The weather in New York City quickly turned to summer this week and my thoughts went straight to my favorite summer destinations.
On today’s episode I wanted to take everyone on a journey to two beautiful Greek island locations that I love the most— My ancestral island of Crete, where so much of my upbringing and traditions come from and the Cyclades islands, where I spent endless summer days and nights exploring my heart and soul and truly finding myself over the years.
The first project today is a quintessential Cretan treat found in dozens— perhaps hundreds— of different variations throughout the island. They’re called “kalitsouni” or “kalitsounakia” and the name comes from several hundred years of Venetian influence when Crete was full of Italians.
You can probably hear the close connection to the Italian “calzone” which morphed over the centuries into the “kaltsouni” or “kalitsouni” as we call it in Hania. Of course, we Cretans add “aki” on the end of everything to make it “tiny” or “small” thus, the KA-LI-TSOU-NA-KI or the tiny calzone.
There are so many variations and even cooking styles. Hania does it one way while in Iraklio, the women swear that theirs is the authentic version. On the west they fry while on the east they bake. Even the fillings vary from place to place.
Kalitsounakia are basically, mini pies, or pites, as we call them in Greek. They’re stuffed with many variations of mixtures, depending upon the season and the varieties of cheese that are available locally. In Hania, sweet, soft mizithra is usually the main ingredient in the cheese versions.
Today, I’m showing how simple these pies are to make– even in a North American kitchen that might be absent of authentic cheeses from the old country.
I used the exact same dough I made for my mom’s Haniotiko Boureki recipe. If you recall, it was a simple mixture of flour, olive oil, water, salt and a shot of raki/tsikoudia or tsipouro. Since publishing that recipe, many of my Cretan friends emailed me and said that if raki isn’t available, the juice of one lemon would also do because it’s the acidity that is needed in the gough mixture. (I am partial to the raki, though).
It’s important to remember that your dough has to “rest” for about an hour after you make it. You can wrap it in plastic wrap and place in the fridge while you make your mixtures.
My simple trick to create 4 different kalitsounaki mixtures:
In a large bowl mix together 1 (15oz) container of Ricotta Cheese, 1 lb Amish Farmer cheese or any kind of simple white goat cheese, a 1/2 lb container of Mascarpone cheese and two dollops of full-fat Greek yogurt. As you’re mixing it with a large form or wooden spoon, make sure the cheeses blend and add a slab of Feta Cheese and crumble and mix well. Once mixed, add about a 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
This main mixture will serve three different pie variations. It’s your “kalitzounaki starter.”
Take 1/3 of the mixture and place in a bowl. Finely chop about 8-10 mint leaves into tiny pieces and mix into the cheese mixture. Blend well. The mint should be little green spots in the cheese. Set aside to allow the min’s flavor time to permeate the cheese.
Take 1/3 of the mixture and set aside, as is, without adding anything. Just put in a bowl and set aside, we’ll get back to this in a bit.
Do the same thing with your remaining 1/3. You can actually leave it in the same bowl you started with. You should now have three separate bowls of white cheese filling. Two of them plain and one with finely chopped mint.
Now, for my favorite part. In a saucepan, add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sauté a finely chopped onion, a finely chopped green onion, a finely chopped leek and finely-chopped fennel root. The fennel is a key ingredient in these pies. These greens are a bit more dense and require some additional cooking than the greens you will add later.
For my greens mixture, I use dandelion greens, lots of fennel, dill, mint, spinach, escarole. The more variety the better and tastier. Once the onions and fennel root has sautéed, Do NOT add water. Just add a drizzle of olive oil into your pan and before you add the greens, sauté a finely chopped onion, a green onion and your finely-chopped fennel root. The fennel is a key ingredient in these pies.
Once the greens are wilted and wet, keep mixing. Add a lot of pepper. Greens need pepper. It helps bring out their flavor. Don’t be afraid of pepper. Add a dash of salt, as well.
This is your greens mixture for your 3rd and 4th variation of kalitsounakia.
