Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sunday Spanakopita and Phyllo School

Ah, the Greeks—fathers of democracy, inventors of the vending machine, and makers of my favorite comfort food, spanakopita. This delicious dish, made of layer upon layer of buttery phyllo and filled with a mixture of spinach and feta cheese, is savory and satisfying—perfect for a Sunday supper—and I have Ms. Donna to thank for sharing her family’s version with us many years ago. I’ve yet to taste a better recipe.

Ms. Donna is one of my mothers’ oldest and dearest friends. Their husbands worked together for over 15 years, and they had kids at the same time. We all lived just a few streets away from each other, and so many of my childhood memories involve sleepovers with Donnas’ girls, summers by the neighborhood pool, and holiday dinners spent around the same table. Growing up in super-homogenous South Carolina, Donna stuck out like a refreshingly sore thumb—spunky, loud and proud of her giant Greek-Armenian family. She made spanakopita for special meals like Thanksgiving or Easter supper, and even though I shunned green vegetables for most of my childhood, I took an exception to her spinach pie, smacking my lips as the crispy, buttered layers of phyllo crumbled down the front of my shirt.

She taught my mom how to make spanakopita, and my mom taught me. This dish is not that complicated to make, once you get over your fear of phyllo pastry. Phyllo dough can be very temperamental stuff; the translucent, paper-thin layers dry out fast, and once they do they crumble into pieces in your hand. But a little practice (and preparing a phyllo-friendly work station before you begin) will assure you success.

This is a perfect dish to make on a weekend afternoon, when you are relaxed and in no hurry. Just strap on an apron, pour yourself a glass of wine, channel your inner Greek goddess and enjoy the process of working with your hands to make something amazing for your plate.


2-3 onions, chopped
3 bags fresh spinach, washed (remove stems if using mature spinach leaves)
6 eggs, beaten
8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
8-16 oz. cottage cheese (small curd)
4 Tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper
1 package of phyllo dough (if purchased frozen, thaw overnight in refrigerator)
1 stick butter, melted
Olive oil

1. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Sauté onions in olive oil until translucent and softened. Do not brown them.

2. Turn heat to medium-high, and add spinach to pan. Stir and cook, allowing it to wilt.

3. Remove spinach and onions from heat, allowing it to cool for 5 minutes or so. Then, mix spinach and onions in a large bowl with the eggs, feta, cottage cheese and flour. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Create a safe environment for your phyllo dough. Place a damp dish towel on the countertop. Over the towel, place a layer of plastic wrap. Open half the package of phyllo and lay it out on plastic wrap (place the other half of the package back in the fridge for now). Cover phyllo with its wrapping, another layer of plastic wrap and another damp dish towel. Keeping your phyllo covered and in a moist(ish) environment will keep your delicate layers from becoming a brittle, breaking mess.
NOTE: Before you start assembling the dish, your work station should include the phyllo (covered properly), a bowlful of melted butter, a pastry brush and a 13x9” baking pan. (The photos below show a square 8X8" pan; a half-recipe.)

5. To assemble, first brush the bottom and sides of the pan with butter. Create a single layer of phyllo (using 2-3 sheets, depending on their size) in the pan, going up the sides of the pan. (NOTE: You want layers overhanging the sides of the pan. Eventually, you’ll roll them up to make a sealed crust.) Brush that layer with butter, then make another layer of phyllo. Repeat this until you have 8-10 layers of phyllo laid. Butter top layer. This will use half the package of dough.

6. Add filling.

7. Place top layers on over filling, always remembering to brush on butter in between each new layer….add another 8-10 layers.

8. Similar to how you would seal a pie crust by rolling under the top and bottom crusts, do the same with the top and bottom crusts of the Spanakopita.

9. With a very sharp paring knife, score crust into equal pieces.

10. Bake at 350° F for 40 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.

Sacrilege (OR: trimming the fat): Now imagine that I am typing this in a whisper. I whisper because I’m guessing that real Greeks would shame me for even suggesting what I am about to suggest. But I’m not Greek- so there. And there is no glory in a spare tire around my middle caused by copious amounts of buttered phyllo. So this is what I do: I alternate brushing one layer with butter, then spraying the next layer with Pam cooking spray, the next with butter, and so on. I have eaten my share of Spanakopita both ways, and let me assure you, you will never know the difference. You’ll just save yourself half the butter calories. Bada Bing.

Crumbled Goat's milk feta


Wilted in the pan...

My phyllo-friendly workstation (notice the towel covering the phyllo sheets to the left of the pan)...

Filling's in...

Ready for the oven...

Ready to eat!


Ms D. said...

Good morning Alexandra:) Thanks for the beautiful presentation of my mother's spanikopita :) Also for the fond memories of SC days and the raising of our amazing children (now adults). Can't wait till our next visit to enjoy some wine and great food with my extended family. Much Love,

Ms D.

Shayne said...

oh my that looks great!!!