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 :)

spanakopita-featured


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  • annatopia

    oh my gosh john i love this stuff! thank you so much for posting this recipe. too bad i didn’t see it until today but i think i know what i’m bringing to my next dinner party :)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Oh that is a good idea.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Oh that’s a great idea about rolling them.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Yup :)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    8 oz :)

  • Zorba

    Borek, Bourekakia (I left off the “a”) or boureki (μπουρέκι).
    Very similar.
    Shish kebab, souvlaki.
    Kofta, keftedes.
    Lots of borrowing back and forth between Greek, Turkish, Lebanese and other Arabic food traditions, even Armenian, Persian and Serbian.
    Lots of differences, too, but many similarities.

  • http://musephotos.wordpress.com/ GarySFBCN

    bourekaki? In Turkey, this is called borek.

  • Zorba

    My dad was the one who made the triangles. But then, he was a chef in a Greek restaurant. ;-)
    What I do sometimes is make spanakopita (or tyropita) bourekaki. You roll them up, like an egg roll, and it goes really quickly. If you want bigger ones, you take a sheet of phyllo, butter one side, fold it in half, butter that side, put in your filling almost all the way across the bottom, leaving some space at each end, and roll it up, folding in the ends as you roll to contain the filling. Then brush butter on the outside and bake, seam side down. If you want smaller ones, cut a sheet of phyllo in half lengthwise, and proceed as above.
    These are nice as appetizers, because people can just pick one up and eat it ( especially the smaller ones). And they are much, much faster to make than the triangles.
    Athens Foods makes frozen mini phyllo shells. You can cook your filling, by itself in a casserole dish, about 3/4 of the way. Then fill the shells with these and bake about ten minutes. Makes for a really cute appetizer tray.

  • Zorba

    The parsley should be the flat leaved, Italian parsley, not curly parsley. ;-)
    I use a pound of feta, preferably Kolios feta, imported from Greece. It has a nice, smooth, almost creamy texture, and isn’t as salty.
    I don’t use cottage cheese; I use a pound of fresh mizithra, if I can get it. Otherwise, I use whole-milk ricotta. (My family is from Crete, and the Cretans are crazy about mizithra; all the types of it.)
    And I add about half a pound of grated kefalotyri.
    Also, some white pepper.
    I do butter every phyllo leaf.
    My great-grandmother used to make her own phyllo, and it really tasted wonderful. My grandmother, however, worked full time, and although she was a good cook, she didn’t have the time to make her own dough. She bought it from the Greek store. It was fresh, not frozen, though, and better than the frozen stuff.
    I just buy it frozen.

  • Tor

    You can’t go wrong with more. ;-)

  • Tor

    Love Pastitsio!! I spent about 3 months on Samos about 30 years ago – Loved all sorts of great food, esp, the fresh seafood – you could pick out your fish from the display case (restaurant), or buy it right off the boat. Right now, my garden is lush with greens – kale, broccoli leaves and cauliflower leaves. I might try a version of Spanikopita with them. I know it will be different, but must use my abundance.

  • kokoretsi

    Interesting recipe. I made a slightly different family version that is quite popular. I use a pound of pure feta and find that its still very good.

    Christos Anesti!

  • Jim

    Post Script: hubby and I walked to local Greek run diner here in Redondo Beach, Ca and had lamb with Greek style potatoes, and yalataboureko for dessert. Yummy. Had a little bit of Greek Easter after all.

  • crazymonkeylady

    My sister married a Greek man, and his mom taught her to cook this. She taught me and people just love it. No holiday is complete without it! She makes Greek style roast lamb, grape leaves, lemon soup. That’s good eating!

  • http://musephotos.wordpress.com/ GarySFBCN

    PS: I find that the best way to squeeze the water out of the spinach is to put it in cheesecloth and squeeze the cloth.

  • 2karmanot

    Absolutely delightful and delicious! Thank you for sharing. :-)

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    John, you said a regular size of cream cheese. It comes in a 3 oz. size and an 8 oz. size. The 3 oz. is the size of a deck of cards. Which is it? It’s important, because I do like spanakopita.

  • PeteWa

    my mouth is watering!
    thanks for this post John!

  • Bob Niemic

    John, I just got back from dinner at Kapnos in DC. I had spanakopita there. Excellent. Yours looks even better !!

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    It sounds much more disgusting than it really is. If you’ve ever had corned beef hash, it’s not really a whole lot worse than that. I find things like Spam infinitely more revolting.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    All Scottish food is based on a dare.

  • larry longmore

    I can’t have grape leaves without it! There are many gifts the Greeks gave us & we just listed 3! Avgolemono goes well with so many things.

  • http://musephotos.wordpress.com/ GarySFBCN

    Yes. My grandmother would plop a thick disk-shaped wad of super-oily/buttery dough on the backs of our hands and we’d move our hands away from each other, stretching the dough and repeating the movement. Once one area got thin enough, we’d start on another. A real pain, but fun when you are a kid.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Yep, I made those once, never again – took WAY too long :)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    And yes, I only made the triangles once. Never again. Those things were invented to enslave Greek women.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Wow, you actually MADE phyllo dough from scratch?

