Poppy Panos is making one of her favorite pies, a Greek specialty called kolokithopita. Her movements are effortless as she makes a traditional phyllo dough, combining the dry ingredients in a food processor, pulsing the machine briefly, then adding milk, water and an egg.
She quickly turns the dough out onto her Formica counter and with a few deft movements, kneads it lightly into a ball, wraps it in cellophane and places it in the refrigerator to chill.
Next, Panos prepares the filling by saute'eing some minced onions and garlic in olive oil. Sliced zucchini and mushrooms are then added and the mixture cooks briefly. She mixes in cheese, parsley, eggs and cooked rice. The filling is now ready for what is obviously no ordinary zucchini pie.
Such artistry has made Panos, customer service director for a local bank, a cooking legend in the Greek community of Peabody, Mass. In fact, her fame has spread even into Boston, where Panos has taught cooking on television.
As she skillfully wields her rolling pin, rolling out the dough to complete her pie, she explains that she learned the pie-making ritual from her mother.
"The love of lavish feast and elegant presentation of food is part of the Greek heritage," she says solemnly. "A perfect example of this is Greek homemade pies, which are called pitas." Such pitas, she goes on, can be made with meat, custards or -- as in the case of this kolokithopita she is completing -- vegetables. With the addition of fresh herbs and spices, which provide each dish with a unique flavor, and a phyllo crust, it becomes obvious that a delicious pie need not be apple.
Like Panos, Nicholas Malgieri remembers the pies made in his home, by his Italian grandmother when he grew up in Newark, N.J. Malgieri, author of "Great Italian Desserts" (Little, Brown and Company, 1990, $19.95) and pastry chef at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, was inspired by his grandmother's confections to follow the career path that he did.
"Italian pies are made mainly with a type of crust known as pasta frolla," Malgieri explained. "It's a soft, sweet dough, not flaky, with more of a cookie-like quality. The one nice thing about pasta frolla is that it is completely foolproof because it has less fat in it than flaky doughs do and it is a lot easier to handle."
Susan Purdy, author of the recently issued paperback version of "As Easy as Pie" (Collier Books, $14.95), is a veteran pie maker who agrees that crusts can be a problem. She suggests using a food processor for making crust and following five simple rules she has developed over the years for making a perfect crust:
Keep all ingredients ice cold to inhibit the flour's gluten and elasticity.
Add a teaspoon or so of vinegar or lemon juice to the pie crust to help cut the gluten.
Use a minimum of water and do a minimum of handling so that the dough does not become elastic.
Bake everything, particularly fruit pies in the pastry shell, in the lower two-thirds of the oven at 425 degrees for the first 12 to 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 degrees and raise the pie to the center of the oven. Continue baking for 45 to 50 minutes, or whatever the recipe requires.
To prevent soggy pie bottoms, before you add the filling, brush the bottom crust with a fruit jam or with an egg wash. Also, always add the filling just before the pie goes in the oven."
POPPY PANOS' PHYLLO CRUST (For One Two-Crust Pie)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 stick well-chilled butter
2 teaspoons solid shortening (Crisco)
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons ice water
In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine the flour, salt, sugar, white pepper. Add the butter and shortening in pieces and the oil, and turn the food processor on and off until the mixture resembles a course meal. Slowly, with the machine running, add the milk, water, and egg. Add a little more water if the dough is dry. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 2 to 3 minutes until the dough is firm. Wrap tightly in cellophane. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Per pie: 1934 calories, 34 gm protein, 195 gm carbohydrates, 113 gm fat, 62 gm saturated fat, 524 mg cholesterol, 2082 mg sodium.
POPPY PANOS' KOLOKITHOPITA (Zucchini Pie) (10 servings)
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small onion, sliced
3 small zucchini, cut into thin, julienne strips
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced thinly
1 cup cooked rice
1/4 pound Swiss cheese, finely shredded
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped finely
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE GLAZE:
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon cold water
In a large saute' or frying pan placed over high heat, add the olive oil. Add the garlic, onions and saute' briefly, about a minute. Add the zucchini and mushrooms and saute' for 5 minutes over medium heat. Remove from the heat and cool slightly. In a large bowl, combine the rice, cheese, parsley, eggs, salt and pepper. Add the zucchini mixture and mix well.
