Saturday, 26 April 2008

Cretan Easter meat pie revisited (Κρητική κρεατότουρτα)

There are very few people I like having around when I'm cooking. Most people in these here parts are the "I know how to do this better than you type" when it comes to passing on advice. The tsourekia had just cooled down, and a baking tin of kalitsounia were cooking in the oven. In the middle of getting goat avgolemono and a Cretan meat pie prepared, I heard the doorbell ring. I wondered who it might be popping round at 5pm, what is normally considered siesta time in Greece.

I'm glad to say it was the Nicest Woman in the World. I'm always happy to see my cousin's wife, Maria (we have the same name). She's one of those rarities who will endeavour to help you in any way she can, without ever criticizing what you do. She will even help you to do something the way you want to do it, and make sure you do it successfully. She's also a very good cook, having been brought up in a family of four girls (she was the eldest). She's a busy woman - apart from housework and children, she also helps her beekeeper husband and looks after his aged parents who are in and out of hospital frequently.

We have children the same age, but despite always promising each other that we will get together some time, we never seem to. We get on so well together, even though she left school well before I finished my master's degree, despite being a good ten years younger than me. She doesn't drive, so I feel guilty that I don't go to see her more often, since she lives close to my husband's family village, Fournes, in the province of Chania.

"Sorry, Maria, I hope you weren't sleeping."

"No", of course not,"I replied; few Greek women get a rest on Easter Saturday. "I'm in the middle of preparing the usual stuff, you know. Aren't you going to sit down?"

"We've just come back from the supermarket, he's waiting for me." The head of the family is always the 'he'-man. "Here's your honey." It couldn't have come at a better time - I had just noticed we were down to the last jar. We buy honey only from Dimitri (our husbands have the same name). Apart from the price, we know he sells us a good product. We've been recycling the same honey jars for at least five years. We sweeten milk with it, spread it over toast and yoghurt, and occasionally use it to make syrup for Greek sweets. We go through a kilo per month.

"Where are you spending Easter?" I pointed my finger to the floor. She realised immediately that I was referring to my "upstairs downstairs" problem.

"Don't worry, we're doing pretty much the same thing," she said. "The olds can't go anywhere, so we'll be spending the day with them." Sometimes, I think Maria and I live the same kind of life, with the same kind of traditional Cretan men (we're very fortunate to have good-looking husbands).

Suddenly, I remember the pie I was in the middle of making. "Come and have a look at my pie, Maria." There are few people I would ask to come into my kitchen. Not even my husband gets this kind of invitation. I lead Maria to my kitchen. Dimitri is honking the car horn.

She breaks out in a big smile when she sees the pastry ready in the tin with the boned lamb covering it. "Ahhhh, that's it!" she exclaims. "All it needs now is some mizithra, malaka and staka." Just what I was intending to cover it with. I feel perfect.

"You made tsourekia , Maria? You've been busy!" As she is admiring them, I take one and give it to her. "Oh, thank you, dear!" She kisses me in the Greek way of greeting someone: first on the right cheek, then on the left cheek.

"And that egg in the tsoureki is SO red. What dye did you use?" I tell her my secret: yellow onion skins. She is absolutely astounded. "Who told you about that?"

The Nicest Woman in the World left school at fourteen to help her mother raise her three younger sisters, besides helping her parents in the Messara greenhouses and grapevine fields. It's very demeaning to talk about the wonders of the internet to a person whose childhood was stolen from them, denying them the chance to acquire basic vocational skills, so I just said: "Oh, a friend of mine - and she told me NOT to use red onions." Everyone makes that mistake, so I thought it best to advise her right from the start.

She couldn't believe it. "What kind of onions did you use?" I took her out to the balcony where I kept the onions, and showed her their pale yellow skins. The honking sounds were now getting violent.

"I'd best be off, otherwise he just might leave without me," she said chuckling. "Impossible," I replied, "where would he find another woman like you?" I said goodbye to the Nicest Woman in the World™ and we kissed again.

"Kalo Paska!"

"Kali Anastasi!"

To make the Nicest Woman in the World™'s Cretan Easter meat pie, you need:
1.5 kilos of spring lamb (try to use mainly soft pieces with as few bones as possible)
pizza dough, substituting the water with the meat stock in which the lamb was boiled
200g of malaka cheese (highly specialised Easter cheese form Hania), cut in small slices
50g of staka cream (this stuff melts in your fingers on touch)
250g of mizithra cheese
a sprig of fresh mint, finely chopped
salt, pepper, oregano to season the meat
1 beaten egg to brush the pie
sesame seeds to sprinkle over the egg
Boil the meat till it is very tender. You will need to add more water to the pot as it boils away. Remove it from the stock, which you must strain and reserve. Make the pizza dough according to the instructions given for ladenia, replacing the water with a cup of reserved stock. Divide the dough into two balls (60/40 rather than 50/50). Roll out the larger piece to fit into the base of a 36cm baking tin, the deep kind that Greeks call 'tapsi'. Take out all (or as many as possible) of the bones from the meat. Place the meat chunks on it, seasoning them according to taste. Spread the malaka slices over the meat, fill in the spaces with dabs of staka cream, and top everything with the mizithra cheese. Sprinkle the mint on top of the mizithra.

Roll out the second piece of dough and cut a circle to fit on top of the pie (you will be left with pastry scraps - reserve them), pressing down all the filling to even out the pie. Seal the edges of the pie. Roll out the pastry scraps into long thin 'snakes' and place them on top of the sealed part of the pastry. Make sure you leave two little snakes to shape into a cross. This is placed in the middle of the pie. Poke the edges of the cross into the pastry (representing the nails in Christ's limbs) with a fork or toothpick. Using a knife, cut four slits symmetrically into the pastry to allow steam to escape (so that the pastry doesn't burst). Brush the pie with egg and sprinkle with sesame. The pie needs to be cooked in a moderate oven as long as it takes for the pastry to turn a dark golden brown colour. The meat is already cooked, so all that is needed is for the cheeses to melt and combine with the meat. When serving the pie, warn your guests that there may be bits of bone shards in the meat.

easter meat pie from crete
Cretan Easter meat pie 2009

This is one of the most meaningful Easter traditions for me, because it reminds me of what my mother did every year for my father when we celebrated Greek Easter in New Zealand.

This post is dedicated to the Nicest Woman in the World™.

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