Here is a Mediterranean Greek classic. It’s happening right now. Please, welcome the one and only Traditional Greek Spinach Pie, the famous Spanakopita. Tons of greens like sweet, earthy spinach leaves, herbs, tangy feta cheese encased in layers of homemade, crispy phyllo. Insanely delicious and unquestionably healthy, this vegetarian-friendly pie is going to be your new culinary achievement. Your people will beg you to make it for them again and again.
Truth be told, I am not an expert in making pies. In fact, I avoid it so because most of the time they turn out just ok. You know, when someone simply tastes a piece of pie and there is no sign of satisfaction what’s so ever. This is an “ok pie” and for me, the “ok reaction” isn’t acceptable at all. I need some aaaaaas, oooooos and owoooos along with facial reactions like eyes wide open. Not there …yet. However, fortunately, my mother is a master pie maker and we try to find some quality time to teach me and reveal all her culinary secrets. Lucky you, people, she is more than happy to share her recipe and all her tips for the ultimate traditional Greek spinach pie just like her mother and grandmother used to make for decades in the countryside.
Writing down the recipe wasn’t easy at all. The traditional home cooks use their senses and a lot of years of practicing more than exact measurements. My mother doesn’t follow rules or instructions while cooking or baking which might just be her secret. Convenient for her, a nightmare for me.
“How much flour, mom?”
“As much as it needs” … “A bit of this and that”…
Well, that’s a rather common answer from Greek home cooks. It may drive you crazy but it also indicates that making this delicious traditional Greek spinach pie is the equation of practice and love!
So, let’s get down to business!
The basic ingredient isn’t hard to find…at all. Even though it is preferable to use fresh spinach (it is a matter of taste and texture for me, but that’s just my taste buds speaking here), frozen whole-leaf spinach is a fair option, as well. No need to prefer baby leaf spinach.
The most important tip for an outrageously successful pie is the dry spinach and herbs. They should be as dry as possible otherwise, they make the phyllo (pastry) so soggy that it won’t hold the filling resulting in a hot mess.
There are three methods to reduce the spinach’s water content:
- Massage the spinach leaves with salt. Rinse, drain and then gently squeeze out the excess water. Let aside and give 5-10 minutes time to drain some more. For me, this is the best option because it keeps the spinach fresher and its taste intact. You absolutely have to rinse the salt off the spinach because with the addition of feta cheese it is going to be a salty disaster. I found it the hard way myself a few years ago.
- Blanch the spinach for no more than 1 minute and then drain. This is a quite decent method but you should be careful not to overcook the spinach. Finally, let it cool before adding it on your phyllo. Otherwise, the heat will spoil your phyllo and it would be such a shame.
- Sautéing the spinach is the last method to extract water from it. It adds more flavor especially with the addition of spring onions (or red onions and/or leeks). Even though it offers particularly flavorful results, I like my spinach pie lighter and easier to digest.
If you use frozen spinach, defrost it thoroughly and then squeeze dry.
The secret for a unique, delicious spanakopita is a generous hand of fresh herbs. It goes without saying that there are countless combinations in every region mostly depending on what one picks in the wild or at the greengrocers. Nevertheless, please allow me to share the herb mixture I believe is the most delicious and a fair representation of the traditional Greek spinach pie:
- Dill, the most common herb.
- Chevril. Substitute with parsley.
- Mediterranean hartwort. Substitute with lovage or just omit in case both are out of season.
- Chard. Relatively easy to find. Substitute with mint.
- Spring onions (scallions). Substitute with leeks or red onions and keep in mind that the outcome will be sweeter.
The list goes on with oregano, tarragon leaves or/and fennel leaves for a more aniseedy taste.
Adding feta cheese in your spinach pie is entirely up to you. Lenten recipes skip feta along with the egg but, believe me, this vegan option of the spanakopita is still as good as the vegetarian version. Give it a try! Feta cheese is the first and only choice for the traditional Greek spinach pie. However, if you like to add another cheese or dairy, I won’t stop you. In fact, this pie is so versatile that you may add (almost) whatever ingredient you like. Nevertheless, the traditional version is simple with feta cheese for dairy, spinach as the main vegetable, herbs, and egg to bind all the ingredients together while firming up the filling.
Whatever you decide to add, I would suggest you not to add too many liquids in your filling like milk or cream. You have already worked hard to squeeze moisture from spinach and it isn’t a brilliant idea to add more back in. Remember the soggy phyllo mess I was talking about before.
No extra salt for this pie since a ton of herbs and feta cheese provide a tastefully balanced outcome.
THE RUSTIC HOMEMADE PHYLLO (PASTRY)
The traditional home cooks deny firmly the convenience of the ready-to-use phyllo dough because “it tastes funny and unappealingly bland”. I know homemade phyllo is tricky, it needs practice and time to prepare. But it’s so worth trying and easier than most people think. The homemade phyllo is thicker and not as crunchy or flaky than the commercially produced phyllo but the taste is just divine. Additionally, I find the ready to use phyllo way too messy for my taste and sometimes difficult to hold the rich filling. Because the best part of eating a traditional Greek spinach pie is when you pick it up with bare hands and take a big juicy bite. Heaven! No forks and knives! Highly recommended!
It is absolutely fine if your phyllo breaks. There are many layers to cover the tears or the holes. Don’t worry. Even if you don’t make it extra thin, it will still be delicious. For extra crispiness, brush each of the layers with olive oil.
THE READY TO USE PHYLLO
You may use a commercially produced phyllo dough, of course. Just shhh….don’t tell my mom!
Read carefully the ingredients and purchase a good quality one: no preservatives, no trans-fat, no difficult to pronounce words.
