Researching regional cuisines, we the food writers, are usually met with incredibly welcoming cooks who not only share their recipes and tips, but may go as far as to organize a whole cooking event for us, inviting their friends and relations, in their eagerness to teach us the cooking of their village or region. But occasionally we encounter a professional, or semi-professional cook who stubbornly refuses to even vaguely describe their signature dish.
One such experience I shared with my mentor, renowned author Paula Wolfert in the ’90ies, as we travelled through the Northern of Greece, collecting recipes for our books. Paula’s marvelous account of such an incident she shared, some years ago, on the food forum egullet, and now she posted it on the Facebook page Greek, Balkan and Mediterranean Food :
” For the past 30 or so years, I’ve traveled around Greece with my good friend, the terrific food writer Aglaia Kremezi. On one trip through the Northern Zagora region (a beautiful area of gorges, forests, rivers, and mountains of layered rocks with a stunning monastery perched on a peak 3,200 feet above sea level) we stopped at a little restaurant in the tiny hamlet of Monodendri famous for its pittas or open faced fried pies — thin, crisp, fragrant and warm slices of phyllo covered with a layer of shredded kasseri cheese and crumbled feta. The top had an unusual glossy sheen that seemed impossible if the pie was only fried.
No one beside the restaurant owner/cook, Kiki, knew how to make this pitta, and she adamantly refused to allow anyone near her when she prepared it. So when Aglaia and I went there, we played “detective” while waiting for our pittas to come out. This took forty minutes, which, since we were the only customers, suggested a 40 minute cooking time. We also noticed that the menu included a few other items (pork chops, salad, feta, beer and wine), but nothing that would explain the huge crate of eggs we observed being carried into the kitchen. When Aglaia asked the waitress if eggs were on the menu, she told us ‘no.’ Eureka! Perhaps the glaze was somehow achieved with eggs!
When I got back to New York, I tried to reproduce the dish adding a thin egg batter to the top to duplicate the shine. After several trials, I came up with something that seemed fairly close to what we’d liked so much back in Monodendri.
Meantime, Aglaia did her own experimentation, and presented her version in her next book. It was completely different from mine, and, I felt, equally delicious. A few years later a third Greek food writer also published what she said was Kiki’s secret recipe. I tried that one too, it was very good, but not quite the same as the original. So there you are — three serious food writers trying to reproduce a secret recipe, each coming up with a different excellent tasting ‘solution.’ Kiki, no doubt, will take her secret with her to the grave!”
Kiki (or Kikitsa) died, and her daughter is cooking in the expanded restaurant now. A few years ago I met her in an event in Ioannina, the capital of the region, where she was demonstrating the legendary pie. It was, in fact, a version of the classic alevropita (flour pie) of Epirus, or ‘lazy woman’s pie’ as it is often called because it is just a batter. No phyllo rolling, just a mixture of eggs, flour, sheep’s milk butter, and the local cheese–a spicy feta. But the flavor of that pie, supposedly Kiki’s exact recipe, was nothing like what Paula and I had tasted back in the ’90ies! Either the recipe she inherited had some glitch, or the way the pie was baked in the wood-burning oven made all the difference!
Through the years I did try Kiki’s alevropita, and various other combinations, as every cook in the region has her/his version, but I never got even close to the crunchy pita I remembered. So I perfected my version of the gallete-like crunchy pie, which became part of our repertoire, and we prepare it with our guests during the phyllo-rolling class. Yes, my ‘lazy woman’s pie’ does have two sheets of phyllo, which are doused in egg wash and sprinkled with feta. We carefully bake it at the bottom of a very hot electric oven, and finish it under the broiler so it gets shiny, crunchy and irresistible!
See the Recipe: Kiki’s or ‘Lazy Woman’s Pie’