Category Archives: approximate baking theory

Soda Water – A Magical Baking Secret, oh and How to Make a Lazy Girl’s Tiropita.

January 17, 2017

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about my summers in Greece. I would venture to guess it’s the experience of any person with Greek roots. You just got shipped off to grandma and grandpa for the summer and marinated like an olive on a salty Mediterranean beach. I know, terrible right? Total FWP (first world problem). It couldn’t be helped. This was our lot in life, but these times were probably the funniest, most ridiculous and most memorable times of our lives. And many of those memories are punctuated with amazing food.  

So if you are not Greek, I am almost 100% sure you probably had similar experiences as a kid, be that if you spent your summers in Michigan, catching smelts or in Romania on the Black Sea. I want to you to tell me about them in the comments below. I like to find out about my readers.

So back to summers in Greece…as a child, my uncle, who was a farmer by trade, was always up at the butt crack of dawn. As such, it was my good fortune that he was able to make it to the local bakery first thing to get me a tiropita, a cheesy, buttery, flakey little package of yum. I would wake up and find a tiropita on the kitchen table waiting for me. Man was I spoiled.

This memory has stuck with me, as my love of tiropita. But making tiropita can be such an ordeal. And there is so many different ways to make them. Some people make little triangles, which takes forever to make. You can easily spend your life making an endless army of over 100 little cheese filled phyllo triangles. And if you choose to make whole big pie, you can be sitting there stressing over the right ratio of flour, milk, butter and eggs to make a béchamel sauce. Bechamel! Come on! I don’t have time for that.

What’s a modern girl, with traditional food tastes to do?

Well stress no more folks. I have a secret. Soda water. No not to drink, although you may want to mix it with some vodka and ice to celebrate how easy this recipe is afterwards…soda water is the secret ingredient to this lazy person’s tiropita. Your friends and family will think you slaved over this dish. Made your kitchen sink a disaster of measuring cups and dirty pots. Covered your floors with flour. But no. We will not tell them that you made a “no-measure needed” recipe. We will let them believe you are a hardcore, cooking traditionalist. Ha!

So how do we make this? Here we go:
Tiropita with Soda Water


1 lb package of phyllo dough

1 stick of butter melted

8 oz feta cheese, crumbled

8 oz kefalotiri, grated

6 oz gruyere cheese, grated

6 oz emmanthaler, grated

6 eggs

1 can of soda water, 12oz.



Start with prepping your cheeses, crumbled your block of feta, grate the other cheeses. Too much work you say? Get your kids to do it. Enlist a friend to help you grate. This will be done in less than 10 minutes together.

Now, if you can’t find kefalotiri, add more gruyere or emmathanler. Just don’t stress, any combination and ratio of cheese will work. I like a mix because they do different things, feta is tangy, kefalotiri is salty, gruyere is creamy, and emmathanler which is basically Swiss cheese, is mild but savory. But doesn’t it sound fancier as Emmanthaler, so say that instead! So gourmet! When your cheeses are ready, melt your butter and set aside.  

Next, unpackage your phyllo dough carefully and place a wet paper towel over it to keep moist and prevent it from drying out as you work. I use a 12 inch round aluminum pan, but you can use a 9×13 inch rectangle also…whatever works kids, this is easy, no stress tiropita.

Begin by brushing melted butter all over your pan and lay down your first piece of phyllo dough. Brush butter on that layer and add the next. Keep doing this, butter, phyllo, butter, phyllo, until you have 6 layers. Then scatter half the grated and crumbled cheeses your prepared earlier over the phyllo dough. Salt and pepper lightly. Repeat the butter, phyllo layers 6 more times. Add the last half of your cheese combination, salt and pepper again and top with the final 6 layers of phyllo dough and buttered layers. It’s important to butter each sheet of phyllo dough. This will ensure a nice flakey crust. Don’t cry to me about butter. Life is too short. It’s good for you. Julia Child once said, “With enough butter, anything is good.”

