We Knead To Bake #16 : Flaounes - Cypriot Savoury Easter Cheese Pies
It’s the month of April and people in some parts of the world including India, celebrate Easter this month. Across the many countries in Europe, one aspect of Easter celebrations includes the making of breads especially for this time of the year. A lot of these breads are very decorative in appearance, symbolic of the religious beliefs of this season. They also tend to more cake-like than bread in texture and taste because they’re mostly made with a lot of butter, eggs, all sorts of spices, dried fruit and nuts that one would normally not use to bake bread. This is not really surprising as Easter is celebrated after a long period of fasting for Lent.
Flaounes are savoury cheese pies baked for Greek Orthodox Easter, and traditionally made on Good Friday and are part of the fast-breaking meal after Lent when meat and cheese are not eaten. They are eaten at breakfast and also exchanged as gifts of friendship and goodwill. Flaounes are also made in semi-sweet and sweet variations.
Like all traditional recipes, each family has its own which is sworn by as being the best. Some families make their Flaounes with yeast (for a slow rising dough) while others use baking powder (for a quick rise). Some like their Flaounes more “bready” while others like it to be more about the filling. Then there are those who don’t like adding sultanas to their cheese filling! So its pretty much a make-it-as-you-like-it kind of bread.
The cheese that is traditionally used in these pies is called “Flaounes” cheese which is cheese that is produced locally by Cypriot shepherds, and very difficult to find outside the country. These cheese pies are traditionally made in large numbers at Easter and the women of the family would get together to make the business of making them easier. Since Flaounes keep (and also freeze well), they’re eaten much beyond Easter.
Flaounes cheese can be substituted with a combination of Cheddar or similar hard cheeses and a softer, milder one like Halloumi. For the savoury Flaounes, the cheese filling tends to be salty so choose one cheese which is quite salty.
Some of the cheeses suggested as substitutes for Flaounes cheese are Cypriot/ Greek cheeses like Kefalotyri, Kefalogravier or Kaskavali. Other cheeses include Halloumi, English Cheddar, Italian cheeses likeParmesan, Romanelo or Pressato (mild), Pecorino (salty) or French Cantal cheese.
If any of these are available (and affordable) in your part of the world then you can use a combination of those, otherwise find a combination of cheeses that will work for you. For my Flaounes I used a combination of Cheddar, Mozzarella and Paneer in my Flaounes. (I used the Nilgiris brand of Cheddar and Mozarella)
There are a couple of ingredients that go into the filling that are typically Cypriot/ Greek and they are “mehelepi” and “mastiki. Mehelepi (mahleb/ mahlab) is the ground dried pits of a wild Mediterranean cherry. Mastiki (mastic) is the dried resin from a kind of shrub. Both of these spices are quite common in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine and they really have no good substitutes so if you can't find either, just leave them out.
As I mentioned earlier, these pies are quite heavy on eggs but because we don’t like the “eggy” flavour I have taken most of the eggs out of this recipe (and adjusted it accordingly) except for the one I used in the dough. You can leave that out too if you don’t use eggs. For those of you who like eggs, eggs are used in the bread dough as well to bind the filling. I chose to use milk instead but you can use an egg instead of the milk in the filling. I also used milk instead of egg wash to brush my pies and made a paste of flour and milk to seal the pies instead of egg.
Black pepper or chilli flakes are not traditionally used in these Easter pies but I added chilli flakes because the filling tasted too bland to me otherwise. So leave that out if you want. Also remember to grate your cheese coarse rather than fine. I know there are people who dislike raisins and sultanas and I myself don’t like the former but like the latter. While you can leave them out of the filling, I personally feel that the sweetness of the sultanas adds a flavour to the salty cheese.
Flaounes (Cypriot Savoury Easter Cheese Pies)
For the dough:
For the filling :
- First make the dough. I used my food processor but you can knead by hand. Put the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and the flavouring ingredients (if you have them) into the bowl and pulse a couple of times to mix. Whisk together the egg, milk and melted butter in a small bowl and add it to the flour. Knead, adding just enough water, till you have a soft, smooth and elastic dough which is just short of sticky. Add water/ flour as necessary to get this consistency of dough. Too much flour will spoil the texture of the pies.
- Place the dough in a well-oiled bowl, turning to coat it well. Cover loosely and let the dough rise for about 1 to 2 hours, until it is double in volume. Once it has risen, deflate the dough by pressing it out and folding it a few times. Then place it in a container (the dough will rise so use a large enough container), cover loosely and refrigerate for about 2 hours. You can leave this in the fridge overnight too, if you want to make these pies in two stages.
- While the dough is sitting for the first rise, make the filling. Mix all the ingredients for the filling, except the milk (or egg if you’re using it) with a fork. If you’re not using the filling immediately, keep it aside and add the milk only when you’re ready to use the filling.
- The filling should be somewhat like a stiff paste, joust moist rather than wet.
- Now shape the Flaounes. Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces (10 if you want slightly smaller pies). Lightly oil your work surface and rolling pin. Then roll each piece into a 5 to 6” round. The round of dough should be thinner rather than thick. If it is too thick you will have a very “bready” pie, but make sure that your round of dough is not too thin to support/ carry the weight of the filling.
- Divide the filling also into 8 (or 10) portions. Spread the sesame seeds on a largish plate and place the round of dough on it, in the centre, and press down lightly. This makes for an easy way to coat the Flaounes with sesame seeds. Now place the round on your working surface and put one portion of filling (about a generous tablespoon full of it) in the middle of the round of dough and spread it lightly, leaving about 1” free at the edge.
- You can make triangular or square Flaounes, and I personally feel that the square ones (more traditional) were less bready and nicer to eat. For the square ones, fold the two opposite edges over the filling leaving the centre exposed. Now fold over the other two edges as well so you have a square pocket with the filling showing at the centre. Press down the sealed points with the tines of a fork.
- For the triangular Flaounes, pull up the edges of the dough at three points and partially fold over the filling, one after the other, leaving the uncovered. Use the paste of flour and milk (or beaten egg) to seal the flaps of dough well. Press down the sealed points with the tines of a fork. It is important to seal the pies well or they will open up during the second rise/ baking. Do not pinch the flaps together like for Hamantaschen as they will come apart as they rise. I learnt this the hard way!
- Place the shaped pies on a greased or parchment lined baking sheet, leaving 2 to 3” between them, and let them rise for about 40 minutes. Just before baking them, brush the sides (dough part) with milk (or beaten egg) and bake the Flaounes at 190C (375F) for 25 to 30 minutes till they’re done, golden and the cheese filling is puffed up.
- Let them cool on a rack. Serve them warm or at room temperature. This recipe makes 8 or 10 Flaounes, about the size of one’s palm. These pies keep for two days at room temperature in an airtight container. You can freeze the extras to eat later.