Spanakopita (Spinach & Cheese Pie)

Spanakopita_closeup

Since the first day of spring, we have been waiting for the weather to change and become, well, more spring-like. Yesterday, that happened.

The temperature went as high as 19C (or 66F, as I still think of it), and we all went a little giddy with the relative heat.  The kids and their visiting cousins thought it was hot enough to swim and play in the river, never mind that the water comes from pools and springs in the heart of the moor and is a less-than-welcoming temperature even on the hottest days of summer. 

To their credit, the kids persevered for about an hour (I know because I could hear the shrieks). Then, predictably perhaps, they came shivering and slightly bewildered back to the house to lay – like lizards – on the patio stones, soaking up the heat.

beginning_of_summer

Ah, spring: daffodils, tulips, and . . . surfboards?

 

In other news, The Author has been writing about Greece lately, which means that we have been immersed in all things Greek: Greek music, Greek history, Greek expressions, and Greek dancing. However, despite yesterday’s sunshine, our climate would have to cooperate a little more to give us a taste of Greek weather; 19C doesn’t quite say Greek islands to me.

Nonetheless, we can still play along, and in the spirit of the recent warmth and the Hellenic absorptions, we can have a little bit of Greece on our plates.

Spanakopita_in_pan

Spanakopita

Serves 8

One favourite for everyone in this house is spinach pie, or spanakopita. Not only is it packed with vitamins and iron, it’s a great way to hide the eggs that my kids abhor. I use a lot of spinach in my pie, which mean that it has a higher ratio of vegetable to dairy in the filling. That means you don’t have to fret too much about the amount of butter you add to the pastry (as if I ever would!) which is so essential to the puff of the filo, not to mention the taste.

chopping_spinach_for_spanakopita

When I first made this, many years ago, I prided myself on adding the cottage cheese as a way to enhance the creaminess without overdoing the feta. Later, I found out that this is a pretty standard thing to do; my mother-in-law (who is Greek) does the same thing, and I have since found recipes that also advocate adding cottage cheese or ricotta cheese. This confirms my thoughts about cooking, which is that there is never really anything new, just something we haven’t found yet. Fortunately, there is literally a whole world of flavours waiting to be discovered, so even if we may not be original, we will eat well!

cheeses_for_spanakopita

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • small handful fresh thyme (leaves only if the stalks are woody, chopped if the stalks are tender)
  • 900g frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry and chopped
  • 200g feta
  • 400g cottage cheese
  • fresh nutmeg
  • 2 eggs
  • sea salt & pepper
  • 125g butter
  • 1 pack fresh filo

In a frying pan or skillet, heat the olive oil and add the onion, fresh thyme, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until the onions are just soft, then add the spinach and continue cooking until the spinach has taken on some flavour. Turn off the heat.

sauteeing_the_filling

In a bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients (except filo), crumble the feta cheese into the cottage cheese and combine. Add the warm spinach mixture and 6-8 scrapings of fresh nutmeg (or 1/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg), and mix thoroughly. Taste for seasoning, then mix in the 2 eggs. Set aside.

Now it’s time to tackle the filo pastry. If you’ve never worked with filo before, don’t worry – it’s very simple. Here’s what to do: melt the butter and keep it near you. Lay the filo out on the counter, and cover with a damp tea towel. Get the oven-proof dish you will be using and set that near you as well. Brush the entire inside of the dish with melted butter.

phyllo_and_butter

Buttering the filo, with the oven dish at the ready.

Remove the tea towel from the filo and brush the top sheet thoroughly with melted butter. Try to work quickly and evenly, so that there are no major puddles of butter in any one part of the pastry. Now lift up the sheet of filo carefully, and fit it in the buttered dish, with the buttered side of the pastry facing up. If it fits neatly, going up the sides of the dish, so much the better, but if you will need to add more sheets later for even coverage, that’s not a problem. It is also not a problem if you have an overhang of pastry, although the less of that, the better.

Now back to the stack of filo. Brush the new top sheet thoroughly with the melted butter (as before) and then arrange it in the baking dish on top of the previous sheet so that you have, at best, two layers of filo and at worst, two overlapping sheets of filo. Continue in this fashion until you have a solid bottom of four to six filo sheets. (Note: if you will be leaving the filo for any length of time, e.g. a minute or two, re-cover the stack with the damp tea towel so it doesn’t dry out. If you are working uninterrupted, this shouldn’t be necessary.)

Add the spinach filling to the baking dish, fold in any overhanging bits of filo,  and then top with 4-6 more sheets of buttered filo pastry. (If there is an abundance of overhang, you can simply trim it off and then stack the new layers right on top, which is what I normally do). Sometimes, when I am adding the last two or three layers, I very gently and artfully scrumple up the top two or three sheets of buttered filo – when it bakes and puffs up, the effect is much more beautiful and interesting than it deserves to be for so little effort put in!

filling_the_spanakopita

I’m pretty laissez-faire about the filo coverage on the sides of the baking dish. It’s all good in the end!

Bake in a preheated 180C (375F) oven for about 40 minutes, or until the pastry is a deep golden brown and the filling, if you can see it, is slightly bubbling. Remove from oven and let stand for about 10 minutes, then dig in.

Spanakopita_out_of_oven

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