During Greek Carnival — the festive four-week period before the start of Lent — food, fun and fantasy run amok. Pagan rituals are everywhere, despite the Christian ethos of the period. In Tyrnavos, a town in Thessaly, on the mainland, the last weekend of Carnival is an orgiastic revelry during which partiers cavort with phallic symbols prominently hanging from all sorts of unexpected places. Patras, Greece’s third largest city, is our own Rio, alive with floats and wildly costumed participants.
But it’s in the food that I find the most interest, because the Carnival table, meant to provide the means to wean Greeks off meat and dairy, is also rife with more than a few hints of a pagan past. Festivities heat up as the final days draw near, and food plays a significant role in many of the rituals surrounding this ancient fest. Carnival, or apokries, meaning “away from meat,” is happening now and will end the day before the start of Lent, which is tellingly called “Clean Monday.” This year, Clean Monday is on March 7. (Other food traditions are part of that holiday.)
Greeks don’t have a Fat Tuesday, per se, but they do have a Smokey Thursday, which occurs during the third week of Carnival. On Smokey Thursday — Tsiknopempti — meat is indulged in, with a special emphasis on grilled chops and other cuts suitable for a barbecue. Since most Greeks don’t barbecue at home, Tsiknopempti is one of the busiest restaurant days of the year.
Most of Carnival specialties are made during the final week, when cheese and dairy are embraced in preparation for the 40 days of Lenten abstention — many Greeks still observe the period’s tradtional rigorous fast. Cheese pies and egg noodles with grated cheese and butter are the two most common, and simplest, dishes during the last week of Carnival, which culminates in a holiday called Cheese Sunday (March 6 this year), when the regional kitchen is a treasure trove of delicious dairy-based specialties.
Phyllo Cheese Pies
Buttery phyllo-wrapped cheese pies — savory and sweet — come in countless variations from all over the country. In some areas, such as Crete, most of these pies are more like crepes or cheese-filled pancakes than veritable pies. They usually contain one or more local island cheeses, especially a soft, sour fermented rendition called xinomyzithra, and its sweet cousin, the soft, spreadable myzithra. Many of these pies are drizzled with Cretan thyme honey before serving.
One of my favorite such recipes is for the “water” myzithra pies, which require a certain skill to prepare — and water! You need to keep your hands wet to handle the sticky, yeasty dough easily. This you shape into small balls and fill with cheese — that famous but hard to find myzithra — all with a quick economy of movement before flattening the pie in the palms of your hand and dropping it into a frying pan filled with hot Cretan olive oil. What results looks like a pancake and is invariably drizzled with honey. Similar skillet pies from Crete include one called “Virgin Pie” (reason unknown to every Greek food historian I asked) and another called Sfakiani Pita (pita means pie in Greek), from the southern prefect of Sfakia. These are as thin as crepes and now come frozen for Athenians like me who want to be able to make them without fuss.
Whether it’s Carnival time or not, cheese pies are a huge part of the Greek kitchen, with roots in the country’s shepherds’ traditions. On Crete, indeed on many of the islands, most pies, cheese-filled and not, are cooked in a skillet because olive oil was plentiful but forests — hence wood for ovens — were not. But on the mainland and in the north of Greece, baked pies are the norm. Epirus, in the northwestern part of the country, is home to the largest variety of pies made with cheese and other dairy products. (One specialty is the intriguing “milk” pie, which is made with a kind of custard that can either be savory or sweet and is usually made more substantial with the addition of rice or trahana, a grain preparation made by mixing cracked wheat or flour with one of several dairy products, drying the mass in the sun, and breaking it up into small pebbly pieces.
Pasta is another Carnival specialty all over Greece, and there are ancient reasons why. Macaroni (yes, it’s a Greek word), was the food cooked in honor of the dead (makarioi). In fact, the funerary meal is called the Makaria to this day. Carnival has its roots in the pagan traditions surrounding the death and rebirth of nature. In ancient Greece, it was believed that the dead came back to earth in the spring, when everything flourishes. In their honor, foods that were essentially primitive macaroni, sometimes nothing more than dough strips grilled on stone griddles, were prepared.
