The February Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by Audax of Audax Artifex. The challenge brought us to Greece with a delicious, flaky spanakopita – a spinach pie in a phyllo pastry shell.
I had mixed feelings at the start regarding this months Daring Cooks challenge because every spanakopita I’ve tried in the past was bad. They were leaden, dry and bland. With a heavy heart, I did some research, typed up a recipe based on what I’d read and went to the grocery store. Three bags full of grocery later I arrived at home with my supplies, and some random stuff I never intended to buy- you know how that goes, lol. I set out to make this more out of a sense of obligation but also with much curiosity as to the process and to see if a well-made spanakopita would makes my taste buds happier than the duds from the past. One of the requirements for this months challenge was that you make the filling without first cooking the spinach. A traditional method of making the filling is to, instead, vigorously mix and squeeze the ingredients with your hands and to then collect the resulting liquids with something like breadcrumbs or cous cous and add that back to the filling. In this way, the filling isn’t soggy but at the same time stays moist and doesn’t loose any of that flavor you would have otherwise cooked out of the spinach and dumped down the sink. Another requirement was to use at least two kinds of onions. I ended up writing a recipe that was a mash-up of the spanakopita recipe on cooksillustrated.com, the one given in the challenge by Audax and adding a few ideas of my own (like some fresh lemon juice).
After-all was said and done I have to say that I have been converted. I am a fan of spanakopita! I won’t admit how many squares of this I actually ate the first night…
A few things I noticed about this recipe: the spinach flavor is bright and lively due to the addition of nutmeg, lemon juice and that fact that it hasn’t been cooked to death! Fresh dill, a touch of garlic and 4 different types of onion (including leek) really add to the depth of flavor and make it anything but bland. As I ate more of this, I found myself liking it more and more. The addition of sesame seeds to the top before baking lends a delicious nuttiness to the final product as well. This spanakopita ended up being about 2 inches tall which gave, in my opinion, the ideal ratio of filling to buttery crust. Pecorino Romano cheese is used to help hold the upper layers of the phyllo together when eating which was a welcome change as well. Sour cream is used in the filling to add a richness and creaminess but Greek yogurt could certainly be substituted! I would use a full fat greek yogurt however because I think this benefits from a bit of fat. Generally I didn’t feel too guilty because I certainly was eating a lot of spinach and onions! LOL Not sure if my rationale is correct after eating like 6 squares of this.. Oops! I admitted it! I guess it was my lunch and dinner… Excuses, excuse…. I will have more at lunch tomorrow, nom nom!
(Recipe adapted from “GREEK SPINACH AND FETA PIE (SPANAKOPITA)” from CooksIllustrated.com and “Spanakopita” by Audax Artifex of http://www.audaxartifex.blogspot.com.au/)
Ingredients for Filling:
- 2 10-ounce bags of fresh, curly-leaf spinach, rinsed, dried and tough stems removed
- 12 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
- ¾ cup whole milk Greek yogurt or sour cream
- 3 tbsp. minced fresh dill
- 2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 4 green onions, white and pale green parts finely chopped
- 1 small red onion, finely chopped
- 2 shallots, peeled and minced
- 1 leek, white and light green part, washed and finely chopped
- ¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- ~1/4 cup cous cous or breadcrumbs (depending on how dry or wet filling is)
- 2 large eggs
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Juice of half a lemon
Ingredients for Phyllo Layers:
- 10 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
- ½ lb. 14 x 9 inch phyllo dough (thawed- in refrigerator overnight on on counter 4-5 hours)
- 1 ½ ounce Pecorino Romano cheese, grated fine (about ¾ cup)
- 2 tbsp. seasame seeds
- Preheat oven 425 degrees F with rack in the lower-middle position
- Wash the spinach and dry thoroughly, discard the tough stems, chop or tear the leaves into pieces, place into a large bowl. (If using thawed chopped frozen spinach just place into a large bowl).
- Add the chopped onions, chopped leek, finely chopped dill, four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the crumbled feta cheese, garlic and nutmeg
- Using your hands vigorously massage the filling ingredients until the mixture loses about half to three-quarters its original volume. Squeeze handfuls of the mixture until they feel dry. I find it is easiest to do this is the colander portion of a pasta pot so that the liquid falls down into the pot below, or in any large colander or sieve over a large bowl
- Cover the excess liquid with enough breadcrumbs or cous cous to absorb the liquid. The breadcrumbs should be moist. Allow about 5 minutes for it to absorb the liquid. If there isn’t much liquid add the remaining cous couse or bread crumbs to the filling
- Return the moisture-laden breadcrumbs back into the filling mixture (along with the remaining breadcrumbs or cous cous, as stated above)
- Add the eggs, sour cream and lemon juice and mix well using your hands.
- Taste, season with some salt (careful feta contains lots of salt) and plenty of pepper. Set aside. The filling can be stored in the fridge for a day or two if well covered. If the filling seems very wet, add an additional palmful of bread crumbs or cous cous and mix to combine.
- Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat
- Using pastry brush, lightly brush 14 by 9-inch rectangle in center of parchment with melted butter to cover area same size as phyllo
- Lay 1 phyllo sheet on buttered parchment, and brush thoroughly with melted butter. Repeat with 9 more phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter (you should have total of 10 layers of phyllo).
- Spread spinach mixture evenly over phyllo, leaving ¼-inch border on all sides. The filling will be 1-2 inches high
- Cover spinach with 6 more phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter and sprinkling each with about 2 tablespoons Pecorino cheese
- Lay 2 more phyllo sheets on top, brushing each with butter (these layers should not be sprinkled with Pecorino).
- Working from center outward, use palms of your hands to gently compress layers and press out any air pockets. This will also spread the filling nearly to the edges of the phylo
- Using sharp knife, score pie through the top 3 layers of phyllo into 24 equal pieces. Sprinkle with sesame seeds
- Bake until phyllo is golden and crisp, 20 to 25 minutes. Check for doneness by using a thin knife, insert it into the spanakopita for 30 secs, the filling should feel set and the knife should feel hot to the touch
- Cool on baking sheet 10 minutes or up to 2 hours
- Slide spanakopita, still on parchment, to cutting board. Cut into squares and serve.