My mother used to make flaky little phyllo triangles filled with spinach, scallion and feta for her cocktail parties back in the early 70’s. Although the filling came together quickly, it was a fairly laborious activity to make these treats and mother would devote the better part of a Sunday afternoon chopping defrosted spinach and oiling and folding delicate phyllo leaves. Eventually, Mom would place the stuffed triangles into zip lock bags and freeze them. When special guests were due to arrive, their hostess would pop the frozen appetizers into the oven and then present them on silver platters. I always thought the crispy treats were delightful. But until I visited Kea, Greece, I never tasted a truly authentic Spanakopita.
According to Aglaia Kremezi, Greek cookbook writer, owner and master teacher at Kea Artisanal Cooking School where I recently went for a cooking vacation, young Greek girls often learned from their mothers how to roll out phyllo dough made from scratch and after a few years of practice, the technique was second nature to them.
To prove her point to me and my fellow travelers, Aglaia and her two helpers using long, slender hand-made dowels, deftly rolled out three layers of homemade dough until they were all exceedingly round and thin. Each layer was drizzled and smoothed by hand with Greek olive oil, then gently placed in a shallow copper pan. Crumbs of toasted phyllo were crumbled over the third layer of dough.The crumbs were meant to sop up any water exuded from the greens as they cooked and to keep the bottom of the pie crispy. Next, a mountain of raw, torn, seasoned and massaged mixed greens were tossed with crumbled local cheeses and herbs from Aglaia’s garden and poured into the phyllo lined pan. After a gentle pat down, another thin layer of dough was added and the pie was sealed, scored and placed in the oven for over an hour. When the phyllo crust was golden brown, Aglaia removed the pan from the oven and proudly presented it to us.
No-one wanted to wait for the pie to cool down, and when we were finally allowed a slice, I was amazed at how different this Spanakopita seemed. It smelled so good since it was sprinkled with dill and fennel fronds, parsley and mint. The crust was rustic and crisp and thicker than the ones I had tasted in the past. It was a hearty piece of savory pie and although no one in the cooking class needed comforting, we all felt soothed and so much happier.
Rolling out homemade phyllo dough is not something that most of us have the time to do, especially since very few of us have been practicing the technique since we were twelve. Even folding defrosted phyllo leaves into triangles is more than some people are up to and for those not used to working with fast drying phyllo dough, this is a bit scary. Fortunately, in February, Bon Appetit Magazine came up with a novel recipe for Spanakopita that is easy, quick and surprisingly elegant. All you need is 9 inch springform pan and a 16 oz box of Apollo Fillo #7 pastry sheets, a damp cloth, a pastry brush and some melted butter. I did adapt this recipe slightly, stealing the best ideas from both Aglaia and Bon Appetit. During our recent Woodfired Mediterranean Workshop, I demonstrated this recipe. My students were delighted with the finished product and posted pictures of it on their Facebook pages. I’ll also be sharing the technique on WCSH6’s 207 since the dish is such a show stopper.
WATCH JILLYANNA’S APPEARANCE ON WCSH6 BELOW OR CLICK HERE:
- 2 16 ounce packages fresh organic spinach, steamed for 3-4 minutes, cooled and drained
- 1/4 cup Greek olive oil
- 1 leek, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 5 medium scallions, white and pale-green parts only, sliced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- coarse sea salt
- Aleppo pepper (or ground pink peppercorns)
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 8 ounces feta, crumbled (I love the Israeli sheep's milk feta from Trader Joe's.)
- 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (or half Pecorino and half Parmesan)
- 1/3 cup chopped basil
- 1/3 cup chopped dill
- 1/3 cup chopped mint
- 1/3 cup chopped fennel fronds
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- 1 stick unsalted butter, melted
- 6 14x18 inch sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed, room temp (preferably #7 phyllo dough made by Apollo)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Place spinach in the center of a clean towel, gather corners together and twist towel to wring excess liquid out of spinach. (It's good to get as much water out of the spinach as possible. Wet spinach will create soggy pie.) Transfer spinach to a large bowl and break up into small pieces.
- Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium and cook leek and onion stirring until just beginning to soften, 5-7 minutes. Add scallions and garlic and cook until vegetables are tender, 4-6 minutes more. Season lightly with salt. Scrape into bowl with spinach.
- Whisk egg and egg yolk, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or ground pink peppercorns. Add feta, Parmesan, basil, dill, fennel fronds, mint, parsley and lemon zest and mix until evenly distributed. (I tend to hold back a little on salt seasoning since Feta is salty.)
- Lightly brush bottom and sides of springform pan with butter. Remove phyllo from packaging and cover with damp kitchen towel to prevent drying out. Working quickly, brush butter on one side of one phyllo sheet. Transfer phyllo butter side up to prepared pan, covering bottom of pan. Gently press and tuck sides of sheet into bottom edges of pan. Fold and ripple phyllo as needed to cover bottom of pan. Repeat with one more phyllo sheet.
- Working quickly, brush melted butter on one side of another phyllo sheet. Transfer to pan and slightly off center so long side of dough comes up and over side of pan. (You'll have a lot of overhang. Don't worry.) Rotate pan slightly and repeat with another sheet so overhang covers another section of the pan. Continue with remaining two more sheets rotating pan so there is overhang around entire pan.
- Scrape spinach mixture into pan, pressing down gently and smoothing top. Gently fold phyllo overhang over spinach mixture and continue to press until phyllo goes just beneath rim of pan. Don't worry if phyllo breaks or tears.
- You want the phyllo to look draped over the top with lots of waves and folds. But I like to leave a circle of the topping uncovered.
- Brush melted butter over folded edges. Bake pie until phyllo is golden brown and slightly darker around the edges, 50-60 minutes. Place hot pan on rack and allow to cool for one hour. Unmold and serve.
- You will need a sturdy 9 inch spring form pan, a pastry brush, a damp cloth. Phyllo dough comes in different levels of thickness. This recipe calls for phyllo that is not to thin, not too thick. I use #7 Apollo Fillo.
- Make sure that once you open the phyllo dough, you cover it with a damp cloth and are ready to gently paint it with cool melted butter. Spanakopita is best served warm (an hour after it comes out of the oven). You can make it 1 day ahead and chill it. Reheat in 300 degree oven for 30 minutes.