Hipcooks: Recipe #1—Spanikopita

I’ve been under a rock—a rock of work, travel, end of school—and behind on this blog. So, bear with me as we travel back in time…to Easter (that was last month, right?).

This year, for the holiday, I decided to make a feast. Often, we just go on a hike with a picnic—or do the egg hunt in the morning and then forget about food for the rest of the day. But this year, with Hipcooks burning a hole on my countertop, I was ready to cook.

After flipping through the book’s many chapters—A Night in Casablanca (Moroccan), La Belle Epoque (fancy French), Shortcut to Nirvana (pot brownies? chocolate fondue? Nope…Indian)—I decided to go Greek. From “My Big Fat Greek Dinner Party,” I chose:

  • Spanikopita
  • Grilled Veggie Salad
  • Tzatziki

We’d grill fish to go along with it and call it a meal.

I felt brave tackling a layered, complicated food like Spanikopita. I’d never even bought phyllo dough, let alone manipulated it into a sweet or savory masterpiece. Thus, I felt quite sophisticated as I headed to Whole Foods the day before the holiday with that phyllo—plus other exotics like Maldon salt and almond meal—at the top of my shopping list.

Whole Foods being Whole Foods, I was only able to find whole wheat phyllo dough (it was in the freezer section). I also couldn’t find cognac, of course (they don’t sell liquor), or fresh dill, which seems like an always-on-the-shelf item for such a Significant Produce Purveyor but is actually frequently out of stock. Jon got those later at Fresh & Easy.

The following afternoon, relaxed and full of sunshine after the de rigeur holiday hunt followed by a family stroll around the neighborhood, I found my apron and started cooking. First up: the Spanikopita.

Author Monika Reti describes her version as “different from the norm…light, airy, and fresh with lemon zest.” That all sounded good to me, especially since typical spanikopita offers a greasy, flake-riddled, gluten-packed, cheese-and-spinach-bomb eating experience.

To make the filling, I combined 8 ounces of frozen spinach (thawed and squeezed somewhat free of liquid), with 2 chopped cloves of garlic, the zest of one lemon and a bit of nutmeg (Reti calls for fresh; I used dried). Atop that, I dumped ½ cup of crumbled feta cheese, ½ cup finely grated parmesan cheese, 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts and some freshly ground pepper (she maintains the cheeses rule out the need for salt). I stirred the mess into a loamy mound and set it aside.

Next the home cook must assemble the pastries. This is the part of a recipe that normally breaks the deal between me and it. Why assemble food into complicated packages when you can just toss it into a kettle, boil and serve? Of course, I know the answer to this—it’s to experience the majesty and creativity of our rich culinary universe. To which my better (lazier?) half counters, Well then, eat out.

Reti instructs, “Lay a single sheet of phyllo on a flat surface.” Emboldened by this straightforward start, I attempted to peel a piece of the defrosting phyllo dough from the rectangular block it arrived in. The results looked like a storm-whipped flag—edges shredded, with a hole near the center. I tried again, peeling up a fresh slice more or less intact.

Step 2: “Brush the surface with melted butter.” I love a recipe that involves painting! I put about 4 tablespoons of butter in a Pyrex dish and warily approached the microwave.

As many of you know, heating butter with this ubiquitous household appliance requires the finesse of a Tibetan monk poised over a mandala sand painting. Too few seconds and the butter is merely shiny of coat and puddle-free. Too many, and the entire stick blasts with a rather innocent-sounding pop into a thousand golden splatters dripping from the top and down the sides of the appliance’s interior.

With the last 500 melting attempts seared in my memory, I gingerly heated the butter for 20 seconds, and then another 10, followed by 8…

POP!

“What can I do?” asked Jon, waltzing into the kitchen as I was pulling the mostly empty Pyrex dish from the dripping cave of Butter Land.

“Well, you could clean the microwave.”

Using a silicon pastry brush, I covered the phyllo dough with a bit of the melted butter, and, following Reti’s instructions, folded the piece in half. She calls for lengthwise, I did the otherwaywise. Oops.

I painted more butter on the surface, put a teaspoon of the filling near the right corner, folded over the corner to form a triangle and then kept folding up and over, up and over, until I had a cute, puffy phyllo package (yes, more scalene triangle than isosceles or equilateral, but one’s first attempt is always a bit strange). My next spanikopita attempt looked much better, and the one after that even better, especially once Jon leaned over and said, “I think you’re supposed to fold it the long way.”

I placed the finished spanikopita onto a Silpat-covered baking sheet. When I’d created a baker’s dozen, I stopped, painted more melted butter over everything with the casual, calorie-disdaining ease of a French chef, and stuck the sheet into a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes. When the clutch of pastries looked golden at the edges, I pulled them out and let them cool on the stovetop while I chopped some parsley to artfully sprinkle over their tops before serving. Reti is big on the chopped herb sprinkle, as was Kyrsten when we took our class back in December.
 
The results: The spanikopita looked Greek tourism-bureau-approved with their perfect tans and cute shapes (baking seemed to improve the looks of even my first pastry-folding attempts). I popped one into my mouth the moment it was cool enough to not burn a hole through the roof. On first bite, the pastry layers shattered into a million little buttery pieces—they were just the right combination of crisp and greasy. On second bite, I hit some filling. The salty-green duo of feta and spinach usually so dominant in spanikopita still played a role, but they were overshadowed by the citrus bang of the zest and the warm brown notes of the toasted pine nuts. The combination was tasty…and just different enough to inspire some head-shaking between me and Jon.

Me: “Interesting!” [chew, chew, chewing; contemplative nodding] “I like that!”

Jon: “Yeah!” [chew, chew, chewing, nod, nodding] “These are good!”

One final point, an hour later: I must say that once these had cooled a bit, I wasn’t quite as in love. The pine nuts became the dominant flavor and my favorite part—the spinach and feta—quietly retreated to a back corner.

Still, these spanikopita would make an impressive dinner party course or potluck addition: they’re easy to grab, not too big, and look the part (rather than a sympathy-inducing, homemade approximation). It would be easy to tweak the filling, too. What would these be like with a different nut, a second type of cheese (gruyere could be good), or tarragon instead of nutmeg?

I’ll experiment and let you know.

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