Nowadays, pasta is consumed with great delight in the week before Lent, and especially on Cheese Sunday. The array of Greek regional pasta dishes is surprising, especially to most non-Greeks who probably don’t associate the country with the tradition. There is a huge gamut of regional pasta shapes and an even larger selection of recipes.
One of my favorites is from the island of Kassos. The dish is called makarounes and it consists of ziti-like local pasta served with caramelized onions, browned butter and a sour yogurt-like cheese called sitaka (Greek yogurt is a suitable substitute). I first published the recipe in “The Glorious Foods of Greece” and it was picked up by two writers I respect tremendously: Amanda Hesser in a New York Times article when the book came out and, more recently, Amy Sedaris in “I Like You. Hospitality Under the Influence.”
All sorts of cheese-filled ravioli-type pasta is made on Cheese Sunday, from the ravioles of Cyprus to the manti of the Black Sea Greeks. Then there is the slew of macaroni pies, sometimes nothing more than pastitsio (baked pasta, ground meat and bechamel) wrapped in phyllo, but potentially as elaborate as the baroque Pastitsio Venetsianiko of Corfu, a throwback to the Venetians’ rule on the island. This is a dish filled with bits of cheese and cured or cooked meats and was typically made in a pan as tall as a top hat.
Lots of starch and dairy play out in tasty duets all during Carnival, but pasta or phyllo with meat also have a place. Meat pies and meat-stuffed pasta abound. One of the most unusual recipes is for the passa (from the Greek pahia, which means fat) makaron of Kos, which calls for blanching sheets of pastry before placing them between layers of meat and cheese, then baking.
“Wet” Cheese Pies From Sitia
Makes 8-10 pies
Ingredients for the dough
Ingredients for the filling
To make the dough:
- In a cup, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and set aside for five minutes.
- Place the orange juice, water and ⅓ cup of olive oil in a large bowl. Add one cup of flour and the salt. Slowly add as much of the remaining flour to form a very soft, sticky dough. Knead, adding the remaining olive oil, as you work the dough. Set the dough aside in a warm, draft-free place and let rise for two hours. It will be very spongy.
To make the filling:
- Mash the cheese with the water and set aside.
To make the pies:
You’ll need to be near the sink, with the faucet running in a slow, steady stream.
- Heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Wet your hands and scoop up a handful of dough about the size of a small orange. Flatten the dough in the palm of your hands, wetting it a little more and patting the dough between both palms to flatten to a disk about four inches in diameter.
- Place a heaping tablespoon of filling in the center of the dough.
- With wet hands, pull up the periphery of the dough and place it over and around the cheese. With continuously wet hands, flatten the myzithropita by patting it gently between both palms, and — always with wet hands — pat it back and forth between both palms to flatten. It should be about one and a half inches thick.
- Place the pie seamside down, in the hot dry skillet. Wet the back of your hand and, using the back side of your fist, press the dough and spread it in the skillet so that it takes up the entire pan. Fry over medium heat until the bottom is golden. flip the pie onto a plate and slip back in the skillet, to fry on the other side. Remove when the bottom is golden and serve, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. The whole process shouldn’t take more than five minutes. Continue with remaining dough and cheese. Serve warm.
Kassos Makarounes With Sitaka
Pasta With Caramelized Onions and Sheep’s Milk Cheese
- Heat the olive oil or butter in a large, heavy non-stick skillet over medium-high heat and add the onion. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and golden brown, 20-30 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta to desired doneness. Using a large ladle, remove and set aside 2 cups of the pasta’s cooking liquid. Place the sitaka or yogurt in a medium bowl, add half the cooking liquid and whisk until smooth. Add more cooking liquid if necessary. Strain the pasta and toss with the sitaka or yogurt mixture.
- Serve on individual plates or on a serving platter, topped with the caramelized onions and their juices.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photo: Nerates Myzithropites (Greek “wet” cheese pies). Credit: Vassilis Stenos