Epirus, Land of Mystery and Makaronopita - Click to Enlarge Image
Last summer, my wife and I decided to explore Northern Greece. So, we rented a car in Athens and added 3600 kilometres to its odometer in the course of our excursion. Traveling from Thessaloniki, we entered the region of Epirus by highway from the east, over and through the Pindus mountain range which forms the rooftop and backbone of the northwestern end of the Greek mainland. This corner of Greece remains a wild country; isolated, mountainous, heavily forested and sparsely populated. There is still a hint of primeval mystery that permeates the fresh clean air of Epirus, something like the coolness of an evening shade borne upon the winds throughout the region.
If there are still undiscovered curiosities in Greece, rest assured, they lie hidden among the ethereal morning hazes and the deep wooded ravines of Epirus. As far back as the archaic days of its semi-barbaric status as a hinterland of the Ancient Greek world, Civilization has always had a tenuous foothold in the region. Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, was originally from Epirus and the tales of her savage and unrefined behaviour are the stuff of legend. Today, sizable parts of Epirus remain wild and largely inaccessible by conventional transportation, making the countryside a veritable hiker's paradise. If outdoor sports appeal to you, or if you are looking for tourist-free antiquities (like the site of Dodoni) and unfrequented pristine coastlines, Epirus has it all and then some…
Makaronopita on display - Click to Enlarge Image
For the gourmand, Epirus offers up a wide range of pastoral and natural bounties. Mountainside, stream and fold are mainstays of the Epirote table. From beef and dairy cattle, to sheep and goats, to wild game and fresh water fishing; the specialties of the countryside and coast of Epirus reflect the alpine character of its physical geography. No other region in Greece produces more meat or traditional dairy products. Epirote meals are typically rich and hearty and there is a particular emphasis on pitas (or pies) in this regional Greek cuisine. This specific pita recipe is from the southeast corner of Epirus, near the inland city of Arta.
Interior of sliced Makaronopita - Click to Enlarge Image
Makaronopita simply means “macaroni pie”. The return on presentation points, along with the creamy piquant smoky flavour of this specialty Greek food makes it well worth the effort of its preparation. If you want to make an unforgettable impression on your next dinner group, give this recipe a try. You and your guests will not be disappointed.
A slice of Makaronopita - Click to Enlarge Image
†A couple of notes about the ingredients for this recipe:
- The Greek cheese known as Metsovóne (Μετσοβόνε, pronounced met-soh-VOH-neh) is a smoked semi-hard cheese of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) within the European Union. [Used in conjunction, these terms describe foodstuffs which are locally produced and prepared in a given geographical area using recognized traditional expertise and methods.] This particular cheese has a slightly pungent flavour which results from its fire-smoked curing process. If you cannot obtain this cheese (though I do recommend you try), then a superior quality smoked Gouda may be used as a substitute.
- Sheep’s milk (as opposed to cow’s milk) Graviera is a hard Greek cheese made according to traditional methods and it has a slightly sweet and mild flavour; if you cannot find it in your area you may try using a mild Gruyère instead (though again, I recommend using the original Greek product whenever possible).
- The addition of the sun-dried tomatoes and Kalamata olives in this recipe is a variation of my own and they are not necessary elements in the original preparation. In the main, this dish is essentially a slightly spicy and mildly smoky three cheese macaroni pie in a phyllo pastry shell. If there are specific savoury ingredients you wish to add, feel free to experiment according to your tastes.
- Authentic reproduction of the original recipe demands homemade phyllo pastry dough, though in the interest of saving time, I used store bought phyllo leaves instead.
1 lb. (½ kg.) crumbled Greek feta cheese
½ lb. (¼ kg.) grated Metsovóne cheese (†see preceding notes)
½ lb. (¼ kg.) grated sheep’s milk Graviera cheese (†see preceding notes)
1 package (500 gr.) Greek Pastitsio No. 2 Macaroni (tubular thick pasta strands)
½ cup (125 ml.) of evaporated full cream milk
½ cup (125 ml.) of unsalted butter
¼ cup (60 ml.) of Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 tbsp. (15 ml.) red pepper flakes
*Small handful of pitted and chopped Kalamata olives
*Several chopped Greek sun-dried tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
- Boil pasta in a large pot of salted water for 15 minutes (as directed on package).