Thaw the phyllo by placing the frozen phyllo dough in the fridge overnight without removing it from the package.
When you are ready, unroll the thawed phyllo sheets and place them carefully between two slightly damp (NOT WET) kitchen towels. The goal here is to keep the sheets from drying out while making the pie. If it’s your first time or you think you might damage the phyllo, no worries! Just place a sheet of parchment paper between the phyllo and the towel and you are good to go.
IT’S READY! NOW, WHAT?
Congrats! I know you cannot wait any more because this smell makes your traditional Greek spinach pie simply irresistible, yet you have to leave your baby to cool slightly before serving.
Served either hot or cold, it is the perfect meal, the ideal snack, lunchbox, finger food for your party and picnic. In Greece, it is a favorite choice for breakfast and a really popular street-food.
Freeze or not to freeze? I don’t recommend to freeze baked spanakopita mainly because once thawed, it is possible that the phyllo is soggy. It is better to freeze an unbaked pie and pop it in the oven while still frozen.
I would definitely serve it with this cabbage salad and a Greek wine like aromatic Moschofilero and/or Malagousia.
THE REAL TRADITIONAL GREEK SPINACH PIE
READY-MADE PHYLLO DOUGH
- 1lb (500g) ready-made phyllo follow instructions for defrosting
or HOMEMADE PHYLLO DOUGH
- 4 cups (500g) hard or all-purpose flour
- 3 tablesppons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1-1 ½ cups (250-350ml) water
- ½ cup (120ml) olive oil for brushing
- Semolina or flour for rolling the dough
- 2lb (1kg) spinach, stalks removed, coarsely chopped, OR 28oz (800g) frozen spinach, defrosted
- 1 cup (30g) fresh dill finely chopped
- 2/3 cup (25g) chervil or/and fresh parsley finely chopped
- 1 cup (30g) fresh Mediterranean hartwort or/and lovage (*1) chopped
- 7-8 chard leaves or/and mint stalks removed, chopped
- 1 cup (7-8) whole spring onions or/and 2 leeks (only the white stalk) finely chopped
- 2 large eggs or 3 small lightly beaten
- 2 cups (300g) feta cheese crumbled
- ¼ cup (50ml) olive oil
- Pepper freshly ground
THE HOMEMADE PHYLLO DOUGH
- In a large mixing bowl, add the flour and salt and pour in the olive oil. Using a dough hook attachment, mix to combine the ingredients for 10-15 seconds. Add one cup of water (*2). If the dough is still crumbled, add a teaspoon of water and mix for one minute. Add a few more drops of water until the dough looks like an elastic ball. Then beat for about 5 minutes or until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be soft and elastic. If it is not, beat for a few more minutes.
- If you don’t have a mixer, mix with your hands and knead for about 10-15 minutes.
- Transfer to a bowl, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and cover. Set it aside to rest for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Meanwhile, prepare the filling if not already made.
- When the dough is ready, sprinkle some semolina (or flour) (*3) and place the dough on a working surface. Divide it into 6 equal pieces. Start working each piece separately. First, use only your hands to make a small circle. Then repeat 3 basic steps: sprinkle some semolina (if the dough is too sticky), use the rolling pin to roll out gently by moving your hands from the center to the sides, and turn the dough (to make sure it won’t stick to the table). Repeat until you have the thinner round sheet possible.
- Proceed with assembling the pie.
THE FILLING (*4)
- FRESH SPINACH: If you use fresh spinach, rinse it thoroughly, then cut and discard the tougher ends of the stems. In a colander, massage the fresh spinach leaves with a good sprinkle of salt. RINSE WELL, drain and then gently squeeze out the excess water. Alternatively, blanch the spinach for 1 minute, drain and squeeze out excess water. Set it aside to cool.
- In a colander, massage the fresh spinach leaves with a good sprinkle of salt. RINSE WELL, drain and then gently squeeze out the excess water. Alternatively, blanch the spinach for 1 minute, drain and squeeze out excess water. Set it aside to cool.
- FROZEN SPINACH: If you use frozen spinach, place it in a colander and squeeze gently to dry the excess water out.
- When the spinach is ready, place it in a large bowl, add olive oil and stir until all ingredients (spinach, herbs, eggs, feta cheese, and pepper) are well-combined.
ASSEMBLING THE PIE
- Heat the oven to 200°C /390°F.
- Homemade phyllo: Brush the bottom and sides of a 14 inch (38cm) round baking pan (*5) with olive oil, then line the first phyllo and brush it with olive oil. Repeat with the following 2 sheets by placing one on top of the other and brushing each sheet with olive oil. Don’t press down in the process and leave the excess phyllo overhanging the sides. Spoon in the filling and spread it evenly on top. Cover with the remaining 3 sheets always brushing each one. Roll up the overhanging phyllo neatly around the pan to make an edible rim. Score into 12-14 pieces or into any desired portion size. Brush the top with the remaining olive oil.
- Ready-made dough: Use half phyllo for the bottom of the pie and the remaining phyllo at the top of the pie always brushing each phyllo sheet with olive oil. Roll up the overhanging phyllo neatly around the pan and score into pieces. Brush the top with the remaining olive oil.
- Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour until golden brown. Leave to cool slightly before serving.
- If it’s difficult to find, skip it and substitute with more spinach or/and other herbs.
- The amount of water depends on the flour, room temperature, and humidity.
- Semolina is recommended because it can't be absorbed by the dough. If you use flour instead, try to add the least possible quantity otherwise, the phyllo might be too firm.
- Make-ahead the filling, cover and refrigerate. Keep it in the fridge for 2 days or in the freezer for 1 month.
- You may use all kinds of baking pans or dishes (square, rectangular). Attention to the corners because they may break the phyllo.