Kalitsounia – Cretan sweet cheese pies
Let’s bake Kalitsounia this Easter! Kalitsounia from Ierapetra of Crete are crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside with a fruity aftertaste and you only need one to understand their deep taste of flavor and keep craving for more every Easter!
The Cretan Kalitsounia and their variations
Kalitsounia, which are also called Lychnarakia or Anevata in some regions, is a traditional Greek, Cretan sweet that we make every Easter. There are many variations of this dessert and depending on the region or prefecture of Crete, the recipe changes a little or sometimes a lot.
3 types of Cretan kalitsounia
1. Kalitsounia from Heraklio and ierapetra
1. Kalitsounia are called in Heraklion and Ierapetra region of Crete and they are created with sweet Cretan Μizithra and dough that does not rise, in the shape of a star.
Kalitsounia is a compound word that comes from «Kalo» (Good) and «Tsounia» (Stands out). The word Tsounia is etymologically used for anything that protrudes, but specifically for Kalitsounia, it is used to describe the small pinches on the dough that eventually create a star-shaped sweet.
2. Kalitsounia from Chania - Lychnarakia
Lychanarakia (Which means “little lamps” in Greek) got its name from the old-style lamp/lantern that people used to decorate their houses and used to carry with them in the old days to shed light on the dark streets.
3. Kalitsounia from Sitia - Anevata
3. Anevata are called in Sitia region and they are made with dough that puffs in a triangular shape and stuffed with Mizithra or Anthotiro in a sweet or savory variation.
Anevata (which means “those that rise” in Greek) got their name from their special dough that puffs and rises to double its size when it’s baked.
Kalitsounia from Ierapetra of Crete
The aromatic Kalitsounia from Ierapetra differ from the other versions mainly for the Bitter Orange leaves that we use to flavor them and for the Blossom water that we use to spread the filling. It is crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside with a sweet filling from Cretan Myzithra and a fruity aftertaste.
Bitter Orange trees are everywhere in Greece and for that, we have to thank 3 people, 2 of them former Royals. The first to import them to Greece was Queen Amalia in the 19th century to decorate her royal garden. After that, King George the I, continued the planting of Bitter Orange trees everywhere in Greece.
The third person we have to thank for the Bitter Orange trees is the mayor of Athens from 1979 to 1986 Dimitris Beis, whom he made sure they are planted everywhere. He planted so many Bitter Orange trees, that they ended up being the “mascot” of Athens providing both their beauty and their aromas in the streets of our capital.
Now you might be wondering how we ended up decorating Kalitsounia with Bitter Orange leaves at Ierapetra? And I’m going to tell you the story my grandma told me.
Once, there was a lady from Ierapetra that had a Bitter Orange tree outside her house with half its branches crossing over to her back yard. One Easter, when she was making Kalitsounia, she left the baking trays outside to cool off beneath the Bitter Orange tree.
At that time there was a passerby that decided to pick a Bitter Orange (probably thinking it was Orange) and he shook the whole tree which ended up in falling leaves on both sides and on top of the Kalitsounia.
When she tasted the Kalitsounia with the Bitter Orange leaves on top she was pleasantly surprised by the fruity, and unique aftertaste, so next Easter she decided to include Bitter Orange leaves in her recipe.
She gave Kalitsounia to her friends, everyone praised her delicious baking asking for the recipe, and that is how it all started!
If you can’t find Bitter Orange leaves in your country don’t worry because if you have never tasted them you don’t know what you are missing. On the other hand, if you have access to Bitter Orange leaves and you decide not to add them… You don’t know what you’re missing!!!
The Kalitsounia of my grandma Venetia
The recipe I give you below is my grandmother’s, Venetia. My grandmother was very crafty in the kitchen, always baking, cooking, and kneading something, after all, she was cooking daily for 6 people as she had 4 children!
The ingredients of the recipe were measured in “Okades”, “Drams” and “water glasses” because that’s what they were using as a metric system in the old days. I had to search in the attic to find my grandma’s original water glass to do the conversions.
Her strange name she got from her Godmother who was from Venice, Italy.
