‘This is better than baklava!” exclaimed Athanasia, my late mother in law, the first time she tasted this pie. It is quite an unusual, deep flavored pumpkin pie from Lesbos, the large island of the northeastern Aegean, so much in the news these days for quite different reasons…
Athanasia, a very eclectic cook, was usually quite stingy with her praises and she really loved baklava. So her unsolicited approval meant a lot to me, and I will never forget it. She also baked her variation of the central Greek pumpkin/squash pie which starts by blanching the squash, then draining, mashing and mixing it with plenty of sugar and walnuts or other nuts.
The Lesbos pie, on the the other hand, has a more complex flavor that lingers between sweet and savory, as old recipes often did, with the addition of Lesbos ladotyri, a quite spicy cheese that ages submerged in olive oil. Good Parmigiano Reggiano is an excellent substitute. I am grateful to Dora Parisi who baked for me this pie as well as several other dishes from Molyvos, her wonderful, historic village in the north of the island.
What we call kolokytha (pumpkin) in Greece –and zucca in Italy– is closer to the American butternut or other dense and sweet squash; as a substitute I propose a combination of pumpkin and sweet potato to get a similar flavor. I wouldn’t use canned pumpkin, but you can try it if you have absolutely no time to make the traditional stuffing.
The grated pumpkin or squash is not cooked, but left to wilt overnight in a colander tossed with a little sugar, and the resulting precious liquid is collected in a bowl and used as glaze, to brush on the half-baked pie.
Needless to say that home-rolled phyllo makes a much more interesting pie, but store-bought, frozen phyllo works well here too. The traditional recipe had no eggs, but you will be able to cut neater pieces if you include eggs in the stuffing.