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    I love stuffed grape leaves – we put them in an egg lemon sauce, which is wonderful

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Well, I don’t do lamb on the spit – but the years I didn’t make it to dc, I just made my own lamb in the oven with friends over, it was nice. You can still make the food. Or hold it on Monday night, or Saturday night with a full dinner just for you guys, without the parents :) Or even after you see your parents.

  • larry longmore

    I’m not a fan of Pastitsio but I LOVE spanakopita! This is a very good recipe. Soon I will have grape leave to stuff and I think I will bake up a spanakopita to go with

  • Jim

    I’m not religious John, but Christos Anesti to you. We celebrated Greek Easter today with my 90 year old parents. They just wanted low maintenance hors d’oeuvres and then please leave so we can rest. So my husband and brother and sister in law missed out on the traditional meal. We used to go for the lamb on the spit and all the trimmings at my uncle’s while he was alive. Those days are over for us. It was nice to see your spanikopita! Looks delicious !

  • RepubAnon

    My Celtic friends tell me that whisky was invented so that people would eat haggis.

  • http://musephotos.wordpress.com/ GarySFBCN

    Having made the phyllo dough about 100 times with my grandmother when I was a child, I can say that it IS very difficult to make. Nowadays, you just buy it pre-made.

    This recipe is different than my grandmothers – she would use a very sharp cheese that they called farmer’s cheese, there was no cream cheese or cottage cheese and there was a lot more oil and eggs. And as someone posted below, sometimes she made triangular-shaped individual servings.

    But it is all good!

  • emjayay

    Unless you make your own phyllo, which of course is the hard part and looks it.

  • emjayay

    My favorite Easter dinner recipe is my aunt Caroline’s baked sweet potatoes with Peeps on top.

  • emjayay

    It’s more labor but for more hand held type food of course this can be made in traditional triangular or square phyllo envelope style. Oh I just saw a recipe using some nutmeg. Of course. That would be freshly ground nutmeg(only) and if you don’t have a grater it’s time to get one at Gracious Home or somewhere. They hang on a pushpin inside your cabinet and have a little compartment at the top for the nutmeg. This is the very height of kitchen technology and only about 3 bucks.
    And of course you people in Portland or someplace can use kale instead of spinach.

  • lynchie

    Was able to buy some this morning in Pittsburgh and will have at dinner tonite. Then I saw the recipe you posted and it seems easy. We are having fettucine, deviled eggs, spanakopita, grilled hot sausage, greek salad, lots of wine red and white and for desert 4 layer chocolate cake. Happy Easter.
    Don’t give up to the Oligarchs.

  • emjayay

    Never listened to Prairie Home Companion?

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Can be, especially if sweetened. But more often my mom and grandmother served it with the Easter ham and fresh-made raisin bread, along with potato-and-onion perogis. My recollection though was my father liked having at least 2-3 cheese-balls after Easter because he’d then ask for ham and fried-hrudka sandwiches to take for his lunch for the next week or so.

  • sonoitabear

    “And it “looks” hard, which is always a plus for anyone chef”

    Same with Baklava…

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    LOL fish jello!

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Huh, never heard of this. Can it be eaten kind of desserty?

  • docsterx

    Pluck(y) is what you have to be to eat this. And lutefisk.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    It is good. And it “looks” hard, which is always a plus for anyone chef :)

  • zerosumgame0005

    now that is a vision of hell on earth!

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    My husband attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota. (I never tired of calling him Rose Nylund’s cousin.) His dormitory room was over the kitchen. He use to get sick from the smell of the lutefisk preparation. The mere mention of the word caused him to turn green.

  • keirmeister

    A Greek friend introduced me to this stuff. It is DELICIOUS!

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Yep. Just as there were dishes from my father’s side of the family, favoring eastern Europe, there were the ones from my mother’s favoring Ireland and Scotland.

    Honestly? If you don’t quite know what’s in it or how it’s made, Haggis isn’t nearly as awful as, say, lutefisk.

  • judybrowni

    Haven’t had the pleasure, but have you ever tried haggis? I have.

    “Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach and simmered for approximately three hours.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haggis

    Shudder.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    I tried some once. It literally is as awful as it sounds.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    My mother used to make Hrudka for Easter, a family tradition from my father’s side of the tree. We called it Easter Cheese.

    http://allrecipes.com/recipe/easter-cheese—hrudka/

    It involves about a dozen eggs, a quart of milk, and some spices. The linked one uses sugar, but my recollection was that ours involved not so much sugar, but more salt and pepper and a few other things (I’d have to ask my mother to be sure). Once the cheese & egg ball is made, we’d cut it into slices and either eat as-is, or more often fry it up with a little butter. It was quite delicious, but I remember hating the time at the stove, being asked to stand on a chair and stir-stir-stir.

  • zerosumgame0005

    think fish jello…they soak fish in lye, then soak it again to make it “safe” (do NOT stand downwind of anyone who has eaten any of it!)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    omg, what is that?

  • zerosumgame0005

    at least it’s not lutefisk ;p

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