Some of our most incredible travel and dining experiences have been with our friends Paul and Jane Athanas. With them we’ve eaten at great restaurants in Rome and the Amalfi coast, New York, Boston, Key West, and LA. Paul’s family is Albanian and thanks to him not only do I have an Albanian cookbook, I’ve had a chance to sample some traditional home cooked dishes.
Lakror is a fixture of Albanian cuisine. Depending on who you ask, you’ll find that lakror can be made with meat, leeks, or cheese and eggs. It is closely related to, and sometimes considered interchangeable with byrek, commonly known as spinach pie. Combining spinach with a big bunch of ramps fits well with the traditional ingredients.
Many Albanian pastry recipes call for filo (phyllo) dough but byrek can also be made with a flaky crust rather than stacks of filo. Pastry dough can certainly be made by hand, and it’s a basic skill to master, but the food processor is the ideal tool. As Julia Child wrote in praise of using a food processor for dough: “We are thus, with our own triumphant smiles, instantly masters of the quiche, the tart, the turnover…to say nothing of the chicken pot pie.”
The secrets to good pie or pastry dough are working with cold butter, using just enough water, and working quickly/not overworking the dough.
Pate Brisée Fine
Here is a basic pie crust sturdy enough for wet fillings like quiches and spinach pies. It can be made with whole wheat, AP flour or a combination of both, or use good pastry flour. An all whole-wheat dough can work but will be a denser crust. To make either AP or WW flour crusts a little more tender you can substitute 1 part cake flour to 3 parts AP. For one pie (two 9” rounds) you will need 1.5 c AP and .5 c cake flour.
1.5 c unbleached AP or light WW flour, scooped and leveled
½ c plain cake flour
(or just 2 c fresh pastry flour)
1 t salt
8 oz butter blend, very cold.
½ ice water
Measure out all your ingredients and have them at the ready. Measure ½ c cold water, remove ½ teaspoon of water, add 1 ice cube and set aside.
Put the flour and salt and diced butter in the bowl of your large food processor. And pulse (turning machine on and off) 5 or 6 times to break up the butter roughly. Remove cube from the water, turn on processor and immediately add the water. Then turn off the processor. Remove the lid and feel the dough. It should look like a bunch of small lumps but will just hold together in a mass when you press it together in you palm. It’s very important not to over mix. You don’t want the ball of smooth dough to mass on your blades. (It can reach this stage in a matter of seconds). You may need to pulse the dough 1 or 2 more times. If the dough is crumbly and dry, pulse in a couple droplets of water.
Working quickly to keep the dough cool: Turn the crumbly dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. A marble board is good for keeping the dough cool, but a wooden surface will be fine. As a final blending you will roughly push the lumps of dough with the heel of you hand, pressing forward and away from you, in a sort of smear. Do this several times and the dough will come together. If the dough is too soft you may sprinkle on a little flour. When it is smooth, form the dough into two large patties, round and flat. Wrap in plastic and slip into a large refrigerator bag to chill for 2 hours (or more). This is the resting dough is resting – flour particles absorb the moisture, the butter firms and the gluten relaxes.
At this stage you can keep the dough in the fridge for two days (after which it will start to turn grayish, though still completely usable) or freeze it for several months.
I have tended to err on the side of less salt with this recipe and each time I wish I had added just a little more. The feta is never as salty as I expect. Feel secure in adding the full 2 t of salt.
Spinach and ramp filling
Serves 4 as a meal, or 6 for lunch with a salad.
1 T oil
10 oz (1 bag) washed spinach
1 bunch of ramps (whites and greens) – about 2 c chopped (you can substitute leeks or scallions for the ramps)
4 oz feta
7 oz ricotta or cottage cheese
2 t salt
Add 1T oil to a large stockpot. Set aside. I like using the stock pot with greens because there is so much when the leaves are fresh though they cook down so much. Process spinach until well chopped. Dump chopped spinach into the stockpot and repeat processing the remaining spinach. Set the pot of spinach on a medium-low heat, and sauté, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. The spinach will completely wilt and exude its juices. This is an important step to avoid a soggy pastry. Scoop cooked spinach into a colander and allow to drain, pressing spinach with the back of a wooden spoon to squeeze out excess liquid. When cool enough handle you can hand squeeze the extra liquid from the spinach.
In the bowl of a large food processor combine 1 large bunch of ramps (whites and greens) or two bunches of trimmed scallions. Add diced feta (low fat works well here), ricotta or cottage cheese, egg and salt. Process until smooth. Stir in (or process in a couple of pulses) the cooled dry spinach. Cover and set in refrigerator until easy to use.
When ready to bake, take dough out of fridge and allow to warm slightly (10 minutes) before rolling.
Preheat oven to 375. Using a standard pie plate: Dust a work surface and roll the dough with a rolling pin, using quick short movements and a firm even pressure. Flip dough to roll evenly to a 9” circle. Don’t be tempted to roll the dough too thin. Place in pie plate.
Fill with the cooled spinach mixture and set aside. Roll out the top crust to size, then gently fold in half and quarters to transfer to the top of the pie filling, unfolding to cover the top, then crimping the edges together, making sure to seal the top and bottom crusts well. Pierce two or three small holes in the center of the top to allow steam to escape. Place in the hot oven, bake at 375 for 40 minutes, until evenly golden brown. Allow to cool so the filling firms up before serving.
Doubles, freezes and reheats well.