Monday, August 18, 2008

Greek Wild Thyme Honey with Recipe for Cinnamon-Honey Tart (Melopita – Μελόπιτα)

Thyme Covered Hillsides at Tigani BaySandy beaches and rocky promontories alternate along the island’s irregular coastline. Mounds of wild thyme cover the hills sloping down to the sea, and scent the sea air with their heady aroma.

Harvesting Wild Thyme

Harvesting Wild Thyme

By the start of summer, the wild thyme is in bloom. Yiannis, our beekeeper friend, has already moved his hives to fields near the shore and the abundantly blooming thyme. The bees spend their summer making thyme-flavored honey that Yiannis harvests and sells to locals and tourists alike.

I fell in love with thyme honey years ago at a galakatopoleio, a type of Greek store that sells milk, yogurt, and desserts like rice pudding (rizogalo) and custard pies (galaktoboureko). We’d stopped for a late breakfast and I ordered yogurt.

Used to American yogurt, which has a much thinner consistency than its Greek counterpart, I was surprised to see the galaktopoleio’s proprietor slice off a thick slab from a long yogurt loaf. He served the yogurt slice with liberal drizzlings of thyme honey. Despite its simplicity, the combination was utter perfection. Thyme honey, unlike the bland clover honey I grew up with, has a robust flavor.

When we return from Greece each year, we always have a supply of wild thyme honey in our baggage. However, in Alaska, Greek yogurt is difficult, and usually impossible, to find. When available, it’s too expensive for my budget.

Greek Yogurt and Honey
If I crave Greek yogurt and honey in Alaska, I buy plain, whole-milk yogurt (Pavel’s Original Russian Yogurt, available at Natural Pantry in Anchorage, is my favorite brand), and strain it for at least an hour through a paper towel set in a colander. Strained American yogurt mimics the texture of the yogurt we buy in Greece. I like straining yogurt right when I bring it home from the market; that way, it’s ready to eat at my convenience. All I need do is drizzle a scoop of strained yogurt with Yiannis’ honey, and my favorite breakfast is ready to serve.

Honey isn’t a newcomer to the Greek table. It’s been an important ingredient in Greek cooking throughout recorded history and continuing to the present day. In
The Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus, which includes excerpts from the earliest Greek writings about food and cooking, honey appears regularly. Among other uses, the ancient Greeks combined honey with wine, added it to savory sauces, and drizzled it over all kinds of sweets.

Athenaeus (circa 200 AD) catalogs “cheesecakes of every sort and every name,” including many that contain honey. In a recent post, Mariana of History of Greek Food wrote about her version of one cheesecake described by Athenaeus.

Cinnamon-Honey Tart (Melopita), a dessert using many of the same ingredients as the cheesecakes documented by Athenaeus, is still popular in Greece today. There’s also a Greek honey cake called Melopita; for clarity, I’ve translated the cheesecake-style Melopita as Cinnamon-Honey Tart.

On some Greek islands, and notably on
Sifnos, Cinnamon-Honey Tart is traditionally made for Easter feasts. It’s worthy of a place at any special occasion table.

Cinnamon Honey Tart(Melopita)Cinnamon-Honey Tart (Melopita – Μελόπιτα)
Serves 10 - 12
The texture of Cinnamon-Honey Tart filling is similar to pumpkin pie filling, and is better when made with whole-milk ricotta. In Greece, fresh, unsalted myzithra is used instead of ricotta, but this product isn’t available in Alaska. The myzithra sold in most US supermarkets is dried, salted, and not suitable for a sweet tart filling.

I like making Cinnamon-Honey Tart in an 11” tart pan with a removable bottom to increase the crust to filling ratio. Use a 9” springform cake pan if you prefer cheesecake to tarts (more filling, less crust), a 9”x13” pan if you want to serve the dessert as bar cookies (great for potlucks), or pastry-lined cupcake tins or tartlet pans to make individual-size servings. In developing the recipe, I baked various versions of the filling as custards (without the crust) in a water bath at 325°F for 30 minutes. The custards are tasty, dead simple to make, and may be made ahead (the flavor develops over time).

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon peel (peel from 1 lemon)
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup cold butter (1 stick) cut in chunks
2 Tbsp. lemon juice

15 – 16 ounces ricotta, preferably whole milk, or fresh, unsalted myzithra
2/3 cup thyme honey or other full-flavored honey
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp. cinnamon, preferably true Ceylon cinnamon (see About Cinnamon below)
1/8 tsp. salt

Make and Bake the Crust: Put the flour, sugar, lemon peel, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to mix the ingredients. Add butter chunks to the processor bowl, and process until the butter and flour are evenly mixed. Sprinkle in the lemon juice and process until the dough just holds together. If the dough is too dry, add 1 – 2 Tbsp. ice-cold water.

