Spanakopita

I was never a coffee drinker.  I never liked the taste of a cup of coffee. As a kid my grandmother would make us “kids coffee” which was a cup of milk with maybe a tablespoon of coffee in it.  This supposedly made us feel like we were “just like Grandpap”, while we sat at the kitchen counter first thing in the morning waiting for grandma to cook our eggs. In those days, when my grandparents would be at our family home early in the morning, I would always beg Grandma to make me a “coffee”. She would pass me a cup and make a big deal out of the fact I was grown up enough to drink coffee. Each time I drank it though I remember thinking that the taste wasn’t very good. The coffee just made the milk taste bitter and it had an unpleasant aftertaste, yet whenever that opportunity arose, I would beg for it again. I also think I didn’t really want to say “oooh yuch, this stuff is gross”. Otherwise I wouldn’t be like the adults, and that in turn would make me less of a grown-up, right?  So I drank my “kids coffee” as if it was the best thing I ever had, all the time wishing I had asked for hot chocolate. 

I have to say there was one constant in the breakfasts my grandmother made for us and that was that she was never shy with the pepper.  My grandfather loved pepper, so when my grandma cooked his eggs, (which was always in a cast iron skillet with enough oil you could almost deep fry stuff), she would shake on enough black pepper so the top of the egg was virtually black. So in keeping with the “I want to be like grandpap” theme, I too would ask my grandma to make my eggs with lots and lots of pepper.  This is a flavor I can tell you I took to right away, and really enjoy to this day. Anyway, coffee, which is what I was really talking about, is just not my thing, and at the risk of becoming sidetracked again, until much later in life, neither was hot tea. I think this stemmed from the fact that the only time I really ever drank hot tea was when I was sick and my mother would brew a cup for me to drink. It was always the leading brand of black (Orange Pekoe) tea and it was always brewed super strong and with what tasted like no sweetener at all.  You should realize by now that I am partial to sweet things: simply look at the number of desserts I feature on this blog. 

In fact I prefer iced tea over hot tea in most cases. There are a several notable exceptions of course, hot peppermint tea is great, jade citrus mint is exquisite, and there are a few teas that I have mentioned before that I think are superb when hot: Christmas Eve Tea and White Christmas tea (and I buy them at every opportunity). For the most part, however, iced tea is my thing and it’s almost always herbal.  David, on the other hand, won’t drink tea even if it were the last beverage on earth, but take away his coffee and whew boy that would not be good.  Ok, Ok, I know, again I’m off topic, but it’s a habit I can’t seem to shake. I can remember when I was working I would go into a colleagues office and even though I had a simple question, I would end up rambling on about some unrelated topic, talking way too long about other things before I even got to the question I had.  I am sure this annoyed the staff to no end but very few people ever said so… they really didn’t need to… you could see it in their eyes!  So… coffee, that’s what we were talking about here, and it not being to my liking.  The funny thing about this is that somewhere, I think in High School, I discovered Coffee Nips.  If you have never had a Coffee Nip (made by Nestle) you really should treat yourself, they are these coffee flavored hard candies that are simply fantastic.  In my mind the flavor of these candies wasn’t coffee though at all since it didn’t taste anything like the coffee my grandmother made for me. It is sort of like how cherry flavored candy doesn’t actually taste like cherries, right?  Somewhere in time I also had my first taste of coffee flavored ice cream and just like the Coffee Nips I thought it was fantastic but my mind told me that even though I liked these things I still didn’t like coffee.  This has been my position on coffee for almost my entire life: I don’t like coffee but I like coffee flavored things.

