Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cooking spanakopita 6,000 miles from its home

I am not Greek, although Luiz and I have had the joy of spending a couple of weeks exploring several cities in Greece, as well as several Greek islands in the Mediterranean. I have also been to Greek Cyprus and Luiz and I have been to Turkey as well. While the Greeks and the Turks have not gotten along very well in recent history (given that whole unresolved Turkish invasion of Cyprus thing starting back in the 1970s) they share some common ground in their culinary traditions. But – I don’t want to poke a stick at that sleeping lion. I just want to share my recent adventure cooking spanakopita, a delicious spinach pie that I have eaten in various forms over many years and in many countries. This time – in Brazil.

Cooking ethnic foods at home is an ongoing theme among expats in Brazil. So many of us have cravings for international dishes that we just can’t find in restaurants. (Those living in São Paulo have better luck in this regard.) About a week ago I was combing the aisles of Pão de Açúcar, a high-end supermarket near our apartment, looking for Sriracha hot sauce. I didn't find the hot sauce but I did spot phyllo dough (or philo, or filo; fillo in Portuguese) in the freezer section. Eureka!

Living the strategy of getting while the getting is good, I bought a box and started dreaming up the possibilities.

I still use the cookbook I bought in the early 1980s. I've had to put it into a binder but she still gives me what I need.

Spanakopita was the obvious choice. I’ve got a super delicious recipe I learned over 30 years ago and have been pleasing crowds with ever since. Time to break it out and introduce some folks to a Greek favorite.

Like I said, I am not Greek. My recipe, which I LOVE, is not one passed down to me by someone’s Greek grandmother nor was it coaxed out of a family restaurant chef after a three hour meal with new friends on the Greek island of Samos. This gem of a recipe is a proven fabulous Greek spinach pie suitable as a main dish published in the Moosewood Cookbook (plus my personal tweaks). Given the realities of shopping in Niterói I had to make a few modifications. But the end result was just as I remembered it and EVERYONE loved it.

Here we go. Heads up – you will need a pastry brush to get the job done.

This recipe takes about 1.5 hours to prepare (incl. baking) and makes 8 adult servings as a main dish. It is a generous, “double-decker” pie. It could be halved, made in a single layer, and be served as a side.


- 2 cups (about 275g) crumbled feta cheese. [I have only once seen feta cheese in a store in Niterói and it was sold in a tiny quantity packaged as a crumbled salad topping. Price prohibitive. Others in Rio have had better luck and mention Apetina feta made by Arla (imported) as an affordable and tasty option when it can be found in finer grocery stores. It runs about R$95 per kilogram. The less affordable Brazilian-made feta runs more than R$225/kilo. So – no surprise here – I substitute a firm but smooth ricotta. Choose wisely. Some Brazilian ricottas can be very dry and firm beyond what is right for this recipe. Pick a ricotta that gives a bit when you gently squeeze it.]
- 5 medium eggs, slightly beaten
- 2 Tbs. flour (as needed, to help make a dryer filling mixture)
- 3 Tbs. butter for sautéing
- 1.5 cups chopped onions
- 1.5 cups chopped fresh mushrooms (I know, nobody puts mushrooms in their spanakopita… but I do.) Cremini would be great if you can find them. I cannot. So I used shitake.
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups cottage cheese (500g)
- one bunch of scallions, chopped
- 2 lbs. fresh spinach (1 kilogram) Frankly, you could double the spinach and it would still look like too little after you gently steam it down. I err on the side of going overboard. It is a spinach pie after all, not a cottage cheese and feta/ricotta pie. But there is the cleaning and stemming thing you have to deal with. So just make sure you use at least the minimum. Note to the cooks in Brazil – I’m sure you have noticed the spinach here can be significantly tougher than what you may have had elsewhere. That means you really do want to remove the stems. So if you are buying handy bags of ‘cleaned’ spinach (which here is another silly over statement) you want to go through it and pinch off those tough stems.
- Some fresh basil, chopped [I also added some chopped mint, not too much, to bring a bit of zing. I was worried the lack of feta was going to make things too bland.]
- ½ tsp. oregano
- 1/4 tsp. nutmeg (my secret ingredient when making things like this with ricotta)
- Salt and pepper to taste [Note: I added a bit more salt than usual because I did not have the salt in the filling coming from the feta. Be sure to taste.]
- 1/8  cup sesame seeds (25g or so)
- 1 lb package of phyllo dough, defrosted – Note that the package I found was a 300g quantity, so you will need two of them. More about this early mistake on my part later…
- 1.5 lb melted butter (a 200g pkg will do the trick) for assembly


Preheat your oven to 375° F (190° C or more depending on your oven)

Clean, stem and tear or chop the spinach. Salt it slightly and cook it, adding no additional water, for just a few minutes to wilt it. This is brief. Do not cook it down to a dull green mush. Let it cool some and then squeeze out the excess liquid. Carefully fluff it back to individual bits of spinach (do not leave it in clumps).

Sauté the onions and garlic in butter, salting lightly. Add the chopped mushrooms and cook minimally, but get their wonderfulness into the mix. When it looks and smells perfect remove from heat and combine with the rest of the ingredients. Add the fluffed up spinach. Stir lovingly.

