For over 20 years, a huge pastry box with printed flowers arrived periodically at our home, containing small, shiny, crispy cheese pies of two mouthfuls each. Beneath the tied ribbon bow (the package arrived always as a wrapped gift), a suppressed, pleasant aroma escaped, the baked pastry and spicy, peppery cheese beginning a conversation with the noses of the people outside of the box, the cheese pies within enclosed and restrained between the paper walls. When the box was opened, half of the content disappeared quickly after repeated samplings! The sender was Grandma Athena ―and these are her famous cheese pies!
When sharing family recipes, the emotion that goes hand in hand with the flavours, evokes a stream of memories (culinary or other), separates them and selectively promotes some of them. As if watching the past fly by like an airplane, you keep what is indisputably useful― images and feelings with ballast, situations and people whose weight is transformed in a molecular way. You carry them with you, not “like the father on the shoulders”, as Kounellis once told me, but like a delicious foam that hides under the apparent neutrality of its myriad bubbles― the ones that are the most special (and often most complex) flavours of life.
Grandma Athena, and everything related to her, are examples of this. Her achievements had less to do with the kitchen and more with books, theatre, travelling and social well-being; her calmness, restraint and kind sense of humour were interwoven with the mildness of her facial expressions, whether serious or smiling.
Then there was the way she enjoyed the little things in life that are usually taken for granted, like a couple of glasses of wine while dining, or, earlier on, a cigarette with coffee. She never had to exaggerate to gain confidence; the pleasurable way in which she socialized until recently with her old friends, men and women; the warmth and love she offered, the assurance that encourages children and grandchildren to open their wings, to make choices and pass through difficulties, helps them to develop and reinforce criteria free from a supposedly polished pretentiousness or from stale soul deficits camouflaged as civilized behaviour.
People and love (when you really love what you do) are the ingredients that make dishes exceptional. The time spent in the kitchen improves skills, but the way we undertake our work shapes the outcome. The simplest dish acquires class if prepared correctly, with devotion and the intention to include among the ingredients love for whatever we prepare.
Grandma Athena’s little crispy cheese pies are easy to make and the homely taste cannot be replaced by any ready-made mass production pie. Forget the pies that pose in the freezers of supermarkets. Dare to prepare your own. The quantity of the recipe makes 70-80 pieces that can be divided into packets of 15-20 pieces and frozen, in order to have them ready for baking on first demand.
Since everyone likes them, if you make them for the first time and there are children in the house, I do not recommend that you prepare less than half of the recipe (30-40 pies). Below you will find the original recipe of Grandma Athena, along with Pandespani’s spicy version. The pastry is made with yogurt and the pies are truly graceful because of their size. Although when smaller it takes longer to prepare them, do not be tempted to make them bigger. Keep them temptingly mignon and cute.
Little crispy cheese pies
Preparation: 45 minutes plus 30 minutes for baking (per pan). If feta cheese is too salty, soak it in water for 1 hour and change water once. If you want to freeze the cheese pies without cooking them, place them in a baking dish to freeze them in a horizontal position and keep their shape, and then transfer into freezer bags. You need a 7-8 cm cutter or glass of the same size. Easy and fun recipe.
Ingredients (for about 80 small cheese pies)
for the dough
250 g butter, melted
1/2 -1 tsp salt
320 g yogurt
500 g self-raising flour
extra flour for rolling out the pastry
1-2 egg yolks, beaten, for brushing
for the filling (follow the ratio ¾ feta cheese and ¼ pecorino-Gruyère)
300 g feta cheese, crumbled with a fork
100 g mixture of pecorino and Gruyère cheese, grated
2 egg yolks
plenty of black pepper
alternative Pandespani’s filling
240 g feta cheese
120 g ricotta cheese
2 heaped tbsps freshly grated Parmezan cheese
½ cup chopped mint or peppermint
Also: white and/or black sesame seeds and poppy seeds for sprinkling (optional)
To prepare the filling: Mash the feta cheese with a fork in a bowl and add all the filling ingredients and plenty of black pepper (no need to be stingy, because it gives a fantastic flavour). Stir to combine well.
Preheat the oven to 180oC.
To make the pastry: Sift the flour into a large bowl and add all the pastry ingredients. Combine well with a wooden spoon until you have a homogeneous dough. Flour lightly a clean work surface and transfer the dough.
Flour lightly the dough and roll out with a rolling pin until approximately 2 mm thick. Cut into 7-8 cm rounds using a cutter or a glass, trying to cut the rounds the one next to the other as close as possible without moving them. Gather the dough around the rounds into a ball and roll out to continue forming rounds with the same way.
To prepare the cheese pies: Line a baking tray with baking paper. Dollop a heaping teaspoon of filling in the centre of each round, then fold over in half, pressing the edges down with a fork to seal. Arrange the pies on a baking tray (help with a knife, if necessary), leaving space between them (approximately 2 cm). Brush the tops with beaten egg yolks to brown top crust and give a glossy shine.
(Optional for Pandespani’s alternative version): Sprinkle on top half of the pies with sesame seeds and the other half with poppy seeds.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes (maximum 30 minutes). In any case, check after 20 minutes.
To serve: Little crispy cheese pies are a perfect appetizer to accompany afternoon tea or simple dinner with a salad which, even if substantial enough, needs a nibble on the side. Also, for the school or the office, or along with another small meze (small meatballs, mini burgers, mini pizzas, etc.) for children’s parties.