Now, as I have said David is a big coffee drinker (emphasis on the word big). We have all sorts of brewing devices in our home, he has brewing devices at his shop, and if we are anywhere near a coffee house during the day, he often stops in. You may recall from an earlier post how David likes to have “a moment” in the late weekend afternoons with a cup of espresso.  I, on the other hand, stick to my iced tea. Preferably half iced tea, half lemonade. But somewhere in my late forties, maybe early fifties, I finally discovered that it wasn’t coffee that I didn’t like… it was black coffee I didn’t like.  This discovery came about in a few ways. One was when I would enhance the flavor of chocolate cakes with coffee and the other was when I had my first iced blended coffee drink.  I didn’t dislike coffee: I disliked coffee without milk and sugar and chocolate and whipped cream! Would I ever order a cup of coffee in a restaurant and pour in a little milk and sugar? Nope, won’t do that! Though on cold days I might order a hot peppermint mocha (with whip) from that big coffee chain place. Or maybe on hot days I will order an iced blended version of that same drink.  

There are other things I have eaten with which I have had a similar experience.  Spinach is one example, just off the top of my head.  I don’t like spinach.  I have never liked spinach. Spinach is horrible...  But wait, that’s not actually true. I don’t like spinach when it’s from a can. I don’t like spinach the way it was served in the school cafeteria. Really I simply don’t like spinach when it’s not well prepared. Otherwise spinach is great. The first time I ate Feta cheese I disliked it but looking back now it was more that I wasn’t expecting that intense salty flavor in a cheese so it shocked me a little. Then I ate it in a Greek salad, alongside cucumbers and tomatoes and Kalamata olives and... “hello, where have you been all my life?”  Green olives straight from the jar… nope, no thank you. Green olives in Spanish rice?... the rice would not be the same without them. Just like coffee it’s up to each of us to find out what it is we like and how to make it the way we like it. And finally, this is where our coffee story ends and our spanakopita story begins. But, you see, they really are the same story. I was never a big spinach eater, (because all the spinach we ever ate was from a can) and as a kid the only cheese that wasn’t American singles in our house was Parmesan or pecorino romano (and these came pre-ground in a plastic container).  So… one day I was watching The Barefoot Contessa and she was making spanakopita so I decided that it was about time I embraced this dish.  I wanted to eat more spinach, I liked feta cheese in salads, and I like flaky pastry so why shouldn’t I make them?  I also liked the way she was making them. Many times I have seen recipes for spanakopita where the filling is put into a large pan and covered with layers of phyllo dough or puff pastry and then dished out like a casserole.  I have seen recipes where you put down a few layers of the dough in a pie tin or spring-form pan then pour in all the filling, top with more dough, bake and then serve like a pie. The way Ina was putting them together was like traditional spanakopita appetizers where the filling is wrapped into the customary triangular shape, but these were large enough to serve as a main course. 

Before I start this recipe, I want to assure you that while you DO have to deal with what some people call “fussy phyllo dough”, it really couldn’t be easier to make these. Yes, you need to treat the phyllo a little gently and you’ll want to keep it covered so it won’t dry out, but honestly, if I can do it, so can you! If you’re worried about it and want to watch how Ina puts hers together you can do that here. Watching that video will erase any fears you have over working with phyllo dough and you probably won’t even need me to help you through it at all.  A quick mention about the spinach too: you can use frozen spinach here.  If you really want to wilt down and chop up a whole mess of fresh spinach to get the 20 ounces you need to make these by all means feel free, but honestly “Green Giant” (or whatever brand your grocery store carries) has already done that part for you so let’s make it easy on ourselves and use that. Hey, if it’s good enough for Ina Garten, it’s good enough for us! As for special equipment the only thing you really need is a pastry brush so you can “paint” butter onto the layers of the phyllo dough.

Here’s how I put these together:

Ingredients:

  • 2 (10-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, defrosted

  • ¼ cup olive oil

  • 1 cup chopped yellow onion

  • 3 scallions, white and green parts, chopped

  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten

  • 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

  • 1 cup plain dry bread crumbs (3 tablespoons in one bowl the rest in another bowl)

  • 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 cups small-diced (¼to ⅜-inch) feta cheese (12 ounces)

  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted in a dry skillet until golden.