Next, trim the excess pieces of phyllo dough that are hanging over your pan. You can also choose to fold them under the pie, but why? LOL. In the end you are trying to minimize the excess dough. Then score your cheese pie with a knife into even serving sized pieces.

Finally, I reveal the secret. Beat 6 eggs and add a can of soda water to them. Pour this concoction over your tiropita. Yes! Just do it. Let it soak in, in between the layers everywhere and then bake at 375 for about 50-55 minutes.

Your pie will puff up, brown nicely and amaze you. Trust me, this is the easiest cheese pie you ever made. I am not sure how this magic works, but somehow the soda water and eggs transforms the phyllo dough and the cheesy layers into something amazing that reminds me of those mornings in Greece when I had a bakery tiropita from the village.  




Pastichio, like lasagna, but different…way different.

October 23, 2016

So it’s been a while since I posted an actual recipe on the blog…the past few weeks, I have mostly been telling you about all the fun I have been having around town.

Well, this one is a special request for my niece Francesca, who requested a pastichio recipe.  So this one’s for you kid!  Family recipe getting passed on.

Of course testing this recipe was not easy.  I had to translate my mother’s recipe from Greek which feeds about 1,000 hungry Greeks to this more manageable “family-sized” version. (Okay I’m exaggerating.  A little.  Not really.  Okay a little.  But it’s true, her recipe serves a lot of people.)

So today I had my mother over and had her experienced and watchful eyes supervise me while I made my very first pastichio.

What is pastichio?  It’s thick macaroni noodles, ground beef in a light tomato sauce all covered with mizithra and Bechamel sauce baked in the oven.  Sound familiar?  It’s kind of like a lasagna, but with a very different flavor profile:  it has the warm flavors of cinnamon, clove and salty mizithra cheese.  The perfect fall dish.

I want to say it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3…but I would call this a “medium” in terms of difficulty.  Only because there are 1, 2, 3 main parts you need to orchestrate:

1.  Fat macaroni noodles with mizithra

2.  Cinnamon and clove seasoned ground beef and

3.  Bechamel sauce – the keys to the universe.

Let’s first talk about the fat macaroni. It’s more like really thick bucatini.  It looks like fat spaghetti with a hole in it.  My mom likes to use the Misko brand.  But if you can’t find them, I am sure that rigatoni or penne would work too.  Shhh, don’t tell my mom I said that.

Next is the ground beef.  My mom is a stickler for the right meat-to-macaroni ratio but feel free to edit to fit your preferences.  I like to use between a pound to a pound and a half.  I mean you have heard of “approximate baking theory” right?  Turns out that theory works here too.

Finally we have the bechamel sauce.  It’s the “glue” that hold this whole dish together.  Now there are different schools of thought regarding the bechamel sauce for pastichio.  Some people like a really thick creamy layer and they use lots of butter and lots and lots of eggs to top the ground beef and macaroni.  Me?  I prefer my moms version…it’s a lighter, simpler bechamel and she lets some of it work it’s way into the nooks and crannies of the macaroni mixture with a thinner layer of bechamel on top.  The choice is yours, but I like this version best.

So let’s get this party started and I will walk you through the steps.  But first, the ingredients…

Vaso’s Pastichio (that’s my mom)

1/2 lb. “pastichio” macaroni

1/2 – 3/4 cup grated mizithra

1.25 lbs ground beef

1 cinnamon stick

4-5 whole cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground cinammon

4 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup of water

4 cups of whole milk

1/2 cup fine semolina

3 eggs

Here is how to make pastichio.  The pasta and beef can be made at the same time.  Your bechamel sauce will be the final step.

Fat macaroni noodles:

First set a pot of water to boil.  You will need this to boil your pasta for 10-13 minutes.  You know, “al dente”.  Be sure to salt your water once it comes to a boil before adding your macaroni.

Seasoned ground beef:

While waiting for your pasta water to boil, in a skillet or cast iron pan add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil and bring up to a low to medium heat.  Then add your ground beef and begin browning it.

