I’ve made Spanakopita most of my life. As a chef it’s been part of my repertoire my entire career. It’s flavorful, a classic vegetarian dish and easy once you become familiar using phyllo dough.
In North America phyllo is found in the freezer section of many grocery stores. (Making the same paper thin dough at home requires skill and helpers). Once you’re familiar handling phyllo its versatility is amazing.
I have wrapped anything and everything into attractive phyllo packets especially for hot hor d’oeuvres. They have graced many a buffet and cocktail party. Yet it wasn’t until I started traveling to Greece that I discovered not all phyllo is paper thin and difficult to prepare.
The village of Vathi on the Cycladic Island of Sifnos is a classic beauty. The winding road descends from the hills and one’s first glimpse is the gleaming white buildings clustered in a crescent on a white sand beach in front of the clear aqua water of the Aegean. Cars are parked at the entrance to the village because there’s nowhere else to drive. The few narrow streets – more stone paths than roads – were made for goats and donkeys.
After passing through the 17th century Church of Evangelistria Taxiarches, which creates part of the seawall, you walk a short distance on the beach to a grove of trees shading Tsikali Taverna. Nearly as many tables are directly on the sand as under the roof of the open-air restaurant. Flora and Nikos Kratzeskaros have operated Tsikali Taverna for decades.
Knowing that a chef culinary journalist was visiting that day Flora demonstrated how easy it was to make phyllo dough that isn’t the paper thin variation. Except for many dessert pastries, Greeks don’t use the paper thin sheets familiar to me. For savory dishes they roll fresh dough to the thickness of a thin pizza crust.
I developed this variation on classic Spanakopita decades ago and have used it my entire career. It calls for the frozen dough familiar to most outside of Greece, but you can certainly substitute this New York Times recipe for the dough Flora Kratzeskaros taught me.
I add cottage cheese along with feta because I like the mix. Sometimes I include a couple tablespoons of toasted pine nuts and a grating of fresh nutmeg. All are ingredients traditional to Greece and Eastern Mediterranean cuisine therefore as authentic as any dish can be that has existed for thousands of years and is part of several regional cuisines.
Spanakopita – 6 entrée portions
- 1/3rd pound defrosted phyllo dough
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup diced sweet onion
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 pounds fresh spinach or 20 ounces of loose frozen chopped spinach
- 2 cups crumbled feta cheese
- 2 cups cottage cheese
- 5 eggs
- Defrost filo dough still wrapped for 24 hours in the refrigerator. DO NOT unwrap until instructed in step #8.
If using frozen spinach: remove from the bag and place in a colander over a bowl large enough to fit the colander. Thaw the spinach for 24 hours in the refrigerator. Discard the collected spinach water or reserve for other uses. Place the spinach in a large square of cheesecloth or a kitchen towel and press out as much liquid as possible.
- If using fresh spinach: remove the stems and chop the leaves. Rinse in a colander and place in a large pot. Cover the pot and steam, stirring several times, until soft, approximately 5 minutes. Place the spinach in a large square of cheesecloth or a kitchen towel and press out as much liquid as possible.
- Preheat oven to 375°
- Melt 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a sauté pan and add the onions, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Sauté until lightly browned.
- In a large mixing bowl combine onion, spinach, feta cheese, cottage cheese and eggs.
- Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons unsalted butter in a small pan.
Remove the thawed phyllo from its wrapping and unfold onto a kitchen towel or waxed paper. Cover immediately with a slightly damp kitchen towel (phyllo dries and crumbles quickly when exposed to dry air).
- Brush the bottom and sides of a deep pie or flan pan (10” X 2”) lightly with butter.
Arrange 8 sheets of phyllo overlapping in a circular pattern. The phyllo will larger than the diameter of the pan. (cover the remaining phyllo with the damp towel) Brush the phyllo with half of the remaining melted butter. Spread the spinach mixture into the pan and overlap the phyllo over the spinach one piece at a time. Gently press the phyllo onto the spinach and with a serrated knife score the phyllo into 6 wedges – do not cut through the spinach – this makes it easier to serve without the flakey dough breaking apart after baking. Brush the top with the remaining butter. (Wrap the remaining phyllo dough in waxed paper and then in aluminum foil sealing well. You can place that in a plastic bag. Refrigerate up to 3 weeks for later use.)
- Place the dish on a sheet pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the phyllo is light golden brown. Allow the Spanakopita to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
A 9” X 13” cake pan can be used for the Spanakopita and it can be scored into smaller portions to be served as a first course.
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