Friday, 25 April 2008

Easter kalitsounia from Crete (Καλιτσούνια Κρητικά για το Πάσχα)

All good wives will cater for a food specialty of their husband's on a special festive day, say Christmas or Easter. As I cook very generically due to family commitments and time constraints, Easter (as well as Christmas) is a time when I do try to make an effort to please everyone as individually as possible. In the same way that my mama made the Cretan Easter meat pie for my father, even though it was not within her own regional culinary specialties, I'm making my husband's favorite kalitsounia, which his mama always made for him.

Today, as I was making dozens of red eggs, hundreds of kalitsounia and thousands of koulourakia (all that food stuff we make for Greek Easter), because I was making them all by myself, with no one to encourage me or to take pride in watching me do it (husbands don't usually see their wives at work - when they come home, they see a clean house, freshly cooked food and a web-surfing wife), I thought of my mother - as I often do these days (she died in 1994) - and had a conversation with her. She was helping me make koulourakia (while I was checking my email) and giving my children - the grandchildren she never met - some dough to make their own shapes.

Easter kalitsounia in Crete contain malaka, a local product. Ask for malaka by name only in a Haniotiko cheese shop, otherwise, you may not have much success in getting the product you thought you were going to get. Another variety of malaka is more widespread in Greece, but you don't put it into pies and pastries. (It's the kind that doesn't stop at red traffic lights or the kind that beeps at the car in front of it which has just stopped to let a pedestrian cross the road.) In Hania, as both types are available (and plenty of it), it's only natural that we find a way to use up the cheesy variety, otherwise we'd be inundated with malaka (some say we are anyway). I'll be using malaka in my Easter kalitsounia and the Easter meat pie, but it is also used instead of cheese in other pies and pastries throughout the springtime. Malaka is found fresh during this season, although, again, most Greeks - whether Cretan or not - will tell you that you can find plenty of malaka right throughout the year all over Greece.

Easter kalitsounia not only have different ingredients from the less festive ones; they also have a different shape. The shape is partly dictated by the cheese mixture. Malaka is a soft damp cheese, which needs to be strained if you want to use it in conjunction with pastry. Damp cheese will break the pastry open and the liquids will run out of the pastry, so the kalitsounia will lose their shape. Malaka can be bought a week before you need it, so it can be prepared for use. Grading the quality of malaka is not so difficult; my girlfriends and I often discuss this over coffee. For those of you who have never been to Greece, you will probably hear the word being used a lot on the road. You'll easily find a way to grade malaka yourself.

This recipe is not easily reproduced outside of Crete; the ingredients are local to an extreme basis, so there is little point in providing a recipe. Malaka in the rest of Greece is not the same type as Cretan malaka (if you know what I mean...). I usually cut malaka into small cubes, sprinkle some salt over it, and place it in a colander with a cheesecloth covering it. Every day, I turn out the pieces, pat them dry and put them back in the colander, repeating this process until I'm ready to use it. Then I grate it into a large bowl (my mother-in-law grates right from the start). Malaka is usually combined with mizithra when making kalitsounia. Just make sure that the mizithra is also strained well. The cheeses are salted according to taste, and fresh finely chopped mint is optionally added. I know that the cheeses are well strained because, when combined, the cheese comes out as stiff as dough, and can be shaped into a ball without sticking to my hands. If it doesn't come out so dry, a little flour or semolina is added to soak up the excess moisture.

There are two popular kalitsounia shapes for Easter: the 'box' square and the 'little lantern' (λυχναράκι), so-called because it resembles the shape of old-fashioned oil lamps once used in Greek villages, and now hunted down as highly-sought after souvenirs. The box kalitsounia contain mint, whereas the little lamps don't. That's tradition for you. They freeze wonderfully, and can also be brushed with egg and sprinkled with sesame to save you doing it on the day you will be serving them. In this way, I can enjoy as much of the day as my role of hostess will allow me to.

The box shape is created with square-cut filo (phyllo) pastry by folding the pastry sides over the cheese mixture, but leaving the centre of the kalitsouni open. The little lamp uses round-cut pastry; the rim of the pastry is pinched upwards to create the lantern shape. This type if kalitsouni is also open. It allows excess moisture to evaporate while cooking, so that the pastry doesn't break open. The pasties are cooked in the same way: on a greased baking tin. I use a metal scraper to prise off the tin when they are done. The box shapes (the ones with the mint) are placed on a plate with a fresh twig from the bitter-orange tree, so that they take the aroma of the spring blossom. The lamps are served as they are.

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