Spanakopita is a Greek pastry that’s savory rather than sweet—not one of the dessert pastries that so many people associate with Greece (and, in fact, with the word pastry!).
Fillings may vary, but often include chopped spinach, feta cheese, onions or scallions, egg, and seasoning. Then you wrap all of this, or layer it (depending on the recipe) in phyllo (sometimes spelled filo) pastry dough, with butter and/or olive oil brushed on between each layer. It can be baked in a large pan (and then you just cut individual servings) or it can also be rolled into individual triangular shapes.
Many of the differences in preparation are regional in nature: different parts of Greece, as well as Greek communities throughout the world, make spinach pie following their own version and preferences. In fact, it’s not even always made with what we think of as the signature phyllo dough! Some of the Greek islands make a crust out of flour and water so that it’s thicker and crunchier, much more like an Italian calzone than what we think of as spanakopita.
In some areas, puff pastry is used, and spinach can be augmented with leeks and chard.
In Greece, spinach pie is very much a snack rather than a meal, and can be eaten either hot or cold.
What goes into it
So much for the introduction! Chef Mike Isabella from the award-winning Zaytinya restaurant in Washington, DC, makes a special spanakopita and knows that the preparation is everything. He likes creating it as small individual pies rather than cutting hem from a larger pie, but he does use the classic phyllo dough as a crust.
He starts with fresh spinach. Many other spanakopita recipes will call for frozen spinach, but like most cutting-edge chefs, Isabella believes in always using locally sourced fresh ingredients.
There are a lot of good reasons for using fresh food. Health comes first: a lot of food’s vitamins get lost when food is processed or even frozen. Flavor, too, can be lost, and often cooks need to add salt and other seasonings to replace that lost flavor when they’re using canned or otherwise processed foods. So keep it fresh. He also calls for fresh scallions, fresh dill, fresh mint, and fresh leeks—even fresh feta cheese.
And keeping it fresh usually also means keeping it local, and there are many good reasons to opt for local sourcing. It means freshness, of course. It also reduces carbon emissions. When food is picked just when it’s ripe, it tastes better (if you’re going to process it or send it somewhere else, you pick it before it’s ripe—and that means losing flavor). So keep it fresh, keep it local, and you’ve got a great basis for a fantastic spinach pie!
The prep work
Isabella says to prepare everything ahead of time so that the cooking goes smoothly. Tools, first: you will want two large mixing bowls, a pot where you’ll be blanching he spinach, two smaller pans (a sauté pan and a saucepan), a pastry brush, a cutting board, and some sharp knives.
In terms of ingredients, assemble your package of phyllo dough, Working with the Phyllo dough, fresh spinach, leeks, scallions, feta cheese, dill, parsley and then an egg and of course the all-important butter, which is what makes the pastry so rich.
Start by clarifying the better by melting it in the saucepan and skimming off the white part; this will ensure that the true golden color you’re looking for will emerge. You’ll be brushing it onto the small sheets of phyllo dough.
Eventually what you’ll be doing is creating little spanakopita pies with this dough and the fresh fillings, roll the pies, wrap them up, chill them and then bake them.
Isabelle claims they’ll be the best spinach pies you’ve ever tasted!