Chaniotiki Tourta

Lamb and Fennel Torta

THE DOUGH for this rich Easter bread from Chania, on Crete, is very similar to that for Jewish challah, which is found all over Greece as tsoureki, a sweet festive bread shaped like a braid. The filling comes in many variations, but lamb or young goat and fresh cheese are its main ingredients. In some recipes, the meat is not cooked separately before it is added to the other filling ingredients; in others, including this version, the meat is partially cooked with herbs and spices before it is mixed with the cheese.

When I first tasted it, I thought that it was a variation of an old Venetian recipe. But it seems that although the word tourta clearly derives from the Renaissance and Italian tortas, this meat-stuffed loaf has nothing to do with any modern Venetian torta. As far as I know, it is unique to Greece.

After trying many versions, I came up with this recipe. To duplicate the marvelous fresh, rich and slightly tangy Cretan cheese, which is not available outside the island, I have substituted manouri, the creamy rich cheese from the north of Greece, mixed with some yogurt.

This is not a stuffed bread but, rather, a pita with a thick bread-like crust, so you need to remove it carefully from the pan and let it cool to just warm before serving it, or the filling will be too soft and runny and its flavor not yet fully developed.

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Ingredients

Crust

  • cup warm water
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2–3 teaspoons aniseeds or fennel seeds
  • 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt or kosher salt
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • About ¾ cup milk

Filling

  • cup olive oil
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 1 fennel bulb, trimmed (fronds and tender stalks reserved) and finely chopped
  • 1 pound boneless lamb, trimmed of most fat and cut into tiny cubes
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • cups coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 cup fennel fronds plus tender stalks
  • 5–6 scallions (white and most of the green parts), thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, preferably freshly ground or crushed in a mortar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • cup chopped fresh mint
  • 3 ounces manouri cheese (about cup), mashed with a fork
  • ½ cup thick sheep’s milk yogurt or Drained Yogurt
  • A few drops of milk or water
  • 2–3 teaspoons sesame and/or nigella seeds

Method

Make the Crust

In a small bowl, combine the water and yeast and let stand for 2 minutes.

In a food processor, place the flour, aniseeds or fennel seeds and salt and pulse to blend. With the motor running, add the yeast mixture, all but 1 tablespoon of the beaten eggs, the oil and enough milk to form a soft dough. Process the dough for 2 to 3 minutes, or until it forms a ball.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for 2 to 3 minutes, or until soft and elastic. Shape the dough into a ball. Oil a large bowl and place the dough in it, turning to coat. Brush a piece of plastic wrap with oil and cover the dough. Let rise in a warm spot for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until doubled in volume.

Make the Filling

In a large skillet, heat the oil and sauté the onion over medium heat until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the fennel bulb and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, or until soft. Add the lamb and sauté, stirring, until no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Add the water and pepper and cook for 20 minutes more. Add the parsley and cook for about 10 minutes more, or until the meat is almost done. Stir in the wild fennel or fennel fronds, scallions, fennel seeds and salt and remove from the heat. Stir in the mint and let cool. (You can prepare the filling up to this point 1 day in advance, cover and refrigerate. Remove from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before using.) Stir the cheese and yogurt into the filling, taste and adjust the seasonings.

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut off a piece of dough the size of a tennis ball and set aside. Cut the remaining dough into 2 pieces, 1 slightly larger than the other. Lightly oil a 12-x-18-inch baking pan and place the larger piece of dough in it, flattening it with your hands and pressing it up the sides of the pan, making a slight overhang. Add the filling, distributing it evenly.

On a lightly floured surface, flatten the second piece of dough with your hands into a rectangle the size of the pan. Place it over the filling. Fold the overhanging bottom pastry over the top crust and pinch the edges together to seal, crimping them to make a neat cord around the edge of the pie. Flatten the cord with the tines of a fork to securely seal to prevent it from sticking up, or it will burn during baking (see illustration)

Roll the reserved piece of dough with your palm into a rope as thick as your little finger. Cut into several pieces, and decorate the surface of the pie with them. Whisk the reserved 1 tablespoon egg with a few drops of milk or water and brush over the dough. Sprinkle the top with the seeds.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and bake for 45 minutes more, or until golden brown.

Let cool before cutting. Serve at room temperature, or refrigerate and serve cold.

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