See how that spinach cooks down dramatically?
Mix it all together.

So now you have a big bowl with the sautéed stuff, the spinach, the cheeses, beaten eggs, herbs and spices all mixed together and ready to go. Taste it and correct the seasoning to your preferences.

Here’s my pep talk regarding the use of phyllo dough: Be brave. Be confident. Don’t freak out. It’s all gonna be OK. This stuff looks like a pain (and it is, a little) but it is not as delicate as it looks. It can take a little manhandling. Yeah, it can tear a little and straight-out-of-the-box dried edges which were not your fault can make your job harder than it should have been. Just put on some music, pour yourself some wine, and take it all in stride. Ultimately, in terms of the final product, this dough is VERY forgiving. The layers can be a mess, but with just one intact leaf on top you have a picture perfect spanakopita. How you got there can be your little secret. And who knows – maybe you will get a really cooperative batch and sail through the whole procedure glitch free. It happens.

After your dough has returned to room temperature, open the package and unfold the sheets/leaves of dough so you have one stack. Lightly and evenly wet a tea towel squeezing out all the water. This is your humidifier that is going to keep your dough from drying out while you assemble this amazing pie. Place the towel over the stack of dough leaves when you are not otherwise fiddling with them. If your towel is too wet and you fear it will add moisture to the dough place a sheet of parchment paper (papel manteiga will do) over the stack first, then the towel.

Arrange your work space so the dough, the melted butter and brush, your filling, the 9x13 baking pan and your wine are all close at hand. Breathe. You can do this.

Brush some melted butter on the bottom of your pan. Place one leaf of the dough, centered, in the pan. It will outsize the pan, just let it climb the sides. Brush this layer of dough with butter, including up the sides of the pan. Repeat this placing of layers and spreading with melted butter until you have 6 or 8 layers down. I say 6 or 8 because you want to use a little more than 1/3 of them on the bottom, then the same amount in the middle and then a few less for the final, top layer. So if you are having trouble with the dough and have had to scrap a leaf of so – don’t panic, just adjust your number of layers so as to keep enough to complete the task.

When your first set of dough leaves is complete spread ½ of the luscious filling all around. Continue with another 8 or so layers of dough. Don’t skimp on the melted butter and don’t worry about the corners that are now getting a little crowded with pleated dough – they are going to be the super-buttery areas of the pie for those who like that sort of thing.

Sometimes the dough will begin to tear when you try to separate one sheet. This is usually because it hits a dry spot/edge or a spot where one layer has been pressed too firmly into the other and they are stuck together. Stop pulling immediately and try to work around the spot from various angles to free it. Tears will only continue and get worse once they start. If separating the layers is impossible without things tearing into two or more pieces – no sweat. Just remove the sheet in bits and reconstruct the sheet in your baking pan. Spread it with butter, sip your wine, and carry on. No harm done.

After your second set of leaves spread the remaining filling over the whole thing. Continue placing layers of dough and butter until you have three sheets left. IMPORTANT: that last one or two layers in the stack are probably NOT going to be flawless. They have been offering up their perfectness to the benefit of the entire stack since the factory. By now they are likely to be a little worse for wear. So – remember I suggested you save a perfect leaf for the top? Plan ahead, because it is not likely to be your last leaf in the stack.

Ready to bake.

When you are about three or four layers from the end, carefully fold over all that excess dough you have spilling out over the top/edge of the pan. Use your butter brush to wet it down. Now use your last few perfect leaves to delicately finish off the pie. Trim to the outside pan size if necessary. Brush butter over the whole top and sprinkle evenly with sesame seeds.

Place the pan into your preheated oven and bake for about 45 minutes – until golden.

Smile. Sip your wine. You did it.

My particular tale this time around, on the other hand, took a bit of a left turn halfway through. Not noticing that the box of phyllo dough contained only 300g and seeing as I bought only one package, I had only enough dough to make one layer of the pie. It’s all good – one layer is probably more common a format anyway, plus my Brazilian friends and family didn't know the difference. But I was stuck with ½ of my filling mixture.

So I returned to the store the next day and bought another package of the dough. This time I made those cute little spanakopita triangles you have probably seen at cocktail parties. Easy-peasy.

Just pull off one leaf of the dough, cut it into three strips, brush the dough with butter, place a small spoon of the filling off to one side at the end of a strip and then fold in triangles like a flag. Place on a baking sheet, brush the tops with butter and bake for about 20 minutes. It’s a little bit of work – but they are so cute! And they taste just as wonderful as the whole pie version.

In addition to those I baked immediately, I put 8 triangles in two layers separated by parchment paper into Ziplock bags and placed them in the freezer for later use.

There you have it. Let me know what you think. Tell me your secret tips for success with phyllo dough. And definitely give this a try on your own.


Lori In Ponta Negra said...

Thanks for another fantastic recipe! Where did you find cottage cheese? In Niteroi? I have never seen it in Brazil.

Jim said...

Thanks Lori. Most larger grocery stores here have "queijo tipo cottage" in the dairy/cheese/spreads section. It is not cheap. Price varies from about R$5 - R$8 for 250g depending on the brand. I typically wait for the cheap brand to show up and buy it for salads, etc.