Once the meat has browned, add the tomato paste, cinammon, cinnamon stick, whole cloves, salt and pepper.  Easy on the salt because mizithra cheese you add later is salty and you don’t want to over do it.

I really recommend you to count how many cloves you added so you can fish them out later before assembling the dish.  Otherwise you are in for a strong tasting surprise if you bite down into one.

Finally add a cup of water and cook the meat down until it has thickened and all the flavors have melded together.  Set aside.

In the amount of time it takes you to prepare the meat, your pasta should be done too.  Drain the pasta coat with a small splash of olive oil and get ready to assemble the dish.


In a large bowl toss your macaroni with the grated mizithra and then toss the ground beef mixture in as well.  Put your mixture in a 9×11 baking dish and set aside.  You want all of it be well coated like this:

Super simple bechamel sauce:

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a large pot, on your stovetop, add 4 cups of milk and 1/2 cup fine semolina and stir over a low heat for about 15 minutes.  It’s important to stir slowly and constantly so that you don’t get lumps.

Sorry bechamel sauce is really high maintenance.  Kind of like a Housewife of Beverly Hills…But worth it.

After the sauce has thickened nicely, kind of a like a loose cream of wheat consistency, turn off the heat and set aside to cool, stirring it every now and then to prevent a skin from forming.  I would say this “cooling” takes about 10-15 minutes.

After 10-15 minutes your sauce will still be very warm but can now tolerate the eggs.  Use a hand mixer and mix 3 eggs until foamy.  Then stir them into your semolina mixture quickly to prevent clumps.  Don’t be afraid…just do it 🙂

Your bechamel is now ready.  If you like you can add a touch of nutmeg, but likely unnecessary because you have the clove and cinammon working for you in the ground beef.

Finally pour the bechamel carefully over the macaroni, mizithra and beef mixture in your baking dish.  If you feel it might over flow, take a fork and move some of the pasta around to let the bechamel work its way into the nooks and crannies of the dish.  In the end you still want a thin layer of bechamel on top to protect your macaroni from burning.

Place into a 400F oven for 45-50 minutes until the top is nicely browned.  Let cool and serve.  This version serves 6 people 2 pieces each.  Or 4 hungry people 3 pieces each.  Or 2 super hungry Greek men. LOL.



Approximate Baking Theory and a Recipe for Greek Christmas Cookies

December 20, 2015

Ah, Christmas time.  The memories.  When I was little, I would make kourambiethes with my mom.  They are a powdery, snowy-looking Greek Christmas cookie, and it was my job to assist her in adding the appropriate amount of flour into the batter at her cue.  It was my responsibility and no one else’s.  I was, the flour girl.  Pause for effect.

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Without fail, the Saturday before Christmas, early morning, I was sitting at the kitchen table watching her whip butter and sugar together until it was fluffy.  She of course giving me a sweet taste before she added vanilla and brandy for flavor.  After that it was my turn, I would add heaping spoonfuls full of flour into the batter as she mixed by hand until she found that the dough was perfect for shaping into moons, stars and crescents.  She would tell me to add a lot, then a little.  And then just a little bit more…that’s it, just right.

Just right?  How did she know it was just right?  We never measured anything!!!  So, let’s talk about that for a minute shall we?  The topic of “measurements” in Greek cooking.  And I use the term “measurement” loosely.  I call it “Approximate Baking Theory”.


“Oh there’s a coffee cup and spoon, just use that to measure.” -Mom

She would grab some random coffee mug from her cupboard and use it to “measure” ingredients.  She would take a coffee spoon and “measure” spices, or the baking power and baking soda. And then she would tell me to just take big spoonfuls of flour and just add it to the bowl until she said so and just like that, (pause for effect) magic.  The dough would form and pull away from the bowl and it would just roll up perfectly in her hands.  But how?  How?

