Cheese-filled pastries are popular all over Greece, and every region of Greece has its own version of this classic pastry. It can be served sweet or savoury, depending on the filling. In Crete, these are generically known as kalitsounia. One of the many variations of this pastry is a fried sweet. It doesn't take long to make, as long as you use shop-bought pastry. It is a traditional dessert often served at the end of a traditional feast of pilafi and lamb roast, but in my house, we eat it as an evening snack. Because you can freeze it, you can whip it up during unexpected food crises. Use only thick filo (phyllo) pastry for this recipe. I never make the pastry myself; there are shops in Hania which sell two thicknesses of filo pastry: the thin variety that is used in multiple layers for sweets such as baklava, and the thin variety that is used in single layers for pie and pastry dishes. I don't ever use the thin variety as it must be oiled or buttered between layers, so it makes a much more fattening dish. I prefer to eat this kind of pastry only from a takeaway shop or a dessert restaurant, a once-in-a-while treat. Fresh filo pastry can be frozen when you buy it, or prepared with a filling and then frozen, as for this recipe. It also keeps successfully for 10 days in the fridge. This is why I never freeze it myself - I have access to it any time I want.
The pastry can be bought in large sheets to use in pie dishes, or small squares or rounds for making smaller pastries and pies. If you buy it in large sheets, cut the sheet of thick filo pastry into small rectangles, and put it aside. Cover it with a cloth so that it doesn't dry out while you're preparing the cheese mixture. If you really want to make your own, just check out kalofagas - I'm sure you'll come running to ask me where I get my own supplies.
The kind of cheese you need for this sweet is mizithra, the Cretan equivalent of ricotta, a soft white curd cheese. Only this kind of cheese can be used. Supermarket cottage cheese is far too soggy, while cream cheese (Philadelphia-style) is far too creamy and does not have the right taste. Processed cheeses are never used in traditional Cretan cooking. All cultures have their own form of cheese; Crete has its own varieties. Processed cheeses belong to the same culture as milkshake. Another kind of cheese is also known as mizithra in mainland Greece, but it bears no resemblance to the Cretan type. It is a hard creamy-coloured bland cheese, used mainly in dishes requiring grated cheese. It is not part of Cretan cooking.
Mix a fistful of semolina into about 500g of mizithra - a ricotta-style cottage cheese - this is to remove any excess dampness. The best way to do this is by hand. An electric mixer will only cause more strife, as the sticky mixture needs to be scraped off the blades. Some people also add finely chopped fresh mint to the mixture, but this is a matter of taste; I never use herbs myself in sweets. You can also add one egg too. I sometimes do this when I don't have enough mizithra in the house, or the mizithra is very soft (meaning that it will contain a higher level of water), as this helps the cheese mixture to bind better. It does not alter the taste very much.
Using a teaspoon, place a small amount of cheese mix onto the middle of a piece of pastry, leaving clean pastry all around the cheese mix. Roll up the pastry around the cheese mix and twist the edges of the pastry to make the roll look like a wrapped boiled sweet. These twists make a spectacular dessert at the end of a formal meal. If you find that the pastry cracks at the edges and you can't twist them (this happens to me too, when I buy low quality supermarket pastry), fold up the edges instead and seal them with a dab of water round the edges. This pastry is going to be fried. It is not suitable for oven baking - the Greek cheese pastries that are baked are usually thin-filo cheese-filled triangles.
At this stage, the pastries - which we prefer to call kalitsouni (from calzone, reminding us of our Venetian history) rather than tiropitaki (meaning 'small cheese pie'), as that is the Cretan word for a small fried or baked pastry - can be frozen or put in the fridge to be cooked at a later time. They should be placed individually on a flat baking sheet to freeze. After that, they are easily collected together and placed into a plastic bag. I do this all the time. It is time-consuming and messy to make this pastry; the flour from the filo dusts any surface it touches, especially your hands and clothes. It goes mushy when damp. Then the cheese mixture needs to be scraped off your hands and the mixing bowl. To top it all off, you need to use a frying pan, and no matter how careful you are, hot oil spits, so you'll need to clean your benchtop afterwards. It's better that you don't do this all on the same day, otherwise you'll be cursing the tiropitakia before you even eat them. When we come home late from an after-school activity, I can whip these up in less than half an hour. They don't need defrosting, they just go straight into the pan.
When you're ready to cook them, heat some olive oil in a small shallow frying pan. When the oil is hot, place between 6-10 pastries in the pan. (If you place pastry in cold oil, it will soak up the oil and become soggy, a very sorry sight.) Cook on a high heat until the pastry turns a golden brown colour. Using a spoon, turn the pastries over and cook on the other side. They do not need a long cooking time, just enough for the pastry to cook. Don't go away to do something else at this point, because before long, a burning smell will drill through your nostrils, and you won't have enough time to salvage the burning tiropitakia. Then you'll really be cursing yourself.
When they are ready, take them out of the oil, draining off as much oil as possible. Place them on a plate and drizzle honey over them while they are hot. Pile each batch on top of the previous one so that they soak up the honey on both sides. These pastries are a perfect way to end a meal. They are not as rich as they seem. They are preferably cooked just before serving, but they can also be made ahead and eaten at room temperature. They look amazing served on individual white porcelain plates (3 pieces per plate) with honey running over them. For a tangy taste, sprinkle just a little lemon juice over the honey, or mix some lemon zest into the cheese mixture.
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Kalitsounia in the oven