Greek Spinach & Cheese Pie (Spanakopita)


Now that the weather has cooled off, and winter's finally here, I've been craving comfort food.  To me, nothing is more comforting than a delicious homemade pie.  Lately a week hasn't gone past that I haven't baked a pie, whether it be a savoury one for dinner or a sweet and syrupy one for dessert.  I'm pretty sure my love of pie is due in no small part to its lovely buttery pastry.  It doesn't matter if it's a crumbly shortcrust, a buttery puff, or a crispy filo pastry, I'm happy to eat them all, although my favourite would have to be puff!  Whilst nothing beats a good stodgy meat-filled pie, sometimes I feel like a lighter vegetarian option, and this Spanakopita fits the bill perfectly.

Spanakopita is one of those Greek dishes that I'm sure varies between Greek families.  My recipe is quite straightforward, tastes delicious, and turns out perfectly every time.  My Grandmother's version would have to be the best I've eaten in my whole life, as she used to make her pastry by hand, but unfortunately I didn't manage to ask her for her recipe before she passed away many years ago.  My Grandmother was an amazing cook, and everything she made seemed to have some magic ingredient that would make your tastebuds sing.  It is her cooking that I reminisce about, and whenever I think about her food, the flavours and aromas come flooding back to me.

Making Spanakopita takes a little time, so make sure you start early enough otherwise you'll be eating dinner at 9pm.  The best part of the pie would have to be the crunchy, crispy flakes of filo pastry - I can't help sneaking bits off the top as I'm serving it up to the family!  The pie keeps well in the fridge and is even delicious cold - perfect to enjoy for lunch the next day.

Ingredients
3 large bunches English spinach (please use proper English spinach, as nothing beats it!)
1 bunch shallots, finely sliced
1 small brown onion, finely diced
1 bunch fresh dill, finely chopped
250g Greek feta cheese
250g Ricotta cheese
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
2 eggs
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Sea salt flakes, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cups fresh or dried breadcrumbs
1 packet Filo pastry sheets
250g butter, melted
Egg, extra (for egg wash)
1/2 cup sesame seeds

Method

Cut the leaves off the English spinach and wash very carefully, taking care to rinse away any sand and grit.  I find filling the sink with water and placing the leaves into it will help the sand to sink to the bottom, leaving your leaves nice and clean.

Once the leaves are rinsed thoroughly, shake them dry and bunch them up and cut them into quarters (you might need to do this in several batches due to the amount of leaves).  Place the cut spinach into a large colander to allow them to continue to drain while you carry on with the rest of the cooking.

In a large bowl, crumble the Greek feta cheese into a fine crumb, spoon in the Ricotta cheese, and add the cup of parmesan cheese and two eggs.  Grate over approximately 1 - 2 teaspoons of nutmeg, and add freshly ground pepper and sea salt flakes to taste.  Using a fork, mix the wet ingredients until thoroughly combine.  Cover and place in the fridge.

In a large frying pan, add a good lug of olive oil and heat over a moderate to high heat.  Add the finely diced brown onion, cooking for a couple of minutes until the onion has softened and is translucent.  Add the finely sliced shallots, and continue to cook for a few minutes until the shallots have also softened.

Add the spinach to the pan in batches (large handfuls at a time), and cook it down until it has reduced in size, making sure to mix the leaves in well with the onions.  Don't be alarmed if it seems you have a huge amount of spinach in the pan, as it will cook down.  Just do it in batches, and go steady when stirring it into the onions.  Once the spinach has cooked down, turn off the heat and stir through the finely chopped dill.

Using the large colander you used for the spinach, place it into a large bowl and scrape the cooked spinach mixture into it to allow all of the liquid and cooking juices to drain away.  It is important to do this otherwise your pie will be too wet.  Every so often continue to gently push the spinach mixture down with a spoon to squeeze out any liquid.

Take the 250 grams of butter and gently melt it in a small saucepan (or bowl in the microwave) until it has completely melted.

Using a large rectangular lasagne baking dish, brush the base and sides with melted butter.

Carefully open the filo pastry packet and lay it flat on the bench top next to you.  Separate the sheets into 2 even batches, and set one aside.  One batch of sheets will be used for the base, and the 2nd one will be used for the top.

Taking one sheet at a time, carefully peel it away from the filo sheets, place it onto the bench top and brush it very carefully all over with some melted butter.  Once again carefully pick up the sheet and lay it evenly into the baking dish, gently pressing it into it to cover the base and sides.  Do not worry if the sheets do not cover much of the sides of the baking dish.

Continue to do this with every sheet of filo from the first batch until you reach the last sheet, as you will not need to butter this one, just lay it on top of the last buttered sheet.

Sprinkle the base of the filo with the bread crumbs and ensure you have covered the base evenly.  This will help soak up any liquid during cooking so your pie isn't soggy.

Take the cheese mixture out of the fridge and add your cooked spinach mixture to it, taking a handful of spinach at a time, gently squeezing it over the colander to expel any leftover liquid, before adding it to the cheese.  Once you have added all of the spinach to the cheese, stir them well to combine and spoon over the base of the pie to cover it, gently smoothing it out.

Using the last batch of filo sheets, once again carefully peel away one sheet at a time, place it onto the bench top and brush it all over with some melted butter.  Carefully pick up the sheet and lay it over the cheese and spinach layers, gently pressing it into the top and sides to expel any air.  Do not panic if you tear a sheet, just place them back together as neatly as you can, as it will not affect the look of the pie.  This pie is meant to be quite rustic.

Continue to do this with every sheet of filo until you reach the last sheet.  Once you have placed the final sheet onto the pie, brush your egg wash over the top of the pie, including the sides.  Sprinkle the pie generously with sesame seeds.

Taking a sharp knife, cut diagonal slices into the pie in both directions, so you are left with a diamond  pattern.  Each diamond will be a portion of pie for serving, so ensure you have not made your slices too small.

Place the pie into the oven and bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and crispy.

Allow to cool for at least 10-15 minutes before serving.





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