The counselors conferred in low voices out of the king’s hearing, speaking of the state of the king’s mind and vanity, the innate interest of the task, whether
the taskmaster would be able to recognize a solution, and finally whether their combined lifetimes would suffice to write the required book. At last they turned to the throne, bowed as one and said it would be done. That night they left Troy followed by scribes and cartloads of gold, promising to return no later than as soon as they got back.
-Zachary Mason (The Lost Books of the Odyssey)

This past Labor Day (actually, the day before; on Labor Day, I labored), I escaped to Lake Temescal with the Greek and some friends. We swam, we ate, we walked around; it was lovely–truly one of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a long time. The sun graced us with its presence, and we also got to be up close and personal with an incredibly eager and overly enthusiastic duck. Really, only after being threatened by the Greek (the words “Peking-style” had the desired effect) did the duck take the hint and leave us to our sun-soaking devices.

It was the kind of day that, when it finally ends–when you’re packing up the food and the sun slowly begins its descent–you can’t help but feel sad. While I’d be lying if I said I didn’t eat well all the time, picnics are special. They always yield such a beautiful and wide-ranging spread; in our case, cheese, bread, sausage, a pretty purple potato salad (made not by me, but by one of my lovely companions), banana streusel muffins (my contribution and the topic of my next post) and bougatsa. And in life there should always be more bougatsa.

The Greeks, particularly those in Thessaloniki (fyi: the Greek’s hometown), know how to eat. Bougatsa is a traditional Macedonian dish and, to put it simply, it’s (feta) cheese pie, otherwise known as pie of happiness. I kid you not. You can’t eat this and not feel happy. It was piping hot when we left my apartment to set off for the lake, so when we picked up our fellow “picnic”-ers, its smell had filled the car. The first words out of their mouths was that something smelled amazing–just like macaroni and cheese. Frankly, that’s an apt description of the dish. Instead of macaroni, however, you have phyllo dough. It’s an exchange I’m willing to make.

Forget American comfort food and American picnic food as well. Cheese pies are the stuff of my future! Not only do they travel ridiculously well, but they’re also filling and tasty. Plus, once you get past your fear of phyllo (just do it; ignore it when it rips and just go on stacking it until the dish is full. It’s like playing the piano; maybe you miss a note, but the music must go on), you could make (and eat) interesting pies–cheese filled and/or otherwise–all the time.

Bougatsa, or Cheese Pie

Yields 10-12 pieces (we cut ours large, although traditionally, they would be quite small)

I suggested adding dill to this, but, since bougatsa seems to be sacred (at least this is what I could glean from the Greek’s reaction to my blasphemous suggestion and I was thinking roasted cherry tomatoes, dill, etc. To me, the possibilities seemed endless), we went the traditional route and used only feta and half-and-half for the filling. However, I was successful in convincing him that a light sprinkling of nutmeg and pepper would probably work well. And I think it did.

1/2 cup melted butter
2 egg whites
1/2 cup half and half
1 1/4 pound feta, crumbled
1 lb. phyllo sheets

-Preheat the oven to 350 and brush a large rectangular baking dish with butter.
-Beat the egg whites with the half and half in a bowl, then stir in the cheese.
-Carefully place half the phyllo sheets one on top of the other in the prepared pan, brushing each sheet with melted butter.
-Spread the filing evenly on top and season with pepper and sprinkle some nutmeg on top.
-Cover with the remaining phyllo sheets, brushing each with melted butter.
-Score the pie into wide strips and bake for 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.
-Serve hot, cut into bite-size pieces (if you want to eat it the way they do in Thessaloniki).

2 thoughts on “Labor of Love: Bougatsa (Cheese Pie)

  1. I'm happy to inspire (and to share the secret of the pie of happiness)! 🙂 I used The Book, by the way. I'll be posting my results (which I loved!) very soon.

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