The third variation is straight greens. These are called “hortokalitsouna” from the word “horta” which means greens in Greek.
Finally, the fourth variation is a mixture of greens and cheese. Remember those last two bowls of cheese mixture? Mix one of them with half of your greens and you have a tasty greens/cheese mixture.
As a recap, we have 4 variations of Kalitsounakia:
Cheese + mint
Cheese + greens
Now that you’ve done all of that, you can get your dough and start the process of rolling it out into thin (super thin) sheets and cutting out 6-inch rounds. Use a bowl and a knife. As you roll and cut, keep your extra dough covered and keep the rounds that you’ve prepared covered with a lightly-dampened kitchen town. Use flour as needed to keep the dough from getting sticky.
When you fill the pites with their various fillings, be careful not to overfill. You only need about a heaping tablespoon of filling before it’s time to close them up. To close them, it is IMPORTANT to wet with a brush, or your finger, the perimeter of the dough rounds. The water will ensure that the dough sticks when you close it together. Furthermore, use a fork to press together the ends and make a pretty pie. The fork is not only decorative, but it’s practical as it ensures that the pie closes properly and your filling doesn’t ooze out during cooking.
For preparation, you can fry them in oil (the traditional way) or you can bake them in the oven until they are golden brown. I baked mine at 400f for about 20-25 minutes. If you’re cooking them in the oven, add a brush of beaten egg and sesame seeds.
My absolute FAVORITE variation of these kalitsounakia are the cheese pies (no mint) fried and then drizzled with Cretan honey. I can’t describe the taste of the cheese pies. They scream “summers in Crete” and were a regular treat. Many restaurants actually serve these as dessert after meals. Obviously, you need the right kind of honey– preferably pure Cretan honey that’s bursting in thyme flavor.
Click here to order your own thyme honey harvested high up in the mountains of Sfakia on the island of Crete.
*Note, you can make bulk quantities of these and freeze them. My mom had Tupperware containers full of these in the freezer and popped them out every time we’d have guests.
Karpouzopita (Watermelon Pie) from Kimolos
This is a traditional dessert in the Cyclades Islands and especially prevalent on Milos and Kimolos. I visited Kimolos last summer and stayed at a wonderful family-run hotel by Aria Hotels where they served Karpouzopita throughout the day, in the restaurants, at breakfast.
Honey is the main sweetener and key ingredient in this dish and it’s imperative that you use the very best quality honey in the world, which in my opinion is pure Cretan honey. I have sourced some orders from a Cretan family from the rugged mountains of Sfakia, just south of where my parents grew up. Click here to order authentic, healthy pure Cretan honey which will add so much important flavor to this pie.
- 3 1/3 cup diced watermelon
- 1 cup flour
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup honey
- 2 Tbsp sugar
- 1 Tbsp Semolina Flour
- Sesame seeds
Shell and clean a watermelon. Remove all seeds. With your hands, break up (do not mash into a puree!) the watermelon into small chunks, about an inch in diameter.
Set aside in a strainer to remove the liquids. Do NOT press or mash the watermelon. Let it strain naturally, while retaining some of its essential liquids. Save the watermelon juice for a refreshing drink later! You should strain your watermelon for about an hour.
Once strained and you’re ready to start your preparation process, pre-heat your oven to 180c (350f).
In a large mixing bowl, add your watermelon and flour and mix well. The watermelon will start breaking up even more and will help create a liquid dough.
Add the olive oil and honey and keep mixing. When the dough is mixed, add the sugar and sprinkle with cinnamon. Keep mixing until the ingredients have blended.
Drizzle the bottom of a round cake pan with olive oil and sprinkle some farina to lightly cover the bottom of the pan.
Pour in your dough. The height of the pie shouldn’t exceed about an inch.
Sprinkle the top with sesame seeds.
Bake at 180 c / 350 f for 50-60 minutes.
Serve hot or warm with drizzled honey. You can also place the pita in the fridge for later and serve cold, although it has a different flavor when it’s cold (still tasty, though!)
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