Dump the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap, and knead lightly to form a flat disk. Wrap and let rest for at least 30 minutes before using.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Roll out the dough into a round with a diameter 3” wider than the tart pan (or enough to cover the bottom and 1” of a 9” springform pan’s sides). Use the rolling pin to lift the dough and place it in the pan; press the dough firmly into pan’s sides and bottom. Trim the dough’s edges so there is just enough to fold under and cover the sides of the tart pan with a double layer of dough (if using a springform pan, trim the dough so it goes 1” up the sides. Prick tiny holes all over the crust with a fork.

Press a double layer of aluminum foil directly onto the dough-covered bottom and sides. Bake the crust for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 5 minutes or until the crust is set and lightly golden. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack. Reduce the oven heat to 375°F.

Make and Bake the Filling: Mix all the ingredients together to form a smooth batter. Pour the batter into the pre-baked pie crust. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the sides of the tart are set and the middle is still a little jiggly; residual heat will finish cooking the filling (because the springform pan is deeper, the filling in it will take a little longer to cook). Overcooking Cinnamon-Honey tart causes the filling to crack.

About Cinnamon:

I tested the filling recipe multiple times, using a different kind of cinnamon each time (Ceylon “True” Cinnamon, Korintje (Indonesian) Cassia Cinnamon, China Tung Hing Cassia Cinnamon, and Vietnamese “Saigon” Cassia Cinnamon), as well as a mixture of “True” Cinnamon and allspice. My favorite was the version made with “True” Cinnamon; the citrus notes in this variety blended perfectly with the lemon-flavored crust. Although Vietnamese “Saigon” Cassia Cinnamon is the cinnamon I prefer in most dishes, its flavor was too overpowering for this dish. I order my cinnamon online from The Spice House, Penzeys, or World Spice Merchants. Supermarket cinnamon is just fine for this recipe.


Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said...

I've never heard of "melopita" the Greeks to utilise all their produce in one form of a pita or other. I'm a total cinnamon addict and I can see myself very much enjoying this. I love how you listed all the diff types as well...there is such an abundance and variety out there.

Anonymous said...

Huh, it never occurred to me to drain the yogurt right away, that's a good idea!

Maria Verivaki said...

i've heard of melopita, but never tried it as it's not a speciality of our region.
my mother made yoghurt in new zealand simply by draining bought yoghurt, as she could never get used to the runny stuff we could buy there.
thyme honey definitely has a taste of its own - i never used to like honey as much as until i came to greece!

Anonymous said...

Laurie, your recipes are always truly wonderful. Maria, the taste of melopita is similar to lychnarakia taste (the tiny sweet cheese pies from Crete and Cyclades).

Mike of Mike's Table said...

That's really interesting. I have yet to encounter a more "exotic" kind of honey beyond the usual orange blossom or clove honey...seeing those fields of thyme though...I could only imagine. This tart sounds really tasty...

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to try this recipe. I have been getting addicted to a particular brand of greek yogurt from Washington state that I have found in town recently at Sagaya and Natural Pantry. Unique honeys always lend interesting flavor to baked goods and as garnish. I like chestnut honey madeleines, for instance. I must try this! And your photos make me daydream, as usual!

Maria Verivaki said...

mmm, lychnarakia extra-large: delicious!

Laurie Constantino said...

Peter, you are so right about the many kinds of "pita" - and I love them all. It's been really fun playing with the different cinnamons and seeing how different they all are.

Lulu, it makes possible eating strained yogurt for breakfast.

Maria, your mother was very smart!

Thanks, Mariana.

Mike - honeys do differ greatly. Chestnut honey is another strong flavored one. Now you have a new ingredient to play with!

Anonymous said...

Laurie, what a wonderful tart!
I have never tried to bake Melopita at home but I will surely try your recipe. I do have all the ingredients at hand right now, only I do not have thyme honey, but I could try with either rosemary honey or lemon honey.
Thanks for this recipe!

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

My absolute favorite honey. Spendy, though. I use it a lot when I make caramelized onions -- I add a dollop right at the end. Suh-weet!

Anonymous said...

Hey Laurie!

I just found you on Nourish Me.

So bizarre - I have an old work colleague named Laurie Costantino and I haven't seen her in years and just five minutes ago, I thought of her after years of not thinking of her, and I googled her name to see what she was up to and then, after not finding much, I went on over to Lucy's blog and saw your name.

Crazy! Really, it was freaky.

Anyway, I'm glad I did because I think your blog is great. Not anything like anyone else's. What a find for me!

I will be back for sure.


Unknown said...

Wow, that strained yogurt and honey looks like a fabulous treat! I too like honey and yogurt. Do you make your own yogurt?

Joanne said...

Laurie, this post reminded me about the several cans of honey my mother always brings back home with her when she returns from the island. This year she even purchased a "special" suitcase (well, it's special in her eyes) to wheel the honey around the airport rather than carrying it LOL. She's had several requests from people here in Toronto as well as back in Athens for the excellent island honey.

I don't think I have ever tried melopita. I must be missing out on something great!

Anonymous said...

i had baked once melopita but didn't like it much...anyway it's so great to find all these delicious Greek food in a blog coming from Alaska!

