is there an easier way of making the dough?

Traditionally the dough for the Greek phyllo ‘pites’ ( phyllo pies) was kneaded by hand and then used a long tool called a ‘plasti’ to roll out the layers. This was a dowel rod similar to a rolling pin but thin, wooden and long. I even sometimes remember my grandma using a wooden broomstick that she kept only for this reason.

Today we can cheat our way into making the dough without the mess.  A food processor, a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook or a Thermomix can all work well to achieve the same result. At the end of the day, no one likes flour fireworks in their kitchen!

To roll out the dough instead of using the rolling pin, we can use a pasta machine with excellent results.

To do this, you divide the dough into small balls, flatten them with your hand and pass each one through the pasta machine using three different settings, starting from the thickest to the thinnest. You can pass each dough ball through each setting once or twice.

This method will give you nice long strips of phyllo you can cut to size and lay in the baking dish as needed.

When I do decide to make the phyllo myself, I always make extra batches. I divide the dough into individual portions, flatten them out a little, lay them one on top of each other with baking paper in between and freeze them in a container.

Next time I decide to make a ‘pita’, I take the portions I need out of the freezer about an hour before, and when they defrost, I’m ready to roll!

So please give it a go! If you don’t try, you won’t know how well you can do.

I do not have time to make my own dough

It is not the end of the world! You can buy phyllo from your local supermarket and use that to make any of the Greek traditional phyllo ‘pites’ (phyllo pies) with similar results. It is found in the fridge or freezer department and usually packaged in a roll.

If your supermarket doesn’t store it, you can find homemade filo sheets in Mediterranean speciality food stores depending on where you live. The dough has been rolled out into large phyllo sheets, folded and packaged, ready to trim to size and use.

Store-bought phyllo can be a good starting point for less experienced cooks.

Another cheat option when making ‘pites’ is using cornmeal. Only this method is not a modern one.

Traditionally a cornmeal mixture was used instead of phyllo layers to make the different Greek phyllo ‘pites’ ( phyllo pies). Mixed with milk, salt and a little olive oil, it would result in a crumbling dough that will come together when baked. The crumpled cornmeal mixture was spread and pushed onto the baking dish to cover the base and sides like a quiche before filling and baking.

Another way of using cornmeal is mixing it with eggs, olive oil, yogurt and enough water to make a thick batter.

Traditionally they would spread half of the batter on the bottom of the dish, followed by the filling and finished with the rest of the cornmeal batter on top before baking to perfection.

Lastly, if you are making a meat or cheese ‘pita’ and you are short of time, add some extra eggs and a few tablespoons of flour in your ‘pita’ filling and bake it with no top or bottom phyllo layers. Easy done!

Shapes

Traditionally the phyllo sheets are usually laid on the bottom and top of a large baking dish with the filling in-between. When baked, the ‘pita’ is cut into squares or diamond shapes. Sometimes a layer is also added in the middle of the feeling to help the ‘pita’ keep its structure.

You can make individual triangles or ‘cigar’ shapes. Great sizes to pop in the freezer and bake when needed or for school lunches.

Another option is to roll out a large thin, translucent phyllo sheet, spread the filling all over, roll and shape it into a coil. The coiled pita is traditionally called a ‘striftopita’.

Pouches are another great idea. Cut phyllo in 10cm squares. Place feeling in the middle, pull the corners up and twist to close tight.

Some final words

In conclusion, ‘pites’ are so versatile and easy to make with many different options that even an amateur cook can, and should give them a go.

Can make the Greek phyllo  ‘pites’ ( phyllo pies) with just about any leftovers or vegetables that have to be used up and can be a quick, complete meal to feed the family.

Greek phyllo  ‘pites’  can be baked on the day and eaten warm or packed cold for work or school lunches. They can last a few days in the fridge and are a lifesaver for snack time when time is short or when there is nothing else healthy around.

They can even be frozen, cooked or uncooked for a later day.

So what are you waiting for? Check out some of my recipes, and let’s start cooking!

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