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Feta is the national cheese of Greece and popular the world around as a distinctive addition to salads, spreads and entrees. When a dish calls for more heat, though, the salty pickled feta can be warped into what is called tirokafteri — a popular spicy spread in Greece and throughout Southeast Europe. Typically, this cheese is made by combining feta and another creamy cheese with peppers, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and even hot sauce to give it an undeniably tongue-stinging bite.
Since feta cheese is more crumbly than creamy in texture, tirokafteri is often made by blending it with another creamier type of cheese. Cream cheese, sour cream or yogurt are common additions, as is the Egyptian damiata, Greek anthotiro or even Italian ricotta cheeses. Combined with olive oil, the cheeses blend to form a creamy spread.
The cornerstone of tirokafteri is its spicy taste. This is usually produced by adding diced roasted peppers, but simple hot sauce will do the trick. Depending on how much heat is desired, chefs may add a little or a lot of the peppers to produce a distinctively spicy spread. Chile peppers, poblano peppers, rocotillo peppers, banana peppers, cherry peppers and even cayenne peppers can be used, alone or mixed, to give the spread added color and kick.
Tangy flavor is another key component of tirokafteri. Though some of this tartness is imparted by the peppers or hot sauce, lemon juice is also added for a more sour flavor. Spices like garlic, salt and oregano also are commonly added to finish off this spread.
Tirokafteri can be served in a variety of ways. Greek mezze dishes, a version of small-plate tapas, often contain this creamy cheese as an accompaniment. Others just eat theirs with pita bread. It is a common offering at the beginning of many meals in Greek dining establishments the world around. In Syria, a popular version of this spread is called muhammara, which adds walnuts, breadcrumbs and even molasses to give the dish a darkened hue.
The range of mezze dishes in which this cheese spread is used is wide. They vary by region, from Turkey and Greece to the Balkan nations of Bulgaria and Romania. Some are simple combinations of pita, tirokafteri and seasonal olives; others are elaborate appetizers with the cheese forming just a small part of the overall dish.