Spanakopita (Greek Spinach and Feta Pie)

When I first sat down to create a food blog I found it hard to decide on one idea. I’m passionate about a lot of food-related subjects. Initially I wanted to create multiple sites, and a Greek food site was at the top of the list. Over the years my parents–the keepers of the family recipes–have stepped down as cooks and my brother and I have stepped up. The problem is, when it comes to the old favorites like pita, things were not coming out as expected. It turns out the folks never followed an exact recipe, but considered what was written down more of a vague suggestion, and it’s anybody’s guess what magical bits of this and that they threw in the pot. They, um, have no recollection… The idea for the site was to take the rough sketch of what was on the recipe card and color it in, leaving the family (and other interested parties) with a tested and reliable version of a classic dish. That was the plan…

Time is a precious thing and between this site and another I’m working on, and the whole nine to five thing… there’s no time. And there’s this fuzzy girl who needs a constant stream of attention:

Needy Dog

So now the plan is to wedge the Greek recipes in here or over there. Right now spinach pie is on my mind because we’re coming up on Greek Easter. You can serve it cold or hot, as an appetizer, side or main dish. It also freezes beautifully, so if this looks like a lot of work, make it well before your event, freeze it, and cook it on the day. Just make sure when you do make it that you have the time to do so. There are a few steps that take a while but HAVE to be done, otherwise all your work and expensive ingredients will be a garbage can fodder. I’m not kidding…

Most spinach pies I’ve had have one fatal flaw that drives me crazy–they’re too dry. Probably because the ingredients that counteract that problem are expensive–eggs and cheese. So it seems like delis and restaurants dial down the creamy goodness and try to cover it all up with a lot of dill. This recipe is a simple, rich, super tasty version. I’ve made it over and over, always with the same great result. In the end, the most important factor with any recipe with so few ingredients, is that those ingredients be of good quality. If your eggs, cheese and veg taste like cardboard, guess what the pie is going to taste like. We’re living in a time of farmers markets, handcrafted cheeses and pasture raised eggs–if you can, take advantage of these wonderful things.

Something my parents did remember doing, and I’ve done from time to time, is mix up the greens. They thought it gave the pie better flavor to mix spinach with Swiss chard. I added dandelions because I like a touch of bitterness. But I think the pie tastes just as good using only spinach. If you decide to swap in some of your favorite leafy veg, the only thing I do recommend is keeping the ratio of spinach the same. Spinach has a lovely buttery rich flavor that makes this pie what it is.

And now a moment for the cheese…

What is great feta cheese? Cheese that is not mealy and dried out, pre-crumbled with the consistency of dried bubble gum. Something like that. The subject of “real” feta could start a war, and we’re not here to get that hot and bothered about it. It’s cheese. Let’s just say that traditionally feta comes from Greece and it is made with sheep’s (and sometime’s goat’s) milk. There is feta made with cow’s milk, but you’re not going to get a purist to admit it’s worth eating… That said, if your favorite feta is a cow’s milk cheese, use it. My favorite in my area is a local cheese made with sheep’s milk by Marin Cheese Company. It’s really rich and creamy. It’s also one of the saltier versions I’ve had. All of these things can vary widely with feta depending on who made it–salt, fat, texture. Look for something packaged with the brine, made from either goat or sheep’s milk, and hopefully a bit on the creamy side. I’ve also had good luck with some Bulgarian and French sheep’s milk cheeses. I use a lot of cheese in this recipe and some might find it too much. A way to test without getting all the way to the end and finding out you don’t like it, is to add half or three-quarters of the cheese, heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and cook up a teaspoon or so of the filling. Make a little test fritter like the one in the photo, and then add more (or don’t) until you get what you want, and before you dump it all in the pan.

Test Fritter

OK, here’s the most important part. Greens are dirty and the last thing you want your guests to bite down on is something gritty. Wash everything thoroughly. Pre-washed greens are great because there isn’t a speck of dirt on them and they’re dry, which brings me to the most important bit of all… Make sure your greens are dry, dry, DRY. This isn’t a great recipe to make when you’re tired and you don’t have any time. You’ll tell yourself things are dry enough, that those little droplets of moisture on the leaves won’t matter, and then after all the work you’ll cut into the pie and find a soupy mess inside. Using a salad spinner works well. Wringing the greens out in a dishtowel or paper towels does too. Doesn’t matter, just make sure they’re dry.

And another thing… I know a lot of people like their foods thick — thicker is better, more flavorful, more of it… but in this case thinner is better. When Spanakopita is thick, it doesn’t always cook all the way through, or even when cooked has a loose look to the middle that’s not appealing. When you’re dealing with eggs, even if you know they’re organic, fabulous and free of foodborne pathogens, you don’t want your guests worrying about raw eggs. Thinner also cooks faster, in fact really fast, so keep your eye on it so it doesn’t burn or dry out.

