Extra-flaky spanakopita

It’s a new year, and a lot of people are eating their greens. Even if you’ve already had your traditional New Year’s Day greens for luck, we’re now in the health-conscious days of January, and winter vegetables are the order of the day. Of course, my favorite way to eat greens is to mix them with cheese and sandwich them between layers of buttery pastry, but hey. You do what you can.

Spanakopita, or Greek spinach pie, is one of my absolute favorite foods. If it’s on a restaurant menu, I order it. If it’s in the freezer case at the grocery store, I buy it. And whenever I end up with a glut of greens in the fridge, I make it myself. The filling is simple–a boatload of cooked greens, some sauteed onions or scallions, cubes of feta cheese, fresh herbs, nutmeg, and an egg to hold it all together. And the crust involves frozen phyllo dough, which thaws quickly on the counter and bakes up golden and flaky-crisp like you wouldn’t believe.

I’d be lying if I said making spanakopita was quick. I’ve done this on a weeknight, but you probably won’t want to. Phyllo is fussy stuff–you have to lay it out one gauze-thin sheet at a time and brush each sheet all over with melted butter or olive oil. But I’ve found ways to make it easier on myself, and the biggest one is simply to make smaller pies. Most recipes call for a 9×13 pan, which involves lots of jigsaw-puzzling of phyllo sheets to make sure everything is covered. I make my spanakopita in an 8-inch square pan, which is much closer to the size of a single sheet of phyllo, meaning more flaky layers with less work. I also don’t worry about the phyllo sheets cracking and tearing, which they inevitably do; that just means more crunchy flaky goodness later!

If you have the gumption to tackle phyllo–and I really think you should–then this is a great recipe to have in your back pocket. The filling is super-adaptable and uses up a lot of greens, which is great if you’re drowning in kale. You can serve it as an appetizer or as a showy vegetarian main course. The pie tastes great warm, but I also love it at room temperature. It even makes great (if slightly less-crunchy) leftovers.

spanakopita

Extra-Flaky Spanakopita (Spinach Pie) (serves 4 as an entree, or 6-8 as an appetizer)

Adapted from Fine Cooking

Note: Frozen phyllo will thaw in an hour or two at room temperature, or overnight in the fridge. I usually use about 10 sheets of phyllo for the bottom layer of the pie and about 8 sheets for the top, but that’s just a guideline. If you want an even thicker, flakier crust (and have the patience), feel free to add more layers. The bottom layer should be a couple sheets thicker than the top.

2 bunches (about 1 1/2 lb) dark leafy greens OR 1 lb fresh spinach

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

1 bunch (6-8) scallions, sliced OR 1 medium yellow onion, diced

Salt to taste

2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, minced

1 cup (about 5 oz) crumbled feta cheese

1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley, dill, or a combination

1/8 tsp ground or freshly grated nutmeg

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 large egg

1 roll (half of a 16 oz package) frozen phyllo dough, thawed

About 1/2 cup (4 tbsp) melted unsalted butter, extra virgin olive oil, or a combination

Stem and wash the greens or spinach. Heat about 2 tbsp olive oil in a large, deep-sided saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the greens, a handful at a time, stirring until each addition starts to wilt before adding the next. Once all the greens are wilted and bright green, remove from the heat and let stand until cool enough to handle. (This step can be done a day ahead; refrigerate the cooled greens in an airtight container until needed.)

Place a colander or strainer in the sink, and transfer the cooked greens or frozen thawed spinach into it. Use your hands to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Roughly chop the greens, then transfer to a medium mixing bowl.

In a skillet (or the same pan you wilted the greens in), heat 2 tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Add scallions or onion and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5-10 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant. Remove from the heat.

Transfer the onion and garlic to the bowl with the greens. Add feta, parsley and/or dill, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then add egg and mix until thoroughly combined (the egg should basically disappear). Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375º F, and position an oven rack in the middle. Carefully unroll the thawed phyllo dough and lay it flat on a work surface. Cover the phyllo with a kitchen towel to keep the dough sheets from drying out too much.

Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the bottom and sides of an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish with butter or oil. Lay down one sheet of phyllo in the bottom of the dish, pressing it gently into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Brush the phyllo sheet generously with butter or oil. Lay another sheet down perpendicularly on top of it, so that you’ve covered all four sides of the pan, and brush that sheet with butter or oil. Continue layering and brushing sheets of phyllo, alternating directions each time; if any of the sheets crack or break, just piece them together as best you can. Keep going until you’ve used about 10 sheets of phyllo.

Transfer the filling into the pan and spread it in an even layer. Fold any overhanging edges of phyllo over the top of the filling, and brush those edges with butter or oil. Lay another sheet of phyllo on top and brush it with butter or oil. Continue layering and brushing, alternating directions each time, until you’ve used about another 8 sheets of phyllo (you may or may not end up using the whole roll). Again, don’t worry if any sheets crack, break, or hang over the edges–just piece them back together or fold them over on themselves.

At this point, you can tidy up the phyllo around the edges as much as you like. I usually leave things craggy and messy, so that the edges of the pie are extra-flaky and just this side of burnt. If you want a neater finished result, carefully tuck the top edges of the phyllo down into the sides of the pan.

Use a sharp knife to score the top layer of phyllo into 8 or 16 squares, cutting down just to where the filling starts. Lightly brush a bit more butter or oil along the score marks to keep the flakes from flying everywhere once baked. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the phyllo is golden and flaky and the filling is heated through. To test for doneness, slip a fork or a thin-bladed knife into one of the score marks, down to the filling, and see if it comes out warm.

Let the spanakopita cool and firm up for at least 20 minutes before serving. Cut into squares, using the score marks as a guide. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Leftovers: Spanakopita’s flavor actually improves over time (though the phyllo will lose its crunch fairly quickly). Let leftovers cool completely, then refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Let the spanakopita come to room temperature before serving, or reheat in a 350º F oven until just warm.

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