When you think of traditional Greek cookery, you may not think of pasta as one of its main staples. I didn’t…until fairly recently, that is. Since then, I’ve learned that there are dozens of varieties of handmade Greek pastas and even more recipes that use pasta as an ingredient.
Just how long has pasta been a part of the Greek larder? Some claim it’s been a staple since ancient times. Others say it’s been just a few centuries. For the food history geeks among us (myself included), this discussion from the writer and historian, Clifford Wright, is interesting and persuasive.
Some Greek pastas are a simple mixture of flour, water, and salt; others contain eggs and goat’s or ewe’s milk. Until recently, before refrigeration became common in the Greek kitchen (and for some of our friends, the refrigerator is a fairly new addition to their suite of household appliances), egg and milk-based pastas served as a way to preserve those items.
Like trahana, cheese, and paximadia, pasta is a staple many of our region’s village cooks prepare in volume over the summer to set aside for the winter ahead. In Greece, everything (still) has a season and pasta is no exception: in late summer the milk from the villagers’ herds is still plentiful and the air is warm enough to dry the noodles sufficiently for storage, thus late summer is, for many, the season to make pasta.
It was on one such warm summer day that Vincenzo and I ventured into the mountains above Leonidio to visit my friend, Thomae Kattei. She planned to make two pastas that day—hilopites and goges—and had invited us to watch.
Made with eggs, milk and whole-wheat flour, hilopites are a dried pasta, usually cut into small squares. In the village kitchen, they are often served topped with browned ewe’s or goat’s butter and cheese, typically myzithra, an unpasteurized cheese made from a combination of milk and whey, or touloumotiri. Hilopites are also used in soups and stews. My children’s favorite way to eat them will likely never be found in a Greek cookbook: it’s the way my mother prepares them—in a chicken or vegetable broth spiked with a squeeze of lemon juice and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes.
Like many of the home cooks I’ve met in Greece, Thomae is an extraordinary pasta maker. And on that beautiful summer morning on her farm outside the village of Vaskina, it was a pleasure to watch her work the dough so deftly, using a long dowel-like rolling pin to ease it into culinary perfection.
For me, the pleasure was even greater knowing the wheat, milk and eggs she used to make the pasta came from her farm. I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again: Thomae is the walking, talking, paximadia-cheese-and-phyllo-making definition of a locavore. And, she’s not alone. Many of the women and men in this region live this way: growing, foraging and cooking nearly all of the food they eat. As I’ve written in the past, eating locally is not a movement or trend here in rural Greece; it’s simply the way it has always been.
This is Thomae’s recipe for hilopites. As with nearly every dish I’ve encountered in Greece, the ingredients vary from cook to cook. In Thomae’s case, they vary from day to day, depending on the amount of milk and eggs her goats and chickens have given her. If you don’t like the flavor or texture of pasta made with whole-wheat flour, feel free to use a mix of whole-wheat and unbleached white flours. Experiment until you find the combination that tastes best to you.
5 cups goat’s or ewe’s milk
2 tbsp. salt
5 cups whole wheat flour (or a mix of unbleached white flour and whole-wheat flour) plus enough to bring the dough to its desired consistency
Olive oil for oiling hands and bowl
Flour for rolling out and cutting the dough
Place 5 cups of the flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, milk, and salt.
Using a wooden spoon, combine the ingredients. Continue to stir, gradually adding enough flour as you stir to make a dough that is stiff, but not dry. Remove the dough from the bowl and place it on a clean work surface dusted with flour. Knead the dough, incorporating flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands. Continue kneading until the dough is elastic and springy to the touch, about 10-15 minutes.
Cut the dough into three pieces. Lightly oil your hands and then shape the pieces into balls.
Knead each ball again for approximately one minute. Place the balls into an oiled bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Let the dough rest, unrefrigerated, for 30 minutes.
Lightly sprinkle a large workspace with flour. (Thomae uses her kitchen table covered with a clean plastic tablecloth.) With the heel of your hand, flatten a ball of dough and then dust it with flour. Using a dowel (a typical rolling pin is too small), which you have also dusted with flour, “open” or roll the dough into a large thin round, approximately 1 millimeter thick.
Place the round on a large, clean surface lightly dusted with flour. (Thomae uses a bed covered with a clean cotton sheet.)
Allow the round to rest while you roll out the remaining balls of dough. They will dry slightly; this is a good thing as it will make cutting the dough into hilopites a much easier task.
When you have “opened” all three balls of dough, place the first round on your workspace, dust it with flour, and roll it completely around your dowel.
Using a paring knife, cut the dough lengthwise into a long sheet of pasta.
Remove the dowel from the sheet of pasta and cut it into ribbons approximately one centimeter wide.
Then, cut the ribbons into the traditional hilopita shape. This, of course, varies from cook to cook, too. Some make them a square of approximately one centimeter each; others, like Thomae, prefer them to be slightly rectangular.
Scatter the hilopites on the bed to dry.
(If you find it is difficult to cut the dough while it is on the dowel, work with it on the table instead. In this case, you will fold the rounds of dough in half, and then in half again. Cut the dough into long sheets and then proceed as above. Be sure to lightly flour the rounds of dough first so they don’t stick together when they are folded.)
Depending on the air temperature and humidity, it can take up to one week for the hilopites to dry completely. Once they have dried, they can be stored an air-tight glass container for up to six months.
A note on “opening” or rolling out the dough:
“Opening” is the word Greeks use for rolling dough, be it for pasta or pita. As Thomae explained, when you think of it, “opening” is a better word than “rolling” for the goal is to stretch the dough rather than to smash or roll it. When you use a dowel to work the dough, the key, according to Thomae, is to use a light, quick touch, moving your hands along the length of the stick rather than leaving them in one position.
That day at Thomae’s, I tried my hand at opening the dough and I found the process difficult to say the least. As they watched me fumble with the dowel, Thomae and Vincenzo shared a good laugh. “It takes practice, kamari mou (my pride),” Thomae said, as she gently removed the dowel from my hands. “Now, go sit down and drink your mastiha.”
As usual, all photos were taken by my partner in life, crime, and in seeking out good food, Vincenzo Spione.