Last Year's Post: Chorizo and Mushroom Fideua
Two Years Ago: Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup
I think most cooks have a specific dish they've tried to make several times with limited success. Spanakopita fits in that category for me. A famous Greek dish including spinach, feta, onions and phyllo dough, I've often had it in Greek restaurants but was disappointed in the first few recipes I tried at home - too much spinach, not enough phyllo, too bland. I was recently inspired to try again but this time I did some research and found two promising recipes.
I've seen spanakopita prepared in big pans and cut into squares, and I've seen it prepared as smaller appetizers wrapped individually like little flags, but the first recipe I found had a larger individual version that is suited for an entree. I liked the idea of fully wrapping the filling - even though it's more work - because I like the ratio of phyllo to spinach.
The second recipe was just a basic appetizer spanakopita, but one of the reviewers left some great comments. She's Greek and has made and eaten a lot of spanakopita. Her tips were:
1. Use frozen spinach and make sure you wring out all the moisture you possibly can (described below)
2. Use the best-quality feta you can find (not the little pre-crumbled tubs)
3. Use freshly grated nutmeg
4. Add lemon juice to the filling to brighten it
5. Don't fear the phyllo - with a little melted butter, all is forgiven
Armed with her suggestions, I made a few adaptations to the first recipe and went to work. I'm happy to report that this is the best spanakopita I've ever had, hands down. The tips made all the difference.
First the spinach - I've found the best way to squeeze moisture out of spinach is to place it in a clean kitchen towel (don't worry, it'll wash clean later) and squeeze it over the sink. Soggy spanakopita is not good.
Next the feta - this suggestion was a revelation to me, since I've been buying the little pre-crumbled tubs of feta found in every grocery store. I bought a very nice French feta I found instead.
I think using a great feta was one of keys to success for this recipe - compared to what I had been buying, it had a delicate flavor and less salt. Look for a firm block of feta because you'll be cutting it into little cubes for distinct little pops of flavor as opposed to having it crumble down to nothing in the finished dish.
About nutmeg - fresh nutmeg truly is much better than store-bought ground nutmeg. You can either buy a cool little nutmeg grater like this one which stores the whole nutmeg right inside when not in use, or you can use any fine-hole microplane grater you have.
The other tip I would add is that it's important to serve the spanakopita fairly soon after you bake it so the phyllo is nice and crisp. You could refrigerate baked leftovers for lunch the next day but they won't be the same. Instead, I freeze the unbaked spanakopitas, then thaw them for 6-8 hours or overnight, and bake as usual. I've seen recipes that say you can bake the frozen spanakopitas straight from the freezer, and yes you can, but the issue then becomes uneven browning of the phyllo. The edges become very brown before the center is browned because it's sitting over frozen filling for half of the baking time. I've tried it both ways and am much happier with the results if the filling is at least partially thawed.
Finally, the folding technique, which is part of the fun. Basically you're going to layer phyllo sheets with melted butter and a little sprinkle of dried bread crumbs, then cut the stacks into two long strips. The filling goes on the lower left corner. You start by folding the phyllo up and over the filling diagonally, then keep folding it like a flag until it's fully enclosed. Don't worry if some of your phyllo sheets rip, there are millions in the package and as the lady said, a little butter fixes things.
You could easily double this recipe and freeze the remainder for future meals, as mentioned. We served the spanakopita with tabbouleh, which I previously posted here, and it was a heavenly match.
Makes 6 entrée-sized strudels
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chopped yellow onion
2 green onions, white and green parts chopped
1 (10 oz) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
Juice of ½ lemon
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 ½ tablespoons freshly grated parmesan
Plain dry bread crumbs
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup small-diced firm feta cheese (6 ounces)
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
12 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed
½ stick of unsalted butter, melted
Coarse sea salt and coarse pepper for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375d.
Place the thawed spinach in a clean kitchen towel and wring out as much liquid as possible over the sink. If the spinach seems somewhat stringy, chop more finely on a cutting board. Place in a medium bowl.
Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the yellow onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the green onions and cook for an additional minute, then add the contents of the pan to the bowl with the spinach. Mix in the lemon juice, eggs, parmesan, 1 tablespoon of dry bread crumbs, the nutmeg, and pepper. Gently fold in the feta and pine nuts.
To assemble, begin by gently unrolling the phyllo and placing a clean damp kitchen towel on the top to prevent drying out. Prepare the melted butter and have a brush at hand. Lift the towel and gently remove one sheet of phyllo, then replace the towel on the stack. Place the phyllo on the work surface and lightly brush with melted butter, then sprinkle very lightly with bread crumbs so the layers don’t stick together. Repeat the process with three more sheets of phyllo dough, melted butter and bread crumbs, leaving the bread crumbs off the top layer, for a total of four layers. Cut the sheets of phyllo in half the long way and make sure the short sides are facing you (the stacks are side by side).
Place 1/3 cup of filling on the lower left corner of one stack. Fold the left corner of the phyllo up and diagonally to the right, meeting the edge of the stack. Continue folding the package up and diagonally over as if folding a flag until you reach the end of the sheet and the filling is completely enclosed. Place on a baking sheet and brush with melted butter. Repeat the process for 5 additional strudels – you’ll need to make and cut two more phyllo stacks – until all the filling is used. Lightly sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper, if desired.
(At this point the spanakopitas may be frozen in a zip-top bag. Thaw before baking.)
Bake at 375 for 30-35 minutes, until brown and crisp. Serve hot.