Spanakotyropitta (or Greek spinach pie with cheese)
Susan from Athens, Recipe thread, 25 December 08
Asking a Greek cook about their spinach pie is like asking for a saga of personal choices in a sea of other people’s failures, because each Greek cook is convinced that their spanakopitta or spanakotyropitta is the best – or their mother’s or grandmother’s version is. And there are as many versions as there are ways of putting together a herb garden. The main ingredients are obviously spinach and in most cases feta cheese, although on Crete that will be a mild cottage-cheese like mizithra or a salty graviera. And there are those who want big thick chunks of cheese and others who want their barely discernible (I belong to the latter category and like my feta very finely chopped indeed and will pulse it in the food processor to get it that way). And it doesn’t end there: you add other greens as well. Plain spinach is OK but it is plain. Everybody adds spring onions (green onions for the Americans) chopped into rounds – some sauté them, others don’t. Then we have myronia and kafkalithres (Caucalis), which are wild greens that add flavour and sweetness. Others add parsley by the handful and dill – which are easy to find. But you can also add maratho (fennel fronds) and even wild carrot greens which offer a variety of flavours. Fresh coriander and spearmint are also good. Lots of people add dried bread crumbs, rice or bulghur to absorb the juices, so the pastry doesn’t get soggy, but that does change the texture.
Adding to the variety you can make it with phyllo pastry (ready made or homemade) or homemade pastries of many varieties. You can put it on a baking dish like a baklava, or roll it up like a strudel or a long cigar-like shape that you roll up like a Danish pastry. You can sprinkle the top with sesame seeds or not (usually with phyllo pastry you don’t). The varieties are endless. Going for simple and internationally available I give you the following recipe. It works for a 10 by 14 inch baking pan or any near enough in size not to stretch the filling too thin or make it bunch up too thick) You will need approximately:
1 1/2; kilo phyllo pastry (A total of 12 sheets and save the good ones that aren’t cracked for the top)
2 kilos spinach washed with roots cut off
salt and pepper
1 cup olive oil or slightly more
4-5 spring onions – chopped medium fine
300 grams feta cheese chopped finely or pulsed in the food processor
1 cup chopped parsley
1 cup chopped dill
When making the filling you want to wilt the spinach. You can do this in two ways: (a) by chopping finely, rubbing with salt and allowing to drain for about an hour (which will be high in sodium but very tasty) or (b) by placing it in a large pan with no water over a low heat, covering and leaving it for about six minutes, whereupon the large pile of spinach will have reduced by a lot, into a little mound (this is how I do it).
Either way: place the spinach you have wilted in a colander and press hard to squeeze as much water out of it as possible. Put some elbow grease into this process. Whatever water you do not remove here will end up giving you soggy pastry later on. It is worth the extra effort to squeeze it out well. If you have wilted according to method (b) you should now chop your spinach mound thoroughly and salt to taste (about half to a teaspoon of salt is sufficient).
In a large pan add about half a cup of olive oil, sauté the spring onions lightly – you don’t want them to brown and add the spinach and sauté for another 3 minutes. Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly and add the fresh chopped herbs and the cheese.
Prepare your phyllo dough. If it is frozen or ready-made and paper-dry, lay it out and cover it with a damp dish cloth. After you remove each sheet of pastry replace the cloth, so that it doesn’t dry out entirely. Lay out a bowl with olive oil and one with water and have a pastry brush on hand.
Oil your baking dish and lay down one layer of phyllo pastry. Oil it lightly (i.e. you want a very fine layer of oil over it all but you don’t want oil dripping and pooling). Place your hand in the water bowl and flick very lightly so there are some beads of water on the pastry. In similar fashion layer down six sheets of phyllo pastry with oil and water between each layer (as the pie heats up this water will turn into steam and cause the layers to separate and crisp up). Go up the sides of your tin and don’t worry if the phyllo gets torn or shredded – it won’t show up on the final product. The final layer you brush more liberally with oil.
Next lay out your filling evenly over the whole of the pastry and cover with another six layers of pastry. Trim the corners well and tuck them in (if you don’t cut off a lot of the corner pastry the corner pieces will be very thick with phyllo which some people prefer). Oil well and score through the top 4 layers of pastry with a sharp knife, cutting into 4-5 cm strips from one end of the pan to the other and crosswise into squares or diamond shapes. Brush more oil into the cuts and down the sides and sprinkle the top with water to prevent the pastry sheets from curling upwards. Bake in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven (175 degrees Centigrade) for 40-45 minutes, until golden with the sheets of pastry separating.
Cool slightly and cut the pieces. Serve hot or cold.