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Pies, both sweet and savory, are an essential component of the Greek cuisine. Each region in the country usually has several different takes on pita (πίτα, or pie, the plural being πίτες, or pites), which is enclosed either in pastry, most commonly phyllo, or using a different method that bypasses pastry altogether.

Besides the fillings, the variation in pie recipes around Greece mostly comes down to the kinds of phyllo used: its ingredients and the technique of rolling it out. Then there’s also the question of how the phyllo is assembled or wrapped around the filling, before the pie is finally baked, fried or even grilled.

The rugged, mountainous region of Epirus in northwestern Greece, which includes the larger cities of Ioannina, Preveza and Arta and shares a border with Albania, is rich with pie recipes – professor and researcher Alexandros Giotis has recorded over 178 varieties in the region. This makes sense when you consider that the landscape and climate don’t allow for widespread agriculture. The population of Epirus has for centuries been mostly pastoral; shepherds and livestock farmers herd sheep and goats in green pastures rich with herbs. Here they produce some of the country’s best dairy products and cheeses, including a famous PDO feta.

Unsurprisingly, the region is home to a large number of cheese pies. But the second most common type of pie features horta, or wild greens (we refer to this category of pies as hortopites in Greek). Locals collect these seasonal greens and herbs from the mountains where they grow wild. They have delightfully complex flavors and aromas on their own, but are sometimes mixed with cheese and other times with a handful of trahana, which adds flavor and a bit of texture and above all helps absorb the water released from the greens while baking.

No mere snack, pies are regarded as a main dish or a bread substitute in Epirus. Traditionally, locals used whatever they had at hand to make the pie filling, which in Epirus they call trofi (τροφή), a Greek word that means “food” or “nutrition.” Usually made in large round baking pans called sini (σινί), these pies are baked – sometimes even in the fireplace – or grilled on top of charcoals.

Certain pies omit phyllo entirely and, as a result, are fast, practical and easy to make. This is due to the fact that everyone in the family was often working and had neither the time nor the equipment to roll out pastry, especially if they were out in the pastures. Some include flour in the mix and are simply baked, while others are made with a porridge-like cornmeal mixture that is either divided, with half being placed on the bottom of the plan, below the filling, and the other half placed on top, above the filling, or just sprinkled on top. These types of pies go by different names such as babanatsa, blastaria, pispilita and masondra, although they are by and large quite similar.

I have a personal fondness for babanatsa – my recipe is simple yet results in a pie that’s nutritious and tastes divine. For the porridge-like mixture, I use a mix of cornmeal and regular flour (to balance the grittiness of the cornmeal), but you can substitute cornmeal for the flour if you want to keep it gluten free. Moreover, the filling can be adapted depending on what is available. I normally use greens and herbs that I buy from my local farmers’ market, but since most of those are not easily accessible outside of Greece, the base for this recipe is a mix of spinach, chard, leeks, spring onions and aromatic herbs. Again, as far as the aromatic herbs are concerned, you can substitute what I’ve listed below with local herbs that are easier for you to source, or you can simply use dill (just be sure to add enough extra dill to replace the full amount of aromatic herbs called for). Finally, to add more flavor, I mix crumbled feta in the greens and top the pie with plenty of sesame seeds.

Recipe: Babanatsa

For the porridge-like cornmeal mixture
200 gr all-purpose flour
400 gr cornmeal
3 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
50 gr olive oil + extra to grease the pan
460 gr water

For the filling
1 leek, chopped (green part too)
2 spring onions, chopped
½ kg spinach trimmed and roughly chopped
½ kg chard, trimmed and roughly chopped
3 tbsp Mediterranean hartwort, chopped
2 tbsp chervil, chopped
3 tbsp fennel fronds, chopped
3 tbsp dill, chopped
480 gr feta, crumbled
Salt & black pepper

6-7 tablespoons sesame seeds
45 gr olive oil

A 35 cm diameter (approximately 14 inch) round baking pan

Wash, trim and chop the greens, herbs, leeks and spring onions. Place in a large bowl and sprinkle with ¾ tsp salt. Start kneading them in order to try to draw out the water they retain. Squeeze out the water and place in a large colander and let sit for about an hour on top of a bowl, to further strain.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease the round pan with olive oil.

In another bowl prepare the porridge-like mixture. Mix the cornmeal, all-purpose flour, baking powder and salt. Form a well in the center and gradually pour in the olive oil while stirring with a spoon. Once all the olive oil is incorporated start adding in the water, gradually, while stirring with the spoon. The final result should be a thick, smooth and pourable mixture.

Place the drained greens into a bowl, season with pepper to taste and add in the feta. Mix well and set aside.

Pour half of the cornmeal-flour mixture on the bottom of the pan and even it out using the back of a spoon or a spatula. Place the filling evenly on top. Add one spoonful at a time of the rest of the cornmeal mix on top of the greens and spread it out (this is quite sticky and you need to be careful not to disturb the filling, so I recommend using a non-stick rubber spatula, if you have one, or a wooden one greased with a bit of olive oil). Once all the mixture is spread on top, sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Drizzle or spray with the olive oil on top and bake for about 45-55 minutes until golden and crusty. Allow it to cool down for 10-15 minutes before slicing it.

To convert metric measurements to US and British kitchen units, click here.

Published on January 15, 2021

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