In my restaurant days, one of the signature vegetarian dishes permanently on the menu was Greek Spinach Pie, folded into large triangles for each serving. At the time, it was an exotic dish.
You could not expect to find phyllo, the paper-thin dough that is the key ingredient, in just any supermarket. In fact, we usually picked up our supply of frozen dough on weekly runs to New York City, the nearest mecca for “foreign” ingredients at the time.
Luckily, spanakopita—with its cheesy filling of spinach, feta, scallions, and herbs, all enclosed in layer upon layer of crisp, buttery phyllo—is now a mainstream dish, and the ingredients are easy to find.
SPANAKOPITA PIE VS. TRIANGLES
There is no hard and fast rule about what form the pie (or pies) should take. You can make small or large triangles by folding the filling inside the dough, or for family cooking, make it in a baking dish of any shape or size. For this recipe, I use a 9×13-inch baking dish.
It’s convenient to have on hand as a side dish for a large gathering, or as a main course for a potluck or a vegetarian dinner. Serve it with a big salad, or a mezze platter of hummus, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and pita bread.
HOW TO PREPARE SPINACH FOR SPANAKOPITA
I have always used defrosted chopped spinach for spanakopita (no cooking necessary).
On a recent mini survey of the several Middle Eastern markets in my neighborhood, I grilled the ladies who make and sell squares of large pies in their small shops. They unanimously concurred that chopped frozen spinach is the way to go, so I am passing on their wisdom to you, which confirmed my original instincts.
Spinach has a lot of water content that has to be removed. Here’s what to do:
- To defrost it, just leave it out at room temperature, or if you’re short on time, microwave it.
- You will then need to squeeze out as much water as possible. You can do this with your hands over the sink, but it’s pretty messy. I prefer to enclose a few large handfuls in a dish towel and twist and squeeze out the abundant liquid.
Pick a towel that you’re not too attached to; the green stain comes out in the wash, but just in case it doesn’t, you don’t want to ruin your favorite dish towel.
WHAT IS THE BEST CHEESE FOR SPANAKOPITA?
All feta is not the same, so choose one that you like. Greek feta is made with at least 70 percent sheep’s milk; the rest could be goat’s or cow’s milk.
Feta is salty, dry, crumbly, and tangy, and it’s an excellent choice. My favorite is Bulgarian feta, made with sheep’s milk and a yogurt culture. It’s tangy and creamy.
Frankly, any feta will do here, but if you’ve never given it much of a thought before, you’ll have some incentive to try a few different kinds. You will pay more for crumbled feta, so why not buy a block? It’s easy to crumble!
WHAT IS PHYLLO?
Although the little shops in my neighborhood sell defrosted packages of phyllo, I think it’s better to buy it frozen and defrost it yourself.
To defrost phyllo, leave it in its package in the refrigerator the night before you’re going to use it. To prevent it from becoming dry and flaky, use the phyllo within in 24 hours of defrosting it.
Phyllo can be a little glitchy to work with. Each paper-thin sheet must be brushed with melted butter and layered in a baking dish. About half the layers from the package go on the bottom, the filling on top of them, and the other half of the sheets on top.
A few tips for working with phyllo:
- Place the stack of phyllo next to the baking dish, and brush the top layer with butter.
- If you need to pause at any point, cover the stack with a lightly dampened dishtowel, but don’t leave it there too long or the dough will dry out.
- Don’t worry too much about a few cracks here and there. There’s going to be another layer to cover them!
- Most one-pound packages have around 18 sheets; if yours is different, just use half of them on the bottom and the other half on top.
HOW TO TRIM AND SCORE PHYLLO
Once you have completed layering the phyllo, you will have a lot of messy-looking overhang around the pan. Trim it with a thin, sharp knife, cutting off the excess. You don’t need to tuck or fold the phyllo. Just give it a good trim.
Finally, cut the dough into squares, piercing the top layer of dough completely without cutting too deeply into the filling. This makes serving much easier.
WHAT TO SERVE WITH SPANAKOPITA
Spanakopita is great as either a main or a side dish.
- As a main course: Serve with rice, a big green salad, or a chickpea salad.
- As a side dish: Serve it with roast chicken or lamb kebabs.
TO MAKE AHEAD, STORE, AND FREEZE SPANAKOPITA
You can make spanakopita casserole ahead. Cover it tightly with foil and refrigerate it for up to 24 hours before baking.
To freeze unbaked spanakopita, brush the top layer with butter and wrap it well in plastic wrap and then in foil. It can be frozen for up to three months. When ready to cook, unwrap the casserole, brush with more butter, and place the frozen pie in the oven. It should take from 10 to 20 minutes longer to bake than a freshly made pie.
Once baked, leftover pie will keep for two to three days in the refrigerator. Reheat it in the oven at 350ºF for 15 to 20 minutes, or until hot all the way through.
TRY THESE OTHER GREAT SPINACH RECIPES?
- 2 (16-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, including some of the green part
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 8 ounces (about 1 1/2 cups) crumbled feta
- 8 ounces (1 cup) whole milk ricotta
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
- 1 pound phyllo (filo) dough (about 18 sheets), defrosted in the refrigerator
1 Preheat the oven: Center a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 375ºF.
2 Squeeze dry the spinach: Squeeze the excess moisture from the spinach in a towel or with your hands. Just make sure you get as much liquid out of the spinach as possible. Set aside.
3 Cook the scallions: In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the scallions and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Cool briefly.
4 Make the filling: In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the scallions, feta, ricotta, dill, parsley, salt, and squeezed spinach. Stir to combine.
5 Assemble the pie: Brush the bottom and sides of a 9x13-inch baking dish with melted butter.
Unwrap the phyllo and set the stack of sheets next to the pan. Working quickly, brush the top sheet of the phyllo stack with butter and set it in the pan. Repeat buttering and layering the phyllo with 8 more sheets. Don’t worry if the sheets hang over the edges of the pan. You will trim them later.
Spread the filling evenly over the phyllo.
Butter a phyllo sheet and place it on top of the filling. Repeat with 8 more sheets, as before.
4 Trim the edges and score the top of the pie in portions: With a sharp knife, trim the excess phyllo so the edges of the dough are flush with the inside edges of the pan.
Position the baking dish with the long edge parallel to the counter. Without cutting too deeply into the filling, make 4 vertical cuts and 3 horizontal cuts through the top phyllo sheets to form 12 squares.
5 Bake the pie: Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the phyllo is golden brown.
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