On a lightly floured surface, place half the dough from the Phyllo Pie Crust (recipe above) and roll out to a 12-inch circle. Fit into a 10-inch pie pan, crimping the edges and fitting it closely into the bottom of the pan. Spoon the zucchini mixture into the center. Roll out the remaining circle of dough to a 12-inch circle and fit over the top, using the tines of a fork to crimp the edges together. Cut a small hole in the center. Combine the ingredients of the glaze and brush the top. Place the pie on a cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes until golden brown. Remove cool, and serve.
Per serving: 360 calories, 10 gm protein, 29 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 10 gm saturated fat, 145 mg cholesterol, 470 mg sodium.
NICHOLAS MALGIERI'S PUMPKIN PIE FROM THE PO VALLEY (10 servings)
FOR THE PASTA FROLLA:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg
FOR THE PUMPKIN FILLING:
1 fresh pumpkin, about 2 pounds, or 1 can solid-pack pumpkin, 1 pound
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
1 cup almonds, ground
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup candied orange peel
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For the pasta frolla, combine the dry ingredients and mix well. Rub in the butter until it is absorbed, making sure the mixture remains cool and powdery and does not become pastry. Beat the egg and stir in with a fork. Continue stirring until the dough holds together, then knead it briefly, just until smooth. Shape into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until firm.
For the filling, cut the pumpkin into 2-inch dice, scrape away the filaments, and peel off the skin. Steam the pumpkin over simmering water for about 40 minutes, until it is tender. Pure'e the pumpkin in a blender or a food processor fitted with the metal blade and cool. If the pumpkin pure'e is excessively watery, cook it, stirring constantly, over medium heat, preferably in a nonstick pan, to dry it out before cooking.
Measure 2 cups of the pumpkin pure'e (a little more or less won't matter) into a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the salt, sugar, cinnamon and eggs, one at a time. Combine the ground almonds and cornmeal and stir into the pumpkin mixture. Place the candied orange peel in a strainer, rinse under cold, running water, and chop it finely with a sharp knife. Oil the blade of the knife to prevent it from sticking to the peel. Stir the chopped peel into the filling, then fold in the melted butter.
To assemble the pie, roll the dough out on a floured surface into a large disk, about 14 inches in diameter. Fold the disk of dough in half and fit it into a buttered 9-by-2-inch deep layer cake pan. Press the dough well against the bottom and sides of the pan and trim the edges of the dough so that they are even with the top of the pan. Pour in the filling and spread it evenly. The filling will be about 1/2-inch lower than the top of the pan. Fold the excess dough at the rim inward, over the filling, so that it makes a border about 1/2-inch wide at the edge.
Bake the pie in the lower third of a preheated 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes, until the filling is set and the dough is a light golden color. Cool the pie in the pan on a rack. When the pie is completely cooled, place a flat plate or pan on top and invert. Lift off the baking pan and replace it with a platter. Invert again and remove the top plate or pan. Keep the pie loosely covered at room temperature.
Per serving: 358 calories, 7 gm protein, 41 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 8 gm saturated fat, 112 mg cholesterol, 105 mg sodium.
From "Great Italian Desserts" by Nicholas Malgierl (Little, Brown, 1990) NICHOLAS MALGIERI'S WALNUT-FILLED PASTRY FROM AOSTA (10 servings)
FOR THE WALNUT FILLING:
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
3/4 cup honey
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups walnuts, chopped
FOR THE PASTA FROLLA:
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 large egg yolks
2 cups all-purpose flour
Confectioners' sugar for finishing
For the walnut filling, combine the sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan and stir well to mix. Place over medium heat and allow to caramelize, stirring occasionally. When the sugar is a pale amber color, add the honey and the butter. Bring to a boil and cook about 2 minutes, until thick bubbles form. Stir in the salt and walnuts. Cool the filling.
For the pasta frolla, beat the butter until soft and beat in the sugar in a stream. Continue beating until the mixture lightens. Add the egg yolks one at a a time, beating until the mixture is very smooth and light. Beat in the flour until it is absorbed, without overmixing. Set the dough aside, covered.