If you looked at my mom’s recipe notebook, her recipes are basically handwritten lists of ingredients.  I don’t believe for one minute her coffee mugs and coffee spoons ever really “measured” anything.  They were simply vessels used to transport ingredients into the mixing bowl.  “Oh, I need a little cinnamon, I’ll use this small spoon.”  or “Oh, I need some sugar, I’ll use this mug.”  The actual amounts of each ingredient exists only in her head or what “looked about right”.  So imagine the comedy of errors that followed when I demanded, “Mom, you need to measure that and make me a recipe.”  Sweet Jesus.  Everything was in ratios of that stupid coffee cup.  God help me if I lose the coffee cup.  That brown and white coffee cup!!!  She later confessed to me that her grandmother didn’t even use a coffee cup, she used a plate.  A plate!!!  Well, a coffee cup seemed like progress now.

Image 4And so, since I believe baking to be a true “science” and requires precision, and anyone who knows me, knows I like precision, I filled that coffee cup with water and measured it.  Yes I did.

And then I insisted she use measuring spoons for the cinnamon, clove, baking powder and baking soda.  An hour long conversation about rounded teaspoons vs. level teaspoons followed.  I can’t.  Don’t ask.

Let’s just say that after much philosophical discussion, getting lost in translation, I managed to transcribe a recipe that existed only in her head onto paper.  I cracked the code.  I solved the riddle.  The secrets of generations of Greek women have been laid wide out into the open.  I have my mother’s recipe in true recipe form.

I always think back to those innocent days when I make these cookies and smile.  And then I pour some coffee into that stupid coffee mug and grab a real measuring cup and go to town.  So let’s make these cookies!  Woot!

Kourambiethes – makes approximately 60 cookies

3 sticks of unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp whiskey or brandy
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
“approximately” 4 cups of flour (see notes below)

Pre-heat oven to 375 F.

Let the butter come to room temperature before whipping in a stand mixer.  Whip the butter for about 5 minutes at medium speed then add the sugar and beat for and additional 10-15 minutes until light and fluffy.

Add the vanilla, brandy, egg yolks, egg white, baking powder and soda until mixed through.
Begin adding the flour slowly…

A note about the the flour.  You may be wondering, why there isn’t an exact amount of flour.  I want to tell you, that it can vary because of air temperature and humidity in your kitchen, but I would be lying.  In general, this recipe takes approximately 4 cups of flour, give or take a 1/4 cup or more.  How can this be?  Well,  blame “the approximate baking theory”.

However, if you add the flour in the manner I describe next, I promise, you too will be an expert baker of approximate measures.  Do not be afraid.

Begin by adding the first 2.5 cups of flour and mix.  Now it’s time to get your hands dirty.  Take the mixing bowl off the stand mixer and start adding more flour about 1/2 at a time and blend by hand until you obtain the desired consistency.

What is the desired consistency you may be wondering?  Well, you want to add enough flour so that the mixture begins to “pull away” cleanly from the sides of the bowl, but not so much that when you roll out a cookie it cracks.  If you get cracks before you baked them, you have added too much flour, so add slowly.  You want a nice smooth cookie.  Otherwise, while the cookies are baking, they will crack some more as they spread and rise, and this is a very tender, crumbly butter cookie.

But I will let you in on a secret, come closer.  All cracks can be hidden by the powdered sugar topping..wink wink, no one will know.  Shhhh, you didn’t just read that.

I like to roll my cookies out into full moons with a dimple in center to hold more powdered sugar (and also because I am incredibly lazy…otherwise you can get creative and shape them into crescent moons and stars.)

The cookies bake about 12-15 minutes depending on strength of your oven at about 360-375 F. (Again, the approximate baking theory applies). You don’t really want color on top of the cookie, but a nice light brown on the bottom, which will be an indicator that they are cooked perfectly.

Roll the cookies in powdered sugar, or if you like more precision like me, use a sifter and cover them that way 😉

Good luck and enjoy!

– Kallie

P.S. I like to make my kourambiethes gluten free.  I like to use the Jeanne’s flour mix recipe from The Art of Gluten Free Baking.  Works out great.  Anyone who is gluten free should check out Jeanne’s delicious website.