A traditional greek version of cheesecake, made with extra care by Cretan women.
If you’ve ever been in Crete during the Orthodox Easter, surely you have experienced some unique traditions and tasted festive treats that women make to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ok, I am not going to lie. Easter is not my favorite holiday, but Christmas. Partly because of the moody, romantic weather and the nostalgic feeling that travels through the air, and partly because of the warm, zesty smell of the kitchen and the oven that never seems to stop baking all kind of sweets and pastries. Yet, Easter has a whole different vibe. Since it is during spring, it signals the awakening of Mother Nature that has been silently sleeping during the harsh winter, waiting for the cold to wither away. It is a time of birth and re-birth, a time when the juices of the plants start to flow vigorously through their little veins, transferring nutrients, giving life to little sprouts later to become glorious flowers. And what better way to celebrate this awakening than to bake some traditional Cretan cheese tarts.
Now I know that Easter is a long way from now, but I wanted to share this recipe because I make it whenever I find some good quality fresh cream cheese (the cretan variety is called anthotiro). I have also made it with ricotta, which is similar in taste and texture, and it came out perfect!
In Crete, these treats are made by hand as individual little star-shaped tarts, and the better and more symmetric and “clean” their shape, the more accomplished the housewife that baked them! (check this link if you wanna see their traditional shape – text in Greek!). But don’t worry, because I have you covered…. Since this method requires a lot of labor and is time consuming, I came up with a way that is more simple, quick and easy! (I made them into tarts as you can see from the pictures).
Until now I don’t know which part I like the most. The shell – something between a cake and a cookie – or the filling? Make them and tell me what’s your favorite!
These tarts have two little secrets that are important if you want to experience the authentic taste of this Cretan delicacy. Fresh leaves from a bitter orange tree and some mint (or spearmint) leaves.
The first are used to cover the hot, freshly baked tarts so as to lend them a subtle but addictive aroma. In Crete, storing aromatics among goods is a common way to add aroma and flavor. My mom stores some cinnamon sticks and rose geranium leaves among our raisins (you can check this rose geranium tomato marmalade if you like rose geranium’s sent).
Mint leaves are used in the filling resulting in a tart with bright, fresh notes in every bite.
You should give them a try, they are totally worth it!
The shell will rise a bit during baking. This is expected.
If you want to try and make it in a round tart pan, a 10-inch diameter pan will fit best, but you may have a little left-over.
- For the dough:
- ½ stick butter (60 grams)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 teaspoon brandy
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1½ teaspoon baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 2 cups flour, sifted (pastry preferably, but you can use all purpose)
- For the filing:
- 18 oz (500 grams) anthotiro or ricotta cheese (If you can't find, use cream cheese)
- 1 medium egg
- 1½ teaspoon vanilla
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 heaped teaspoon honey
- 3 tablespoons flour
- ½ teaspoon baking
- 10-15 mint leaves (depending on your taste)
- Egg wash (1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon milk) and cinnamon for sprinkling.
- 20-30 Bitter orange leaves, well washed and well dried.
- 2 rectangular tart pans 10x4 inches (25x10 cm)
- Preheat oven at 350°F (175˚C).
- Beat butter, olive oil, sugar and salt until fluffy.
- Add egg, milk, brandy and vanilla and mix well.
- Mix baking powder with flour and add to the butter mixture.
- Mix until a soft dough is formed and let it rest. (Don't overwork the dough)
- In a food processor (or with a mixer) mix well all the ingredients for the filling except the mint.
- Chop the mint finely and add it to the filling.
- Divide dough in half. Take small pieces and start covering the tart pans. Cover bottom and sides. When done, level the surface with the back of a spoon.
- Fill with the filling and very gently brush the top of the filling with eggwash.
- Sprinkle some cinnamon and bake in the middle rack for 20-30 minutes or until edges are brown.
- Place them hot in a big container, top them with the bitter orange leaves and cover with a cotton towel. Let them cool.