In early 1900, when my grandma was born, people in Crete had a strange habit of giving other people nicknames and ending up using those instead of their real names. My grandmother’s godmother was called “Venetsana” (The woman from Venice) in the neighborhood, because she was from Venice, Italy.
Mrs. Venetsana was also the midwife in my grandma’s village, Kentri of Ierapetra, and was loved by everyone since she helped a lot of families with their baby deliveries.
When my great-grandmother was giving birth to my grandma, she was by her side and even though she had a difficult birth, Mrs. Venetsana did a great job. My grandmother’s parents, to thank her, promised to give her name to their newborn baby girl and she in return became my grandmother’s godmother christening her with the name “Venice”, in Greek “Venetia”.
When she grew up she had an arranged marriage with my grandpa which ended up in a great love story! They opened a coffee shop in the heart of Ierapetra and they had 4 children together.
The making of Kalitsounia (Greek, Cretan sweet cheese pies)
The making of Kalitsounia just before Easter was a family tradition in our house! We baked Kalitsounia every Great Thursday because it was the only day that my grandmother allowed us (the kids) to eat them!
All my aunts and cousins used to gather in one house and we made the Kalitsounia all together! The men helped by gathering the leaves from the Bitter Oranges, the women made the filo (phyllo) dough and we, the kids, did the final testing of the Kalitsounia as they came out of the oven. (The best job in the whole world!!!)
As the years were passing by and we grew up, we started to help more and more actively in the making of Kalitsounia, and before we know it we started to switch places with our grandmother in the opening of the filo dough. She was giving the instructions, told us all her secrets and we rolled the filo to open!
15 Secrets for perfect Kalitsounia
- The dough needs to be well-rested in room temperature to produce a soft and pliable dough. Kalitsounia is a spring dessert but if you decide to make them in the summertime, I would advice to wrap the dough in film and rest it in the fridge. Overnight resting in the fridge is just fine for this dough.
- First, we create ALL the bases and then we start to fill them giving them a star shape. The bases that we do not use, we keep them wrapped in a towel.
- While we knead one of the 4 balls of dough we always have the 3 wrapped in a towel so that they won’t dry out.
- When you bake the Kalitsounia, use the lower rank of the oven.
- Τhe Bitter Orange Leaves should be placed on top of the Kalitsounia as soon as they come out of the oven because that is the best time to absorb their aromas.
- In order for their base to remain crisp, let them cool without stacking them. Kalitsounia are tastier at room temperature.
- The tips of the Kalitsounia star should be very thin.
- You can put them either baked or raw in the freezer. The baked ones last longer than a month in the freezer.
- The Bitter Orange leaves should be obtained either the same day or the day before you plan on making this dessert because they do not keep their freshness for long.
- The Mizithra or Ricotta should be wet and soft. As soon as you open it, dry out the excess water with a towel and it’s ready to use.
- Bake with parchment paper on a baking sheet as to not soil it with the egg wash we spread on top.
- You can store them for 3 days at room temperature, 1 week in the refrigerator, and 1 month in the freezer.
- When you roll to open the dough, both your countertop and the dough must be well floured to be able to have a smooth filo.
- In the old days, they used a grinder to grate the Mizithra to make it softer but nowadays it is no longer needed because the production and packaging of Mizithra have evolved.
- Your filling will not be smooth to the touch but you do not need to do anything to make it smoother because it will melt in the oven.
Ideally, to enjoy the authentic taste, it would be good not to make any substitutions in the ingredients. On the other hand, if you live abroad I understand it might be a bit difficult to find some ingredients, so I wrote a few ingredients substitutions which I think you will find useful.
- The Blossom water (Anthonero) can be replaced with Rosewater or Ouzo.
- Mizithra can be replaced with Anthotiro or Ricotta. (Mizithra is created mainly from cow’s milk and has less fat than Anthotiro which is created from Goat’s and sheep’s milk).
- Ouzo (in the dough) can be replaced with Raki or Tsipouro or with Sambuca diluted with water in equal amounts.
- For Bitter Orange leaves sadly I haven’t found anything to replace it with. Perhaps you can try Orange leaves or Lemon leaves but they are far from the original.