  • 24 sheets frozen phyllo dough, defrosted

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

  • Flakey sea salt, such as Maldon, for sprinkling on top

Directions:

Prepare the filling:

Preheat the oven to 375°F with the oven rack placed in the center position.

Start by gently squeezing most of the water out of the spinach and place it in a big bowl. It doesn’t have to be bone dry, just get out most of the water and set that aside for now.

Next, heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan, over a medium-low heat, until it is just starting to shimmer, then add the onion and sauté for just about 5 minutes or until the onion is tender but is not browned. 

Add the scallions to the pan and continue to cook for about two more minutes until the scallions are wilted but are still green. 

When the onion and scallions are done, add them to the bowl with the spinach and gently stir them together a little. 

Now, mix in the eggs, the Parmesan cheese, 3 tablespoons of the bread crumbs, the nutmeg, the salt, and the pepper until everything is fairly well combined. 

Lastly, fold in the feta cheese and the toasted pine nuts just enough to get them incorporated and mixed through evenly. You don’t want to break up the cheese too much here so be gentle.

Now the assembly:

Take the phyllo dough from the box and unroll it placing it next to your work surface. You can place a sheet of waxed paper on top of the dough, then cover that with a lightly dampened cloth (or kitchen towel) to keep the dough sheets from drying out and becoming brittle.  

Start by taking 1 sheet of the phyllo dough and lay it flat on your work surface with the long end in front of you and using your pastry brush, cover the dough lightly with a little of the melted butter. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just get a light even coat on the phyllo sheet.

Sprinkle the buttered phyllo, all over, with a bit of the remaining bread crumbs, about a teaspoon or so will suffice. This is going to help you place the second sheet on top without it sticking to the first sheet immediately.  

Working quickly, grab a second sheet of phyllo, slide it on top of the first one, brush it with butter just as you did the first, and also sprinkle it lightly, all over, with bread crumbs, as before, to prepare it for the next sheet. Again you want to use just enough bread crumbs so the layers of phyllo don't completely stick together in case you need to adjust the alignment, and so there will be nice flakey layers after being baked. 

Your going to stack 4 layers total on top of each other in this fashion, brushing each layer with butter and sprinkling with bread crumbs so they don’t stick together. The forth layer will not need bread crumbs, as that is the last layer.

Once you have four layers, cut the sheets of phyllo in half lengthwise so you have two long narrow strips. You’ll be making two spanakopitas out of each four layer packet.

Place ⅓ cup of the spinach filling on one end of the phyllo strip and fold the phyllo up diagonally as if you are folding a flag (basically bring one of the corners of the strip up to the opposite side of the strip).

Now fold the triangle of phyllo over straight (bring the lower corner straight up and over) and then fold diagonally again. 

Continue folding in this fashion, first diagonally and then straight until you reach the end of the sheet (the filling will be totally enclosed). 

Now just repeat this process of assembling phyllo layers, cutting them in half and folding the filling inside them until all of the filling is used (or you run out of phyllo sheets, whichever comes first). 

Put each of your triangular shaped spanakopitas on a sheet pan with the seam sides down and brush the tops and sides with melted butter.

Lastly, sprinkle with a little of the flaked salt, before popping them into your oven to bake.
Bake those bad boys for 30 to 35 minutes, until the phyllo is browned and crisp and super delicious looking. 

Allow them to cool just a little bit, but serve them hot. 

Now I know you’re going to ask, what you should serve with these. Well, I would serve these as an accompaniment to a good lentil or tomato soup for a fairly hearty meal, or put them next to a big Greek salad and maybe a bowl of Tzatziki for a light meal. If you really want something fantastic find a recipe for (or a Greek friend who will make you) Gigantes Plaki (Greek Baked Giant Beans). If your feeding a crowd consider making these a bit smaller by simply cutting the phyllo packets into thirds instead of half, portioning the filling out accordingly and served as appetizers to a big pan of Moussaka.  Whatever you choose will be great along side these; honestly you really can’t go wrong.

Riley thinks if he stares hard enough, surely something will fall to the ground!