- When cooked, put pasta in a colander and run it under cold water and then strain well and set aside for thirty minutes to drain thoroughly. Using your hand, mix the pasta up several times as it sits to ensure as complete a draining as possible since we do not want a runny finished product.
- Once the pasta has drained, transfer it to a large mixing bowl, add the olive oil and mix well with your hands to ensure the olive oil gets everywhere and to gently separate any pasta strands which may have clung together as they drained.
- Blend the four eggs and the evaporated milk together and add to the mixing bowl with the pasta and mix it up to ensure full saturation.
- Add the grated/shredded Metsovóne and Graviera cheeses, along with some fresh ground pepper and the red pepper flakes, then mix well for a complete covering of the macaroni strands in the mix.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan and using a pastry brush, coat the inside of a deep-walled baking dish, preferably stoneware crockery (I used a 2.5 litre round Corningware® casserole dish). Line the casserole dish with an overlarge sheet of parchment paper with the edges hanging out to serve as handles for ease of removing the pie when cool.
- Spread out the phyllo leaves and cover them with a slightly moist kitchen towel to keep them from drying out as you work. Working quickly but with a sure hand, brush the parchment paper with the butter and form fit the first phyllo leaf into the dish with the excess pastry hanging over the edges of the dish. Then, after brushing the interior of the dish again (as well as the excess portions of projecting phyllo) with butter, add the next phyllo leaf in a crosswise fashion and form fit this into the dish as well, then brush it with the butter and proceed to use another six phyllo leaves to line the bottom and sides of the dish. Lay them out in a star shaped (or flower) pattern and form fit each phyllo leaf within the interior of the dish. Make sure to brush each layer thoroughly with the butter both within the dish and over the top-facing surfaces of the projecting edges of each layer. Be gentle when working with the phyllo leaves as you line the dish; they are quite forgiving for such thin pastry, but you must use them loosely when conforming each to fit into the shape of the dish in order to avoid tearing them. The pie’s final pastry shell should not have any holes so take care as you line the dish with the phyllo sheets.
- When the dish has been completely lined with the phyllo sheets, proceed to add a third of the prepared pasta mix to the dish and spread it evenly making sure to avoid any empty pockets. Then add half of any (*optional) savoury ingredients i.e., sun-dried tomatoes and/or olives, and then layer half of the required crumbled feta cheese overtop. Proceed to add another third of the pasta mix to the dish and spread it evenly to ensure there are no empty pockets. Repeat layer of feta cheese (and any optional savoury elements). Add final third of the pasta mix to the dish and spread it evenly. The pasta mix will likely end up stacking higher than the top edge of the dish and that is exactly what we want for the finished dome effect of our pie.
- Fold the (hopefully still soft and flexible) excess edges of the phyllo sheets back over the outer edge of the layered pasta and give this outer ring of phyllo ends a good brushing with butter. The butter will act as a bonding agent for the covering layers of phyllo such that the top layer of phyllo will seamlessly adhere to the leaves which line the dish.
- Cover the entire dish with a phyllo sheet and fold the excess phyllo back over towards the centre of the dish making sure to brush the phyllo with butter. Lay another phyllo sheet crosswise overtop of the first top layer and repeat folding and brushing process. Use another two sheets of phyllo in the same fashion.
- Using a butter knife, and following all around the rim edge of the dish, gently push the slightly protruding edges of the top layers of phyllo down within the top edge of the dish, and then brush this outer perimeter liberally with butter.
- Once a seamless top layer effect has been achieved and the pie is fully covered with phyllo, beat the remaining egg and brush it over the top of the pie; this will serve to give the top layer a golden-brown appearance when cooked.
- Place casserole dish in an oven pre-heated to 350° F. (180° C.) and bake for 45 minutes. If the top of the pie browns too quickly, or appears as if it will burn, simply cover it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil and leave to bake fully.
- Remove pie from oven and leave to cool for at least one hour (if not longer) before cutting. For myself, I prefer to let the pie cool completely, refrigerate it, and then serve it the next day after warming it up slightly in the oven. Like Melitzanes Tylichtes, Moussaka, Imam Bayildi, and a whole host of other Greek food recipes, this dish is best served on the following day when all the flavours have had a chance to mingle and fully coalesce, and all the moisture has been absorbed.
- Before cutting and serving, lift the pie out of the dish by using the edges of the parchment paper as handles. Starting from the centre, use a sharp serrated-edge steak knife to carefully cut the pie into wedge shaped slices for serving.
Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit)
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.