Kalitsounia Video recipe
Kalitsounia – Cretan sweet cheese pies
Ingredients for the filling:
- 1,5 kg sweet Cretan fresh Myzithra or Mizithra
- 50g (2 Τbsp) unsalted butter, melted
- 4 Εgg yolks (keep the egg whites for the dough)
- 750g Regular Sugar (2 cups)
- ½ tsp of cinnamon
Ingredients for the filo dough:
- 1,5 kg all purpose Flour approximately (adding it at the end slowly)
- 200g all purpose Flour for the rolling/opening of the dough
- 250 ml (3/4 of a cup) Fresh milk
- 250 ml (3/4 of a cup) Olive oil
- 200ml (½ cup) Orange juice (about 2-3 oranges)
- 80ml (1/3 of a cup) Ouzo
- 4 Egg whites
- 1 tsp. Baking Soda
Ingredients for the crust:
- 1 egg yolk + 1 Tbsp Milk or water
- 1/3 cup Blossom water (Orange flower water)
- Bitter Orange leaves washed well
- Wash the Bitter Orange Leaves and let them dry on a kitchen towel.
- For the dough: In a big bowl, pour the orange juice and soda to activate it, and then continue with all the other liquids (milk, olive oil, ouzo, egg whites) stirring everything to combine.
- Then, add the flour slowly, stirring with an eggbeater at the start and switching to your hands later on, until 1.5g of flour is incorporated.
- Place the dough on a clean bowl and generously flour the bottom and top of the dough. Let it rest for 2 hours at room temperature.
- For the filling: Pat dry the Mizithra with a kitchen towel to collect its liquids.
- Add the Mizithra to a bowl, crush it with a fork, and pour in 4 egg yolks, ½ tsp. Cinnamon, 2 Tbsp. unsalted Butter melted, and 2 cups of sugar, kneading them until all the ingredients are mixed well.
- Let it sit covered with a towel at room temperature until the resting of the dough is done.
- After 2 hours of dough resting, move it to a clean surface and divide it into 4 quarters.
- Create 4 balls of dough* and open one by one with a rolling pin or long stick** aiming for a very thin dough.
- Cut the dough into circles with a cookie cutter *** with an ideal diameter of 11 cm.
- Put the Blossom Water in a small bowl, lightly beat two egg yolks with 1 Tbsp of milk in another bowl, and have the powder cinnamon ready.
- We take a piece of the round dough in our palm, and add the filling in the center, with a teaspoon. Dip your index finger in the Blossom water and push the filling to spread on the round base dough leaving 1 cm at the edges enough to make the tips of the star.
- To give it a star shape, we simply pinch the dough with our thumb and middle finger, avoiding using the index finger because we dip it in Blossom water.
- The tips of the star must be very thin and when you make them we need to press hard to make them extra thin. (This a very important step).
- Add parchment paper on a baking sheet align them with a small distance from each other because they do not puff much.
- Spread the egg wash on top and add a little cinnamon to each star.
- Preheat your oven at 200C /400F and just before they are ready to go in reduce the heat to 150C / 300F.
- Bake for about 25 minutes at 150C/300F and as soon as they are out of the oven and they are still hot, add the Bitter Orange Leaves on top and let them infuse their aroma until we need to use the baking tray again.
- Store for 3 days at room temperature, 1 week in a refrigerator in a tightly closed box, and over a month in the freezer.
In the old days, they used a grinder to grate the Mizithra and make it softer but nowadays it is no longer needed because the production and packaging of Mizithra have evolved.
Your filling will not be smooth to the touch, you do not need to do anything to make it smoother because it will melt when put it in the oven.
* While you knead the first ball of dough keep the rest 3 under a kitchen towel so that they don’t dry out.
** If you want, instead of a rolling pin, you can open the filo dough with a pasta machine. With my grandmother and the rest of my aunts, we used both methods to make the dough, because we were making a huge quantity for the whole family, and using both methods saved us time.
*** If you do not have a cookie-cutter you can use the lid of some round-shaped box or yogurt to make the cuts.
When you buy Blossom water (or Orange blossom water), make sure it’s the edible one and not the one that is used for skin care.
Kalitsounia is the proper name for this Easter sweet but sometimes you might hear them mentioned as Kaltsounia which is also okay.