Spanakopeta Appetizers

            Spanakopita, Greek Spinach Pie with Phyllo Dough
            Spanakopita Made Easy with Puff Pastry



Spanakopita
Greek Spinach Pie
This classic Greek specialty is simply delicious and always impresses.

Something this tasty, cut into finger food portions, and holds together well in route to one's mouth, defines spanakopita as an appetizer.  We serve "pita" with cocktails when guests arrive.  However, with family or closest of friends, when casual is anticipated, we often serve spanakopita for dinner along with a Greek salad.  Like pizza, spanakopita is best eaten by hand.  

Although this recipe appears unconventional (cheddar cheese?), it was a gift from first and second generations of Greek families residing in Western Massachusetts.  I was very close to them over many years.  Perhaps their recipe evolved and was Americanized after being exported from Greece, but it was theirs and I'm grateful to have it.

The filling ingredients are very simple to prepare and assemble.  Negotiating phyllo dough may seem a bit intimidating at first.  It quickly becomes relatively easy as you get the hang of it especially when you realize how easy it is to patch torn sheets.  Flaws go unnoticed in the finished dish.  However, there are some simple basic techniques you need to follow.  Once mastered, working with phyllo opens an expanded world of creativity, inspiring new recipes like my Shrimp Scampi Phyllo Triangles, below. 

Phyllo dough is available in the freezer section of most grocery stores.  I prefer one-pound package of 9" x 14" sheets (i.e. ATHENS' brand).  Each box has 2 sealed inner packs of 20 sheets each, perfect for double crusted spanakopita.  Boxes with other size sheets are available.  Most brands include handling instructions, recipes and tips on their packaging and their websites. 

The two most important cautions are to work quickly and efficiently with phyllo, minimizing their exposure to air.  Second, try not to get the sheets wet.              

Preparation starts with defrosting overnight, transferring phyllo from your freezer to refrigerator.  Keep unopened sleeves of phyllo sheets refrigerated until immediately ready to be layered and buttered on a sided cookie sheet about the same size as the phyllo.     

Techniques to assemble phyllo crust:  slide a roll of phyllo dough onto a clean and dry counter.  Unroll the sheets and fully cover with wax paper topped with a lightly damp dish towel.  This helps seal the sheets during assembly.  Place the butter and a silicon pastry brush convenient to the sheets and pan.  Uncover the phyllo and place the first sheet on the unbuttered cookie sheet.  Re-cover the pile of phyllo.  Butter the top surface of the first sheet. 

Remove the towel and wax paper, add the next sheet, re-cover the pile and butter the newest sheet.  Repeat until all sheets (20) are assembled and buttered.  Almost inevitably, some sheets will tear and some may partially stick together.  Don't panic, patch, pile, and butter as best you conveniently can.  Appearance won't matter and taste isn't affected.

Spanakopita reheats very well and can be made a day ahead.  It is also filling, a little goes a long way.  When at room temperature, spanakopita will easily slide out of the cooking sheet.  Cutting individual pieces on the counter prevents scoring the cooking sheet.  It can be reheated in foil. 

I also prefer saving extra as a block, not cut into serving pieces.  It freezes very well wrapped tightly.  Enjoy.      
Ingredients:
Filling
  • 6 boxes frozen chopped spinach
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 pound feta cheese (whole in brine, not crumbles)
  • 8 oz. block sharp white cheddar cheese
  • 6 large eggs whisked
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
Phyllo dough crust
  • 1/2 to 1-pound butter
  • 1-pound phyllo dough sheets
  • Sesame seeds*
*Many recipes suggest sesame seeds are optional.  I disagree.  They add too much to be optional.    
Thaw spinach overnight in a large pasta strainer.  When totally defrosted, squeeze small handfuls at a time to remove as much water as possible.  Place spinach in a large mixing bowl. 

Crumble the feta cheese by hand or cutting board.  Shred the cheddar cheese with a course cheese grater.  I prefer not using already shredded cheese. 

Add olive oil, cheese, eggs and salt to the spinach bowl.  Using surgical gloves, hand combine by squeezing as you would meatballs.  Refrigerate when thoroughly combined.

Assemble the bottom crust.  Melt 2 sticks butter.  Make sure your work area is very clean and dry.  Conveniently position your cooking tray and butter with a silicon pastry brush.  Remove the roll of phyllo sheets from one sleeve.  Un-roll and lay them flat next to the cooking tray.  Cover with wax paper and moistened dish towel.  Assemble the bottom crust as directed above.

Evenly spread the filling over the phyllo dough to within about 1/2 inches of the edges of the phyllo sheets.  Remove the top roll of phyllo and assemble the sheets over the filling as you did for the bottom crust.  As you approach the end, try to reserve a better sheet for the ultimate top.  
Immediately after buttering the top sheet, sprinkle with sesame seeds.  With a spatula, roughly close the edges of the top crust down to cover exposed filling.  

Important, cut serving sizes through the top phyllo layer before baking.  Once baked, phyllo will be very flaky.  

Bake at 325º for about 45 minutes or until top browns.

Note:  I usually place a larger cookie sheet on the shelf below to prevent the bottom phyllo from burning.



 Spanakopita Made Easy with Puff Pastry  
So you've looked at the picture of Spanakopita above and read the recipe several times.  Now you're having conversations with yourself, wrestling whether or not you're comfortable working with Phyllo.  Or perhaps, you made "pita" using my recipe and loved it but think it takes just enough effort to reserve making it only on special occasions.  Don't deny yourself.  You can substitute puff pastry for phyllo resulting in an incredibly satisfying treat that can easily be made anytime, even if it's just for family and close friends.  Be assured, special guests will love this simple recipe just as well!   

Puff pastry sheets are a very convenient substitute.  The 17.3 oz. package of puff pastry is close to the weight of the one-pound phyllo used in my recipe above. Phyllo has two sealed packages of 9" x 14" sheets.  Puff pastry has two sealed inner packs of single sheets.  They can easily be rolled to 9" by 14" and you can use the same size rimmed cookie sheet.  

Recipe and instructions: 
  • Prepare the filling as shown above.
  • Spray vegetable oil on the cooking sheet (or use parchment paper).
  • Place one sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured counter.  Roll the dough to size and place in the cooking sheet.   
  • Spread the filling to within 1/2 inch of the edges.  
  • Roll second sheet to size and place on top.  
  • Optional, butter top and sprinkle with sesame seeds
  • Using a spatula, roughly tuck the top crust down the edges to cover the exposed filling.  
  • With a sharp knife, cut serving sizes through the top sheet of puff pastry only.
  • Bake at 325º in the middle of the oven for about 45 minutes or until browned. 
Note:  Place a larger cookie tray on the shelf below or line it with aluminum foil to prevent the bottom sheet of pastry from burning if using vegetable oil spray.