Last Friday night Bogdan’s work hosted a cultural diversity potluck. All the Romanians in the office got together the night before to cook. Together we made a big bowl of salata beouf, a chopped salad of boiled potatoes, carrots, celery root, chicken, pickles and homemade mayo that’s often made for big family gatherings and holidays.
I happened to have Friday off so I decided to also make this savoury feta cheese pie with dill because it’s a crowd pleaser.
Growing up I spent every summer with my grandparents in Romania and whenever I arrived my grandmother always welcomed me with a fresh, homemade feta cheese pie. Showing her love in only the way a grandmother can, to this day mamaia still welcomes me back this way.
Making and eating this pie takes me back in time. So few things are made with traditional methods anymore that the only way to experience this unique taste is by making it yourself. There is nothing like the bite and texture of homemade phyllo. Much like homemade pasta, once you’ve had it you won’t look at the store-bought stuff the same way again.
Certain foods bridge time and distance. Tastes, scents, and secrets are passed down from generation to generation, evoking other eras, other kitchens, other people. How Chefs Preserve Family Memory Through Food
Feta cheese pie, or plăcintă cu telemea (pie with sheep cheese) as we call it in Romania, is still one of my absolute favourite Romanian foods. It’s a much beloved classic in Romania and (in different forms) throughout Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. There’s burek in Serbia, boregi in turkey, and boureki in Greece.
Placenta is a dish from ancient Rome consisting of many dough layers interspersed with a mixture of cheese and honey and flavored with bay leaves, then baked and covered in honey….The name placenta (Greek: “πλατσέντα”) is used today on the island of Lesbos in Greece to describe a baklava-type dessert of layered pastry leaves containing crushed nuts that is baked and then covered in honey. Another variant of the Roman dish survived into the modern era as the Romanian plăcintă cake. Placenta cake on Wikipedia
Since this dish has been around for a very long time it’s been adapted and interpreted according to local ingredients and cooking methods so it’s made in a lot of different ways around the world and even within Romania. For example in my part of the country Dobrogea, in the southeast, plăcintă (a word simply meaning ‘pie’) is made not only with feta and herbs but also with mince meat.
In Romania, the food falls under the name “plăcintă” and is most often made with cheese or cheese and spinach. In Dobrogea, eastern territory that used to be a Turkish province, one can find both the Turkish influence – plăcintă dobrogeana either filled with cheese or with minced meat and served with sheep yoghurt or the Tatar street food Suberek – a deep fried half Moon cheese filled dough. Börek on Wikipedia
Though I had wanted to make a meat version as well, I only managed to make the cheese version. If you want to know more about variations and substitutions, scroll past the recipe – I’ve included a meat filling variation at the bottom.
- Special equipment: I used a Zenker extendable baking tray measuring approximately 40 x 33 cm (15 x 12 inches.) You can easily substitute a half-sheet pan (45 x 33 cm or 18 x 13 inches). If you don’t have a rectangular baking sheet, scroll past the recipe for substitution options.
- The feta: The feta makes up a big part of this recipe so you’ll have to make some choices about quality and cost. Feta can get quite expensive in some places. I was lucky to find large cans of good quality feta at my Turkish grocer for about €7.00 / $8.00 per 800 grams / 1.8lbs. Sheep’s milk feta is preferred for this recipe but cow’s milk works just fine as well.
- The time it takes: There’s nothing that compares to homemade dough but I won’t lie, it is time-consuming. The whole rolling and filling process took me about 2 hours. If you love taking your time in the kitchen like I do then you just might love the process. But if you’re short for time or energy then scroll to the bottom for dough substitutions.
- Working with the dough: Making phyllo dough from scratch involves mixing the dough, letting it rest, and then breaking off bit by bit to work with. The dough can be rolled out with a rolling pin or a dowel, or it can be stretched by hand. Stretching is my preferred method but you have to have a bit of feeling in your hands for the dough in order to do this successfully. It has to be just the right amount of force applied to just the right place. If you’ve never really worked with dough then this may not be a good place to start (unless you’re feeling super ambitious.) If you still want to give it a try, start by rolling and ease your way into stretching. If the dough breaks, you can just pinch it back together and keep going.
- Enough food for a party: This recipe makes a lot of pie. If you don’t need this much then you can cut it in half for a more reasonable amount and use a quarter sheet pan or even a casserole dish.
Sharp and creamy sheep’s milk feta cheese speckled with fragrant dill layered between waves of perfect hand-made phyllo dough. Serve with a side of cool balkan yogurt and sliced heirloom tomatoes or eat as it is.
For the dough
- 900 grams / 2 lbs white flour
- 1.25 to 1.5 cups / 300 ml water
- 1/2 cup / 9 TBSP / 125 ml sunflower oil
- 2 TBSP white vinegar
- 1 tsp salt
For the filling
- 900 grams / 2 lbs of sheep’s milk feta
- 4 whole eggs, 4 egg yolks
- 1 bunch of fresh dill, de-stemmed and chopped
- 1.5 cups of full fat plain yogurt
- 1/4 cup sunflower oil
- 1 TBSP butter
- 1 whole egg for eggwash (optional)
Mix the dough
Mixing the dough is fairly straightforward. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix until incorporated. You can also use a stand mixer with a bread hook attachment. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and set aside to rest while you make the filling.