And a quick note on phyllo dough before we get down to business. It’s the stuff of nightmares when it doesn’t work well. If during shipping it has been allowed to thaw and refreeze (sometimes multiple times) it’s possible the layers will be stuck together and unusable. I can still remember my parents’ frustrated cries coming from the kitchen as they started to tangle with the dough. What they started doing, which I think is smart, is buying two boxes from different vendors and having them both at the ready just in case. Food for thought, especially if you’re preparing this dish for a special occasion and you really don’t need the curve ball of a last minute trip to the store and another long thaw. You will need to thaw the phyllo overnight in the fridge for the best results.

I’ve found two types of phyllo dough on the market–the type made with organic flour (whole wheat or white), and the rest. The organic varieties tend to be thicker and smoother when they cook; the non-organic varieties, often from countries outside the U.S., are thinner and flakier and more crinkly looking. They’re both good.

And one last thing… I mention it only because it pops up in every spinach pie recipe I’ve ever seen. I don’t use dill. You can. But I want to taste the spinach and the cheese. When dill is present it’s all I taste. If that’s what you want, sprinkle a little in there.

Spanakopita (serves 18-24 depending on how you cut the pie)

For the filling:
5 cups (1 liter 240ml) or approximately 3/4 lb. (340g) fresh greens, chopped–when I mix it up I use 3 cups spinach, 1 cup Swiss chard, 1 cup dandelion greens
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
2 cups (480ml) or approximately 2 bunches, chopped green onions, green and white parts*
5 large (US) med (EU) eggs, room temperature and lightly beaten
1 lb. (450g) feta (see above notes on cheese)
3 Tbsp. (45ml) olive oil

*This might seem like a lot of onion, but they cook down considerably. Green onions might also be called scallions or spring onions.

For the dough:
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup (120ml) olive oil
1 package phyllo, filo or fillo dough, thawed according to directions on package–the best way is to thaw it overnight in the fridge, so keep this in mind

1 jelly roll pan measuring 15 x 10 inch (41 x 28 cm)

Aluminum foil (optional)

Pastry brush

Note: If you want to keep the integrity of your pan, line it with foil before adding the pie and make sure it wraps tightly around the edges so it doesn’t go sliding all over the place when you start to add the phyllo. By doing this you’ll be able to lift the pie out of the pan and cut it on another surface rather than taking a knife to your pan and scratching the finish. If that doesn’t matter to you, the foil isn’t necessary.

Preheat oven to 350 F/175 C degrees.

Leave the phyllo dough in its package until you’re ready to start assembling the pie.

Saute onions in 3 tablespoons of olive oil until fragrant and starting to color, about 10 minutes. Let cool.

Wash and dry your greens. Pinch off any overly long spinach stems. Cut off most of the chard’s stalk. Do the same with the dandelions. Some people love the taste of the chard stalk and you’re welcome to leave it in, but the dandelion stalks are a bit too tough and the cooking time too short to leave those in.

Dandellions — remove those tough woody stems!

Chop the greens in a food processor by pulsing on and off and being careful not to reduce them to pesto.

Mix greens, onions, eggs and feta together and set aside.

Remove phyllo from package, unroll and cover with a dry dish towel and a slightly damp dish towel on top of that. Make sure to cover the phyllo as soon as you can after you remove a sheet so it doesn’t dry out.

Note: If you can tell that one half of the dough is in worse shape than the other, use that for the bottom, keeping the perfect sheets for the top.

Melt the butter over low heat and add the olive oil. This should be enough for the whole pie, but have more olive oil on hand to stretch things out if you need to.

Using a pastry brush, coat the bottom of the baking sheet with the butter olive oil mixture. Add a layer of phyllo, coat with butter/oil, phyllo, etc. until you’ve used half the package.

Add the filling and even it out with a knife or spatula.

Repeat the phyllo, butter/oil, phyllo for the top of the pie ending with a coating of butter and oil.

If you’re freezing your pie, cover it with enough foil or plastic wrap to keep it properly insulated. I find two layers of heavy duty foil works well.

When you’re ready to cook the pie…

You don’t need to trim the edges, but if you do you should use a very sharp knife. Don’t worry if it’s not perfection. When it cooks up, the edges will twist and curl and it won’t matter. Very important– before cooking the pie, score the top with a sharp knife.

Don’t just cut into it and figure it out as you go. Make little notches along the sides to get a sense of how big you want the pieces to be. You can get 15 large pieces, 18 medium or 24 small depending on how you cut it. You don’t need to cut all the way through, just through the first few layers. This makes cutting the cooked pie so much easier. If you don’t do it the top layers will shatter when you try to cut through them and you’ll have a big mess on your hands.

Bake for approximately 30 minutes, checking after 20 to see how it’s progressing. Because the pie is thin it will cook very fast. If it’s frozen it will take a bit longer.

Let the pie rest for at least 30 minutes before serving. If you lined your pan with foil, you can move the pie to another surface to cut it into pieces.