Maddy said...

Wow. Thyme honey has an amazing flavor, and that recipe looks great. I'll have to try it.

Anonymous said...

Happy to find your blog, I'm living down south from you in Portland, Oregon and love the tips you give for finding ingredients in the Northwest! Look forward to sharing some tips.

Valentina said...

I have tried thyme honey and it does have a very distinctive taste. As for the pie, I love cinnamon so it really appeals to me.

Laurie Constantino said...

Manuela, I think it would be amazing with lemon honey. Mmm. Wish I had some and I'd try it in this!

Hank, what a great idea. I'm looking forward to trying it.

Hey Kim - thanks for stopping by! How odd you know a Laurie Constantino! Even more odd is the name popping up in two different contexts. Love the text of your about section - it gave me a good laugh.

Lannae - I have made my own yogurt, but Pavel's is so good that for the past few years I've been buying it.

Bijoux, your mother is a smart woman. I love that she has a special honey suitcase! I bought some Rubbermade containers with screw tops and I ferry them back in forth. Going to Greece, they're filled with socks; coming home, they're for honey! I always know it's time to go back to Greece when we're out of Kalathaki and thyme honey. Leaving next Sunday!

Cook, thanks for visiting!

Maddy, let me know it you do - I'd be interested in what you think.

Kalliope, welcome! Your blog is most interesting - I'm glad you stopped by so I could find it!

Valentina, nothing better than the flavors of cinnamon and honey together.

Cakelaw said...

This tart sounds absolutely devine Laurie - cinnamon and honey is a heavenly combination.

Anonymous said...

Mmm, thyme honey has intrigued me since you wrote about the caramels... definitely sounds worth seeking out for this delicious sounding pie.

Loved the photos from this year's fest -- the dance troupe looks so professional!

Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed the blogoversary gift :)

Anonymous said...
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Joanne said...

Have a great time on the island, Laurie! Although I'm pretty sure you will have a fantastic time :)

Kalo taxidi!!

Núria said...

Hola Laurie! I've been missing you and your landscapes and poetic sentences :D

This thyme looks perfect!!! Is it wild? Our thyme plants are a bit different the green isn't that bright! I'm glad to see that there's no problem with the bees there :D.

Melopita looks like food for Gods!!!

Anonymous said...

Your tart looks and sounds lovely, I like the comparison to pumpkin pie -- I bet it's even better :).

We'd like to invite you to participate in our September apple and peach recipe contest. All competitors will be eligible to win one of three prizes :)! Please email me,, if you're interested.

Thanks :),
KI Chief Blogger

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, yummy and quite healthy!BTW we went to Logia tis Ploris with Peter about a week ago. The food was great, thank you for the suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Yum! Glad I found your blog. Everthing looks wonderful.


NKP said...

I learn so much from your posts.
The honey sounds glorious.
When looking for spices don't make the mistake that I did - I typed in spice cupboard and got an S&M site!
Greece looks beautiful in your pictures, I love the weathered hands in the wild thyme.

Anonymous said...

Laurie, hope you'll be back and blogging soon. Miss your recipes and your photos, and also want the 411 on Alaska politics!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Paula said...

Oh, yum, yum, yum! That tart looks so good and I'm sooo hungry right now. A couple years ago, I started draining yogurt and now it's habit. I love eating it drizzled with honey and sprinkled with pistachios. (I feel a snack coming on!) I've never tried thyme honey, but will keep an eye out for it! Great photos!

Laurie Constantino said...

Cakelaw, as a cinnamon junkie, I couldn't agree with you more!

Manju, hope all is well with your move and that you're starting to settle in a little.

Maryann - I loved it!! Thanks again!

Bijoux, we've been having a great time - it's going to be hard to leave.

Nuria, yes, the thyme is wild. In the early part of the summer, it's green like in the picture. Later, it's darker. Actually, this year there is a big problem with the bees. We just saw Yiannis and he's having a rough year. (As for not posting-it's harder to do in Greece where all I have is a dial-up connection...) Thanks for the kind words.

Sophie, I definitely like Melopita better than pumpkin pie. I'll check out your contest, thanks.

Jo, glad to hear you liked Logia tis Ploris. It has delicious food at a reasonable price.

Candy, thanks!!

Natashya, that's very funny! As for Greece being beautiful, it definitely is. I love it here.

Kalliope, it's easier to blog when there isn't a beach calling me...
As for Alaska politics, our governor is not even remotely qualified for the job - the pick represents politics at its most cynical.

Paula, hmmm, pistachios. What a good idea! Maybe I'll have it for breakfast tomorrow...

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Laurie,
I just had to take a moment to say thank you for posting this deliriously delicious looking recipe. I am a HUGE fan of any kind of Mediterranean food and thick Greek Yogurt is my all time favorite.

I should say I happened upon your site in search of recipes for National Honey Month. I hope you don't mind, I have linked to your recipe to share with my visitors.

Thanks so much for sharing. I will be back.

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