Butter: The shepherds’ fat of choice (and a recipe for Tiropita, a savory cheese pie)

Photo credit: Alise Sjostrom

One of many dishes made in the village using touloumotiri, the cheese I described in my past two blog posts, is tiropita, or cheese pie. Since touloumotiri is difficult to find outside of Greece (and, indeed, authentic touloumotiri is difficult to find within Greece), feta makes for a good substitute. There are many varieties of pites (pies) in Greece, both savory and sweet, and many recipes for tiropites made with many different types of cheese. This recipe calls for several cheeses: feta as its base, ricotta or, preferably, the Greek cheese, anthotiro, and parmesan or kefalograviera to add sharpness and depth.

To make this pita, you may use store-bought phyllo dough. For a more rustic pie, try making your own phyllo. (This recipe, from an article I wrote for the magazine, AFAR, is delicious.)

The use of the other fat in this recipe—butter—may come as a surprise for anyone familiar with Greek cookery, for isn’t olive oil the predominant fat used in healthy Mediterranean cooking? Yes and no. Most of my neighbors in coastal Poulithra, where olive trees grow prolifically, use olive oil in their pies. But the shepherd families in the mountain villages above us use quite a lot of butter in their cooking because, for them, butter is more common than olive oil. Olive trees don’t generally grow well at high altitude and, of course, shepherds have access to quite a lot of milk, so butter tends to be one of their fats of choice. The cheesemaker I wrote about last week, Thomae, makes butter nearly every day using milk from her flocks of goats and sheep.

And so, a recipe for Tiropita:

Ingredients:

  • 1 (1 lb) package frozen phyllo dough or your own, handmade dough
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup flour
  • 1⁄3 cup milk
  • 6 eggs
  • ¾ lb feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 cup grated parmesan or kefalograviera cheese
  • 2 cups ricotta (or anthotiro)
  • 8 ounces butter, melted

Directions:

  1. Thaw phyllo dough completely. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Melt the 6 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan.
  3. Whisk in the flour and cook slightly (1-2 minutes).
  4. Slowly whisk in the milk. Over medium heat, whisk constantly, until sauce thickens. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  5. Whisk the eggs into the sauce one at a time and stir in the cheeses.
  6. Grease a 13 by 9 inch baking dish.
  7. One sheet at a time, layer 6 sheets of phyllo dough in the baking dish and brush the top layer generously with butter.
  8. Add 1/2 of cheese filling.
  9. Layer 3 more sheets of phyllo (brushing each one with butter) and then top with remaining cheese filling.
  10. Finally, layer 6 sheets of phyllo on top (brushing each one with butter) and fold the edges decoratively.
  11. Brush the top with remaining butter.
  12. Score the pie’s top carefully with the point of a sharp knife, just cutting through the pastry into the size of pieces you will want to serve. (Only cut through the top layers of pastry; do not cut all the way down to the bottom layer.)
  13. Bake for about 45 minutes to one hour, or until golden brown. Let cool to room temperature.
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14 thoughts on “Butter: The shepherds’ fat of choice (and a recipe for Tiropita, a savory cheese pie)

  1. tiropita is such a perfect food isn’t it? I hope I have a chance to try touloumotiri some day. On the island where we lived (Folegandros), they had a local cheese called souroto, which was heavenly. It was also illegal though, because none of the cheesemakers met the EU regulations, so you couldn’t buy it, you could only barter for it (though some restaurants do have it on their menus). I think souroto just might be my favorite Greek cheese. The variety in cheese here is amazing, especially when you think about how small Greece is geographically.

    The butter at high elevation thing makes a great deal of sense. I live in the plains (but close to very high mountains) and butter is almost unavailable here (and prohibitively expensive for almost everyone) but olive oil is practically given away.

    • Heidi, souroto sounds so intriguing! In the US, too, so many good cheeses aren’t legal to sell. I have one friend, a cheesemaker in Wisconsin, who sells her raw-milk sheep’s cheese (incredibly, award winning stuff) as “fish food” at her local farmers’ market. If she sold it as cheese, she’d be in trouble. I think it’s the most expensive fish food I’ve seen!

      The diversity of cheeses in Greece is truly amazing. I’m only just beginning to learn about them. Any and all suggestions enthusiastically welcomed!

      xo!

  2. YUM! can’t wait to make it…wish i had some REAL feta to use. or a goat, then i could make it myself! thanks for sharing!

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  4. I remember trying this or a version of this for the first time in Metsovo a mountain village in Greece. It was in a snail shape and its flavours are haunting.

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