Updated: Nov 12, 2020
The backstory appears after the recipe, along with pointers for success.
½ lb. feta cheese
½ lb. cottage cheese
½ lb. cream cheese
½ cup grated cheese (such as Romano or Parmagiano-Reggiano)
1 lb. phyllo
½ lb. unsalted butter, melted
1. Cream together the cheeses and egg.
2. Cut the stack of phyllo sheets in half lengthwise with scissors (see the video below). Cover the stack of phyllo sheets with a piece of plastic wrap and a damp towel so they don’t dry out.
3. Dot with butter. Working with one or two sheets at a time, dot each sheet down the right side about four or five times with melted butter. Fold each sheet lengthwise so the long edges line up, and dot again with melted butter about four times. Do NOT completely paint the phyllo with butter or you’ll end up with greasy triangles. See the video below.
4. Place a full tablespoon of filling on each (I use a #60 disher scoop). Fold into triangles (see the video below). Place each triangle on a sheet pan or cookie sheet. You can arrange them fairly close together -- they won't spread. Brush the tops lightly with melted butter. At this point, you can bake them right away, or hold in the refrigerator or freezer. If holding under cold storage, wrap the tray in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight, or freeze for longer storage. Bake straight from the refrigerator or freezer – no need to defrost.
5. Bake at 350 F convection (or 375 F non-convection) until golden, about ten minutes. If they are frozen, add extra minutes to the baking time. They're best served warm, but still delicious at room temperature. Refrigerate leftovers.
Note: If you have any cheese filling left over, you can bake it up in a little ramekin, or stir it into scrambled eggs or omelettes.
Here is a video clip on cutting the phyllo sheets:
Here's a clip on how to form the triangles. Notice I dot the sheet with melted butter -- I don't paint it all over.
Here is a tray of triangles, ready to be baked right away, or frozen for later baking:
In 1946, Nikos Kazantzakis published Zorba the Greek. It's a novel about a Greek laborer, Zorba, who finds joy in all that life has to offer. Food figures prominently throughout. The narrator, who is a friend of Zorba, has an important realization:
It was on this beach that I enjoyed the pleasure of eating for the very first time. When Zorba lit the fire each evening between the two stones at the edges of our outdoor fireplace, cooked, and we began to eat, to drink a little, and the conversation swelled, I realized that meals, too are a spiritual service and that meat, bread, and wine are the raw material from which spirit is formed.
I read the book many years ago, so I don't recall whether cheese triangles, tiropita, made an appearance. I think not. They would've been too refined a dish for a beach campfire. They're more suited to a dinner buffet or a cocktail party, or holiday celebrations.
The recipe below makes the best cheese triangles I’ve had – thanks to my mom’s sister, Marie Nichols van der Poll, who (like my mother) is half-Greek and a superb cook. When I first had these triangles at Marie’s house, I must’ve eaten half a dozen in one sitting. They’re that good.
Some versions of cheese triangles are more like spinach pie (spanakopita) because they include spinach, onion, dill and parsley. In this version, diary is the star, and nothing else distracts from that. Feta can be overwhelming for those not used to its briny flavor, so in this recipe, cottage cheese and cream cheese tame the feta and make the texture smoother. Because the flavor of the dairy takes center stage, I recommend using the best you can find, preferably organic and grass-fed.
You can freeze the triangles unbaked, and simply bake them from frozen when you’re ready. They’re best eaten warm, but they’ll still be good as leftovers, re-heated or at room temperature. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.
Phyllo dough can be found in the freezer section of a well-stocked supermarket, in one-pound boxes. Let the box defrost in the refrigerator overnight. Any phyllo you’re not working with immediately must be kept covered with plastic and a damp cloth so it doesn’t dry out. If the phyllo gets too dry -- and this can happen in a matter of minutes -- it will be too brittle to fold.