16 December 2011

Holiday Baking: Spanakopita

I'm convinced Greeks make spinach better than anyone else. I base this on my highly unscientific observation that I don't know of any kids of Greek parents who hate spinach. I myself was never a fan of greens but I always loved spinach. Dishes like spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese surrounded by buttery phyllo) definitely had something to do with that!

My mom made the best spanakopita (spa-na-KO-pee-ta). Actually, she made the best everything--she was an amazing cook (apologies to all the other fine cooks in the world but you have nothing on her). I hope she knew how much everyone loved and appreciated her food , especially me.

Unfortunately one of her recipes I didn't get was the one for spanakopita. But last Christmas my sister gave me Three Sisters Around the Greek Table, a cookbook with recipes similar to those I grew up with (the sisters' parents are from the same region as mine). So when I decided to try making spanakopita for this year's Christmas dinner I turned to this book. I won't know until then if it turned out but it smelled and looked delicious when it came out of the oven, so chances are good. Hopefully it'll do my mom's memory proud.

Read on to find out what was involved (and click photos to enlarge).

Ever wonder what two pounds of spinach looks like?

All cleaned and chopped and piled into my biggest bowl:

Once the spinach is cooked and wilted it's a lot more manageable. At that point you add the rest of the ingredients. I was worried it would be too much cheese...

...but once everything was mixed together the proportions were perfect:

Working with phyllo, if you haven't done it, is strange. It's like very thin, very fragile sheets of vinyl. It's also very floury! I wish I'd put on an apron.

Phyllo dries out too quickly to stop to take process pictures so we skip straight to the spanakopita ready for the oven:

Out of the oven! It's still a little light but we'll have to reheat it when we're ready to eat so it'll brown more then. For now it's in the freezer waiting for the big unveiling.

Here's the photo from the book of the final result:


[My notes/changes in brackets]

2 tbs olive oil
8 scallions, chopped (greens & whites)
2 lb (1.25 kg) spinach, tough ends removed, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped [I ended up using all dried herbs, although they were from my garden :)]
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
2 tbs fresh dill, chopped
2 cups feta cheese, crumbled into large chunks [try to find sheep's milk feta if you can]
pinch salt [with 2 cups of feta I skipped the salt]
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup unsalted butter [or clarified butter if you have it]
10 sheets phyllo pastry, thawed
[I also added about 1/4 tsp nutmeg because I'm pretty sure my mom used nutmeg]

Place the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the scallions and cook for 2 minutes. Add the spinach and cook until wilted. Place the spinach and scallions in a colander. Press lightly with a wooden spoon to remove the excess water. Transfer to a bowl and combine with the parsley, basil, dill, crumbled feta, salt, egg yolks, [and nutmeg if using]. This is the filling.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat and skim away the foam [I left it on lowest heat to keep it from solidifying while I was trying to use it.] Use only the clarified butter and avoid the white milk solids that have settled at the bottom of the pan.

Gather two of the phyllo sheets and cover the remaining sheets with a damp cloth to avoid drying out. Lay the two sheets of phyllo along the bottom of a 9 x 13" (33 x 23 cm) shallow baking dish, and allow the sheets to slightly overlap in the center of the pan and the excess to hang over the sides of the pan. Brush these sheets lightly with some melted butter [don't skimp!] Arrange another six sheets in the same manner, brushing each sheet with melted butter. Spread the filling prepared earlier in an even layer on top of the pastry.

Gather the phyllo pastry hanging over the sides of the pan and fold over to enclose the spinach filling. Brush each layer with melted butter. Lay the remaining two layers of phyllo pastry on the very top and allow the phyllo to wrinkle and fold to create a ruffled top. Brush with melted butter. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Remove from the refrigerator and lightly sprinkle the top of the spanakopita with water. Place in the middle of a preheated 350F oven and bake until golden brown and crispy, about 45 minutes. Cut into serving pieces and serve warm or cold.

Make Ahead: After 30 minutes refrigeration time, spanakopita can be transferred to the freezer and kept frozen for up to 2 months. It can be cooked from frozen. [You can also freeze after cooking and reheat until it warms through and crisps again.]

The recipe says it makes 6 pieces but unless you want to eat massive pieces it makes way more than that. Can easily serve 10 to 12 people.

More info about the cookbook here.

Photos by Domicile (except for the last one)

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