Cheese Pie: An Exercise in Crispy Cheesey Deliciousness

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Greeks call it tiropita. The Romanians call it placinta. Americans call it cheese pie. However you want to call it, you can all agree it's yummy. It's fatty. And you adore every crispy phyllo bite of it knowing that.

Quite simply made, it involves layer upon layer of buttered phyllo dough (the butter's what turns it crispy in the oven so don't skimp!) with a salty soft cheesey middle. The filling can vary and every Mediterranean and Eastern European family has its own version; this one's the recipe my mom makes for Easter every year. Simple ricotta cheese is mixed with salty feta ("French...imported...the best"), eggs, some more salt and a small amount of very finely ground black pepper for a great basic cheese pie. Greek versions are a bit better in my opinion because they use a combination of cheeses to really get a depth of flavor, but this recipe is perfect for a basic platform you can spring off of with different cheese and even herb combinations. The entire assembly of the pie takes less than 10 minutes and can be made up to a day even in advance. You can even bake it off a day ahead and reheat, but it's really at its best eaten freshly made.

We eat this pie cut into large square chunks and served with a side salad with vinaigrette. It's wonderful with a hot cup of tea on a cold rainy day or with a cold glass of white wine on a hot summer one. Enjoy!

Basic Cheese Pie
1 package phyllo dough (recommend: Athens brand)
1 stick unslated butter, melted
12 oz ricotta cheese (choose your skim -- doesn't matter)
1 cup good quality feta cheese (recommend Valbreso brand), crumbled by hand or roughly chopped
4 extra-large eggs
pinch of salt*
small pinch of finely ground black pepper

special equipment:
pastry brush for brushing the phyllo
rectangular pan (lasagna size or brownie size work well for this) -- you want the dough to fit easily

the filling should be thick and very creamy; don't worry if it has lumps!

First make the filling. Place the ricotta cheese, feta cheese, eggs, salt and pepper into a large mixing bowl. Then using a hand-held mixer fitted with the paddle attachments, combine the ingredients into a thick filling. You can also do this by hand using a fork, but the electric mixer is really a lot easier. Set aside.

Brush the bottom and sides of your baking pan with some of the butter. Lay one piece of the phyllo dough into the bottom of the pan, smoothing it out gently with your hands. Carefully brush the top with some butter, then lay another piece of dough on top. Brush again with butter, another layer of dough, and keep repeated until you've used half of the packaged dough. Then gently pour the filling all at once into one even layer, leaving about 1/2 inch border around the perimeter of the pan. This allows room for the filling to expand when cooking so it won't burn on the sides.

for added protetion you can position some of the dough layers to come up the sides of the pan and then simply fold them back over on the pastry before adding the final couple of layers on top

Top the filling with a piece of phyllo dough and gently brush it again with butter. Repeat the dough-butter process again until you use up all of the dough.

Then taking a sharp pairing knife, gently cut into the pastry and through the filling but not all the way through (you want to go about halfway through). This step isn't required but will make it much easier to cut when the pastry is baked and crispy.

Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 40 minutes or until top is golden brown and crispy and filling is bubbling. Depending on how strong your oven is, if you see the top is burning then gently cover it with aluminum foil, bake covered until the filling is bubbling hot, remove the foil and bake open until top is crisped a couple of minutes. Let stand at least 10 minutes before cutting so the filling can set. To cut, simply slice through the slits you've made already this time all the way through to the bottom. A spatula helps remove the pieces easily. Enjoy piping hot or at room temperature.

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