Let’s make Spanakopita, for a traditional Greek Easter

I’m at mom’s for Easter. Usually we call it “Greek Easter,” but as this year “our” Easter and “your” Easter are the same day, it’s just “Easter.”

My sister typically holds the big family dinner, with a ridiculous(ly good and over-abundant) assortment of Greek food.

I try to make something to bring every year, usually Pastitsio (my favorite), but as I didn’t get to Chicago until late Saturday afternoon, and Pastitsio is a royal pain (way too many pots and pans), I opted for something simple, Spanakopita.

spanakopita-finished

Spanakopita is basically a pie made of spinach, egg and cheeses that makes almost a quiche-like filling (but more spinach than you’d find in a quiche), with the crunchy phyllo dough encasing it.

People often think dishes made with phyllo (pronounced FEE-low) are difficult.  Not really, you just have to understand how to use the dough, so that it doesn’t dry out.  More on that in a moment.

First, here is mom’s recipe – written out in typical mom fashion, with varying amounts of ingredients.  The little note in the upper right corner indicates that it’s the recipe of (or at least tweaked from) my brother’s godmother (nouna, in Greek), Helen Delegiannis.

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The basic recipe for a 9×13, or 10×14 pan (I sometimes find the slightly larger pan is easier to fit the phyllo in), is the following:

3 to 4 pounds of spinach (we use chopped frozen – recipe says 4, we used 3 this time)
1 to 2 bunch onions (meaning, green onions or scallions – and a bunch means the big bunch of several scallions tied together the way the supermarket sells it)
2T butter or olive oil
1/2c parsely, chopped
1T Dill, chopped
1T mint, chopped
1 lb. cotagge cheese (preferably small curd) – I supposea you could use Ricotta, we don’t, but you could always try
1 typical sized package of cream cheese
8 large eggs (or 6 extra large)
2T oil
1t lemon juice
1/2 lb. butter or so – the dish can come out salty, depending your feta – fetas vary – you might want to use half unsalted butter and half salted. Ours turned out fine though.
3/4 lb. feta (maybe a pound if you prefer)

Chop scallions, sauté with 2T butter or olive oil.
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Put the onions in a very large bowl or container.  Then get to work on the spinach.

I microwave the spinach to thaw it out, don’t get it too warm, since you need to squeeze the excess water out of it – there’s usually a lot (and if it’s too cold, that’s annoying on your hands too).  Mom suggested smushing the spinach in a collander to get the water out (using a bowl), but it didn’t work well enough.  Eventually I had to squeeze individual bunches dry with my hands.

spanakopita spinach

Add the spinach to the bowl of onions.  Add mint, dill, 2T olive oil, lemon.

Separately, mix the cottage cheese, cream cheese, maybe 3/4 of the feta, and the eggs (beat the eggs first – ignore what the recipe says about separating the whites from the yolks first). Mix the entire mess, preferably by hand (it’s hard to mix it all together well, otherwise).

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Add the egg/cheese mixture to the spinach/scallion mixture.  Also add 4T melted butter to the mix.  Again, easier to mix it all by hand. (You can try with a spoon, but you’ll see how hard it is.  You’ll also see why I told you to use a huge bowl to mix all of this in.)  As the feta is really salty, you typically don’t need to salt any of this.

spanakopita cheese

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Now to the phyllo dough.  Melt maybe 2 to 3 sticks butter or margarine (you’ll probably need 3 sticks total or so, melted – don’t overheat them as you’ll need to spread the melted butter by hand – I’m guessing you could replace some of the butter with olive oil – perhaps not all, as you wanted a buttery taste, and not just overwhelming olive oil).  Having said this, I think 2 sticks butter might be enough – the dish can be REALLY buttery, and it can be too heavy.  Maybe try 2 sticks, and don’t pour too much on at the end – just make sure the phyllo is moist all around.

Open the phyllo pack (that you’ve had sitting at room temp for several hours to thaw, and be easier to unroll (it’s harder cold)). Spread some wax paper on your counter top (or table).  Lay the phyllo dough, opened up all the way and spread out, on top of the wax paper.  Put more wax paper on top to cover it.  Then take a dish towel, get it wet, wring out the water, and lay the dish towel on top of the wax paper.  This will keep the phyllo from drying out and sticking together, making it unworkable.

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Now, while Greek-Greeks will tell you to use a layer of phyllo at a time, that’s nuts.  I usually cheat and use as many as 5 or 6 layers at once.  You’ll note that a pack of phyllo dough is actualy like 20 or so layers of fine dough.

This is my layout, to make the process easier.

spanakopita layout

Put some melted butter in your 9×13 or 10×14 pan.  Spread it around bottom and sides.  Then take 3 to 6 sheets of phyllo, lay it in pan, push it down and against sides.  Then add some melted butter – mabe a few tablespoons, and gently spread it all over the phyllo, make sure every inch is buttered.  In the meantime, you’ve covered the remaining phyllo with the wax paper and towel again.  You don’t need to cover the phyllo that’s already in your pan.

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Put another layer of phyllo on top, so that you’ve now used maybe half (maybe a bit less) of the total amount of phyllo there is in the package.  Spread more butter so that you’ve used about 1.5 sticks butter at this point.  Then add the spinach mix, smooth it out.

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Next, I like to take the remaining 1/4 of the feta, cut it in larger chunks and lay it on top of the spinach mixture. I do this this so that it won’t totally dissolve in the oven, if it does dissolve you won’t really taste it.  Sometimes I’ll buy a cheaper feta for the 1/2 to 3/4 that I put in the spinach, then use a more expensive better tasting feta for the 1/2 to 1/4 that I put on top in larger chunks. Screen-Shot-2014-04-20-at-10.38.06-AM

Then repeat the process with the phyllo.  Put 3-6 leaves on top of the spinach/feta.  Add butter, use your fingers to cover entire phyllo with butter.  Then add more layers of phyllo.  Finally, but remaining butter on top.

Next, carefully score the mixture into whatever sized pieces you want.  Only cut through the top layers of phyllo down to the spinach, don’t cut through the spinach. Here’s mom doing the scoring, because she still, at 84 years of age, refuses to believe that I actually know how to cook (having only made this dish a gazillion times myself).

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Note that I like to keep the extra phyllo dough on the sides of the pan and just roll it in on the sides to make a nice super thick crust.  Some people cut the extra off.  I like the crunchiness.  Make sure you get plenty of butter on these rolled up sides.

spanakopita phyllo

You let this sit in the fridge, covered, overnight. Or cook right right away. Cook in 350F oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour 15.  Really, you cook it until it’s golden brown on top, like mine looks. I’d keep checking it from 30 minutes on, but don’t be surprised if it takes well over an hour, especially if it’s cold from the fridge. It’s not rocket science how long it cooks, you just want the thing well cooked – which you can tell by how golden it looks.  You might need to wrap some foil on the outside edges as the can cook faster since they’re higher up.

Then take it out, let cool a bit and serve, or let cool and then reheat later (I find things like this can take a bit of time to reheat.) Microwaving will make it kind of gooey and gross.  Also, let it cool before covering it up or it will get mushy.

That’s pretty much it.  I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything.  If I have, let me know.  Enjoy. Oh, and this probably serves 8 as a main course, and that’s still a pretty hefty serving. 6 if you’re a total sow :)

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