To assemble the dessert, place half the dough in the bottom of a 9- or 10-inch springform pan that has been buttered and lined with wax paper or parchment. Press the dough with your fingertips evenly over the bottom of the pan and about 1 inch up the sides of the pan. Spread the cooled filling on the dough. Flour the remaining dough and press it into a 9- or 10-inch disk on a cardboard or tart pan bottom. Slide the dough over the filling and press it into place, making sure that the sides are straight and even. Seal the edges with the tines of a fork and pierce the top here and there with the fork. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. Cool briefly in the pan, then unmold onto a rack to cool. Dust very lightly with the confectioners' sugar.
Per serving: 646 calories, 10 gm protein, 66 gm carbohydrates, 40 gm fat, 16 gm saturated fat, 148 mg cholesterol, 61 mg sodium.
From "Great Italian Desserts" by Nicholas Malgierl (Little, Brown, 1990) SUSAN PURDY'S BUTTER-LARD PASTRY (For One Two-Crust Pie)
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup lard, cut up
1/3 cup unsalted butter, cut up
5 to 6 tablespoons ice water
Sift the flour and salt into the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Cover the bowl and pulse quickly, turning the machine on and off two or three times. Uncover the bowl and add the cut-up lard and butter. Process 5 to 10 seconds until the dough has the texture of rough cornmeal.
Through the feed tube, add part of the water. Pulse two or three times. Add remaining liquid and pulse twice or several times, watching the dough and stopping the instant the dough starts to clump together. It will still look rough and lumpy. Turn the dough out onto a piece of wax paper. Lift the opposite corners of the paper and press on the dough, forming it into a ball. Wrap up the dough and refrigerate 20 to 30 minutes, or several hours. Divide the dough in half and use as directed in the recipe below.
Per pie: 2168 calories, 26 gm protein, 190 gm carbohydrates, 143 gm fat, 72 gm saturated fat, 262 mg cholesterol, 1613 mg sodium.
From "As Easy as Pie" by Susan Purdy (Collier Books, 1984) SUSAN PURDY'S TOURTIERE (French Canadian Pork Pie) (6 servings)
FOR THE EGG GLAZE:
1 egg, beaten lightly
1 tablespoon water
FOR THE FILLING:
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 or 3 tablespoons oil or margarine
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds raw pork, trimmed of fat and minced or ground, or use 1 pound pork plus 1/2 pound veal
1 cup pork gravy or stock or rich bouillon (chicken or beef)
1 pound (3 medium) potatoes, boiled, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 tablespoon chopped celery leaves (optional)
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1/4 teaspoon each thyme, and either rosemary or savory
1/8 teaspoon each ground allspice and pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Roll out half the dough from the Butter-Lard Pastry above on a lightly floured surface to 1/8-inch thickness. Fold in quarters, lift, and position in the pie plate. Trim a 1/2-inch overhang, brush with the egg glaze, then refrigerate the pastry-lined pan while you prepare the filling.
In a frying pan, saute' the onion in the oil until transparent. Add the garlic and saute' 1 minute, then add the minced pork. Saute' about 3 minutes, then add the veal (if you are using it) and saute' until the meats are browned. Break up any clumps with a wooden spoon. Add about 1/2 cup stock, cover the pan, and simmer about 15 minutes to cook the meat through. Uncover the frying pan and check the liquid. Remove all but 2 or 3 tablespoons of the meat juice and stock. Add the potatoes, celery leaves, parsley, herbs and spices, and stir to blend. Add salt, taste, and adjust the seasoning. Add, if necessary, just enough additional gravy or stock to moisten the mixture well without making it watery.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared pastry shell. Brush the egg glaze on the overhang of the lower crust. Roll out the top crust on a lightly floured surface, fold in quarters, lift, and position it over the pie. Trim a 3/4-inch overhang, then fold the top edge under the bottom crust overhang and pinch the two together to seal, making a raised rim all around. Flute the edge as desired.
Bake in the lower third of the preheated 425-degree oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees, raise the pie to the center of the oven, and continue baking about 45 to 55 minutes longer until golden brown. Check halfway through the baking time and add a foil edging to protect the crust from overbrowning if necessary. Cool slightly on a wire rack, then serve hot or warm.
Per serving: 795 calories, 27 gm protein, 52 gm carbohydrates, 53 gm fat, 21 gm saturated fat, 171 mg cholesterol, 2179 mg sodium.
From "As Easy as Pie" by Susan Purdy (Collier Books, 1984)
Nina Simonds is the author of "Chinese Seasons" (Houghton Mifflin) and "China's Food" (Harper and Row).