Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Spanakopita, Take Two

Do you ever get in your own way in the kitchen? It happens to me occasionally. The last time I made spanakopita it came out perfectly. The layers of phyllo dough were buttery and flaky; the spinach and onion mixture was fresh and peppery; and the feta-studded cheese mixture was creamy and just salty enough. I was ridiculously pleased with myself because this was actually my first time trying the slightly intimidating dish. It even reheated well to make stellar leftovers. On top of all that, making it was really pretty simple. So, with the salty tang of feta still on my lips, I sat down at the computer to record my perfect recipe for the ages.

Weeks passed. Then months. I remembered my spanakopita fondly, anxiously awaiting another opportunity to cook this glorious Grecian casserole. The time came when I decided to start experimenting with Greek dips. A square of spanakopita would be the perfect accompaniment to my hummus, baba ghanouj and minty yogurt spread. I pulled out my recipe and got to work.

We ate the delicious dips with pita bread first, heroically saving room for the spanakopita as it got hot and crispy in the oven. When it was done, I let it rest for a few minutes, then cut a slice. Immediately I knew something wasn’t right. The top layers of phyllo were flaky, but the bottom was soft and soggy. What could have possibly gone wrong? It was perfect last time! And then I realized that I had used half as many sheets of phyllo dough as before. I wasn’t being entirely careless, I had just written my recipe wrong in the first place. I also realized that I should have drained the spinach to get as much liquid out of it as possible to help avoid soggy phyllo syndrome. Having said all that, I have to admit it didn’t actually taste too bad. Still, I loathed to eat inferior spanakopita when the perfect version had once been mine.

So, in order to strike the botched dish completely from the record, yesterday I bought more spinach, more feta and more phyllo and made one more spanakopita, documented here for you. This is not an obsessive quest for perfection. I forgot to take photos while making it over the weekend, so that is definitely a sign that I needed to do a repeat performance. Except this time (enormous sigh of relief), it was a spanakopita I could be proud of.

It's nice to have a (patient) helper to carefully layer the phyllo and keep the remaining sheets of dough covered while you brush each new layer with melted butter.

Once you have layered 10 sheets of phyllo in the casserole dish, buttering each one as you go, spread a mixture of crumbled feta and ricotta cheese over the dough.

Cover the cheese with a pound of spinach sauteed with onions, garlic and oregano until all the water generated by the spinach evaporates. This takes a good 10 minutes, and was one of the crucial steps that I missed on my first attempt.

Layer and butter 10 more sheets of phyllo over the cheese and spinach filling. Then gently score the spanakopita with a sharp knife, taking care not to cut all the way through the bottom. This makes is easy to cut into pieces without cracking the crispy phyllo crust.

My hard-won spanakopita was worth the effort. Sometimes I wonder how chefs in restaurants do not get terribly bored with cooking the same dishes night after night. My experience here made me realize that even if you think you have perfected a dish, you cannot go on autopilot in the kitchen. Fresh ingredients can vary throughout the year, one brand of feta may be saltier than another, and all the care and focus that it took to cook a dish well the first time is just as important when you're cooking it for the thousandth time. No wonder so many cooks are such clever people; food keeps you on your toes!

This classic Greek casserole can be served as an appetizer, side dish, or vegetarian main course. Individual pieces can be reheated, covered in foil, in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes.

Serves 8 or more

1 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 c. onion, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 green onions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic minced
1 lb spinach leaves
1/4 tsp nutmeg or a few pinches
1 tsp dried oregano, divided
½ cup ricotta cheese (lowfat or regular)
6 oz feta cheese, crumbled
1 egg, beaten
Cooking spray
20 (approx. 8 x 12-inch) sheets phyllo dough, defrosted
4 Tbs unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in a non-stick skillet on medium heat. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Turn heat to medium low. Add green onions and garlic and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add spinach one big handful at a time and fold into the onion mixture until it starts to wilt. Season with the nutmeg, ½ tsp of the oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Continue cooking the spinach mixture for about 10 minutes, or until the water has evaporated. Remove skillet from heat and seat aside.

In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, feta, egg, remaining oregano; season with black pepper and set aside.

Coat the bottom and sides of a 9x13 baking dish with cooking spray. Unroll the defrosted phyllo and cover with a damp kitchen towel to prevent drying, keeping it covered as you work (it helps to have one person handling the phyllo and one person brushing with butter). Place one sheet of phyllo in the dish. With a pastry brush, lightly coat phyllo with melted butter. Top with another sheet of phyllo and brush with butter. Continue until you have layered 10 sheets of phyllo, brushing each with butter. Spread the cheese mixture over the phyllo, then spread the spinach mixture evenly over the cheese. Top spinach with one sheet of phyllo and brush with butter. Continue layering the remaining phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter as you go.

With a thin, sharp knife, cut the spanakopita into 8 pieces (or as many as you want), stopping about three-quarters of the way through (scoring the phyllo in this manner allows you to cut it neatly after baking). Bake spanakopita for 30-35 minutes, until the top turns golden brown. Remove from oven, let rest for 10 minutes, cut squares all the way through and serve.


AnnieKNodes said...

Mmmmm. The spinach mixture looks especially good! I'm a little scared of phyllo dough. If I can conquer my fear I will try this!

christine said...

Great Post! Makes me want to try this myself. I like your conclusion about creating good food keeps one on his/her toes. That's so true!

JuliaMazal said...

Your spanakopita looks divine and is making me hungry!

J said...

hi julie, this looks unspeakably delicious! i'm a real spanakopita fiend so thank you so much for sharing the recipe!

shuna fish lydon said...

We do get bored making the same thing day after day. But as you see here with your beautiful Greek savoury pie, god is in the details and there's always something new to discover!

Julie said...

I completely agree with Shuna that God is in the details. Sometimes the devil is in the details as well, depending on how you look at it! Thanks for reading everyone, and let me know if you try this yourselves. It is pretty easy and you can eat the leftovers for days.

Gabriella True said...

yes but I bet you wont make those mistakes again. plus you will remember about the the spinach being too wet for other recipes.