Make the filling
This step is also relatively straightforward. Use your fingers to crumble all of the feta into a very large mixing bowl. Add the diced dill, egg yolks, whole eggs, and yogurt. Mix well with hands or a wooden spoon until relatively homogenous. Some bigger chunks are okay.
Roll out & fill the dough
This step get a little more challenging. Cut the large piece of dough into 8 or 10 roughly equal smaller pieces. You’re going to work with one pieces at a time and leave the dough pieces covered while you do.
Before you start rolling out the dough, take the tbsp of butter and thoroughly grease your baking tray with it.
Once your baking tray is prepared, take a piece of dough and use the rolling pin to roll it out roughly into the shape of a large rectangle. The width of the dough should be just a few finger lengths longer than the width of your baking tray. You should aim to get it thin enough that the light passes through.
Once the dough is rolled out, scoop 4-5 heaping tablespoons of the filling onto the middle of the dough rectangle. Imagine the dough was divided into 3, your goal is to spread the filling evenly across the middle third so you can then fold the outside flaps inward where the edges will meet and create a slightly overlapping seam. Pinch the seam together.
The next step takes a little finesse. Pick up the little dough parcel, flip it so it’s seam-side down, and move it into the pan, scrunching it both vertically and horizontally and creating those beautiful wavy layers as you make it fit in the tray. Then repeat the same process until the whole tray is full.
Preheat oven to 200 C / 400 F. Brush the surface of the dough with more oil and then (if using) with the egg wash. The egg wash imparts a glossier finish to the pastry. Simply whisk one egg vigorously in a bowl and then use a basting brush to brush it across the surface of the pastry before baking. Cook the pie in the preheated oven for approximately 50 minutes or until golden.
Salt: The filling doesn’t contain any salt because the feta I used was salty enough on it’s own. Since different types of feta can have different salt contents, you’ll have to make a judgment call as to whether you want to add more salt to the filling than is already in the feta.
Extra filling or dough: When I made this I only ended up with a little bit of extra dough which I put aside to use for another pastry another day. If you end up with extra dough you can do the same (make a mini pie and fill it with anything in your fridge: meat, kimchi, cheese, fruit, nutella – go wild.) If you end up with extra filling you can add it to an omelet or hollow out a tomato, fill it with the filling and bake for 20 minutes at 200 C / 400 F.
- Category: Appetizer, Snack, Party Food
- Method: Oven
- Cuisine: Romanian
Keywords: feta, dill, pastry, phyllo, pie, savoury, savory
Variations & Substitutions
While there are a lot of variations, the basic premise has been the same apparently for hundreds of years across dozens of countries. There are three components: the dough, the filling, and the cooking method. Below you’ll find variations and substitutions you can make for each of these components because recipes are roadmaps but the map is not the territory.
The dough traditionally used for this dish is very thin and crisp – much like phyllo dough though not nearly as thin as mechanically produced phyllo. The dough I used in this recipe is unleavened wheat dough with the addition of oil and a bit of vinegar, which helps maintain the integrity of the dough and makes it easier to stretch or roll out very thin.
You can also substitute this dough with the following:
Premade phyllo dough: This is the easiest way to get from zero to cheese pie. Using a store-bought phyllo pastry won’t be the same as making it from scratch but it will be faster and easier. Since mechanically produced phyllo is so thin, it can dry out very fast. Be sure to keep unused phyllo covered and use oil very liberally throughout the process. When using store-bought phyllo dough you’ll want to use 3-4 sheets at once. Lay out the sheets, use a basting brush to cover them with a thin layer of oil, especially around the corners, and then spoon in the filling and follow the directions in the recipe as usual. You’ll probably need about 2 packs of phyllo for the filling in this recipe. Reduce oven temperature to 175 C / 350 F.
Pre-made puff pastry: Puff pastry also works well for this recipe. Follow the same basic directions as in the recipe but don’t scrunch the dough – just fold into little enveloped, pinch the corners, and place seam-side down into a buttered baking tray. Bake according to package directions. Pro tips: use an egg wash and sprinkle on some raw sesame seeds for extra pizzaz. You’ll likely need 2-3 packaged of puff pastry for this quantity of filling.
This is the fun part. Since this dough is so versatile you can fill it with practically anything you can think of. If you want to try a traditional meat filling, here’s a quick recipe:
Minced meat filling
- 800 grams / 1.7 lbs ground meat (traditionally we use a mix of pork and lamb but I often use ground beef and poultry is fair game too.)
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced, mashed or diced
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tsp flour
- 3 tsp cimbru or 1.5 each of dried oregano and dried thyme
- 1 tsp white pepper
- 1 tsp black pepper
In a large skillet over medium heat, saute the onion in the oil. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic. Add the beef and brown, breaking it up as it cooks. Once it’s reduced in size add the tomato paste, condiments, and sprinkle on the flour. Mix and then pour in the 1/4 cup of water. The combination with flour should make a thick gravy around it but you may need to continue cooking until the liquid thickens enough to stick to the back of a wooden spoon. Allow the filling to cool and then follow the recipe directions.
In Romania this type of pie is also commonly fried. If you want to try it fried (like a savoury feta elephant ear for the Americans or beaver tail for my Canadian friends) then the dough can easily be adapted. Omit the vinegar and only roll it out to about the thickness of pizza dough. Cut the dough into 10 even sized pieces, roll them out into circle shapes, spoon in 3-4 tbsp of filling into each and then fry in hot oil.