I've been very lucky. I learned to make spanakopita, the Greek spinach and feta casserole encased in filo dough, from a variety of sources — even without the benefit of a Greek grandmother by my side. I had books, I had friends, and eventually, I had professional cooks show me. I've also spent a lifetime eating it and enjoying every bite in diners, upscale restaurants, and, yes, versions made by someone else's loving Greek grandmother.
I noticed a few key things along the way, learned lessons from trial and error, and have modified my recipe over the years to create a fail-proof pie (it's all in how you fold it), with a filling so rich and flavorful you'll wonder why you waited so long to make this a part of your home-cooking repertoire.
An Infused Butter Builds Layers of Flavor
Putting my own spin on spanakopita came about when I decided to melt the butter with a touch of the fruitiest of Greek olive oils and a fistful of bay leaves. Bay leaves provide a very fleeting flavor that can be hard to pin down, but in this recipe they act as an echo for the more discernible herbs like dill, oregano, and thyme, allowing them to linger on in your mouth — even after the flavor of the bay is gone. This infused butter remains my personal touchstone for taking advantage of baking with filo. I see the space between each sheet of dough as an opportunity to create literal flavor layers. So every time you brush the bay-infused butter over the filo in this recipe, know that it's in the service of flavor!
Fear Not the Filo Dough
Filo dough's thin, buttery layers are second to none, and in spanakopita they are what holds the rich spinach and feta filling in place and gives this savory pie its crunchy, golden halo. This version, like most, uses premade frozen filo dough, lacquered with melted butter and cooked to reach the epitome of flaky, crunchy goodness.
Filo dough can be finicky. Its thin texture makes it delicate to handle, but it's also the key to the ethereal shatter we desire after it bakes up. Any time you work with filo dough, keep this truism in mind: it will tear. The filo dough will tear and it will be just fine! And when it does you can layer a few of the large parts of torn sheets between a buttered layer, and the spanakopita will turn out just as delicious. If you've have a hard time using filo in the past, save the best-looking sheets — usually the first ones you roll out and gently pull off — under a separate damp kitchen towel and use them for the very top of the pie.
A Flexible Filling Is Key
All good spanakopita fillings share the same core characteristics: an abundance of deeply flavored greens, the generous use of herbs, and a cheese that complements the greens. Once you've given this recipe a try, go out and make it your own. Mix up the greens you use, change up the herbs, and explore the nuances of different cheeses.
- The greens can vary: Whether it's the spinach invariably used in the most classic version, or any combination of dark leafy vegetables used in its place, these greens are cooked down and seasoned with aromatics like garlic, shallot, and onion to create a deep earthy base to contrast the salty cheese. If you're moving away from spinach, stick with baby versions of tougher vegetables like collards or kale and avoid super-bitter greens like watercress and dandelion greens. No matter what green you use, you will need to get rid of any thick or hard stems for a consistently tender bite.
- Use herbs aplenty: Greek food is herbaceous. Marjoram and oregano are wildly popular and I use either or both along with plenty of fresh dill fronds to perk up the filling. I've even used some minced fennel tops for a hint of licorice twist. You don't have to stop there: Add basil for a sweeter herb profile, parsley for a bright grassy taste, or even cilantro. A word of caution regarding rosemary — a little goes a long way; add too much and it can overpower the dish.
- Not every cheese works: I tried many alternatives with mixed success. I stick with feta for the salty kick. Fortunately, good feta can now be found at many supermarkets. If I can find creamy feta, I use that cup for cup if I want a easy way to a creamier filling. I also have to admit that I often use about one-third freshly shredded kefalotyri cheese — a hard sheep's milk cheese with a sharp, salty flavor — when I make this for a special occasion. Many years ago I hunted it down from specialty shops in New York City, along with creamy feta, and it was such a surefire winner that it may have won over my then-young meat-eating husband to this vegetarian dish. Kefalotyri, which slightly melts, is still hard to find to this day, but is a worthy variation if you want to experiment.
How To Make Classic Spanakopita
Makes 12 servings
What You Need
extra-virgin olive oil, Greek or another good-quality, fruity variety preferred
large Spanish or yellow onion, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
shallot, peeled and diced (about 2 tablespoons)
garlic, peeled, cut in half and grated, any green centers discarded
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
baby spinach, roughly chopped, any thick stems removed
4 to 6 fronds
fresh dill, finely chopped (about 2 teaspoons)
Leaves of 3 sprigs fresh marjoram or oregano, chopped (about 2 teaspoons)
Leaves of 3 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped (about 2 teaspoons)
(2 cups) crumbled feta cheese
large eggs, lightly beaten
- For the crust:
(2 sticks) salted butter
extra-virgin olive oil, Greek or another good-quality fruity variety preferred
6 dried or 3 fresh bay leaves
frozen filo dough, defrosted in the refrigerator
9x13-inch lasagna pan or large rectangular baking dish
Moistened paper towels
Make the filling: Heat the oil in a large saucepan set over high heat until it shimmers. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they are soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until they have softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic, stir well, and cook for 15 seconds. Add the lemon juice and zest and stir to incorporate.
Add the spinach: Add as many of the spinach leaves as the pan can hold, and cook, spooning the hot onion mixture over the leaves until they are fully wilted and very dark green in color, 4 to 5 minutes. Repeat the process, working in batches, until all the spinach is fully wilted. Cook the spinach until it has released its liquid and the liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Add the herbs and cheese: Add the dill, marjoram, and thyme and mix well. Add the feta and mix well. Once the mixture is no longer piping hot, add the eggs and mix well. Set aside.
Make the infused butter: Heat the butter and oil in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Add the bay leaves. As soon as the butter is melted, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and steep the bay leaves for 5 minutes.
Prep the filo: Remove the filo dough sheets from their plastic wrapper, unroll on a work surface or plate, and cover with a piece of parchment paper. Drape a few moist paper towels over the parchment paper, covering the entire exposed surface of the pile of filo dough.
Build the first layer of the filo crust: Carefully peel 1 sheet of filo from the pile; be sure to replace the parchment and paper towel while you work with this sheet. Place it into the prepared baking dish positioning one end in the center of the pan and letting the sheet drape out over one of the long sides of the pan with about a 3-inch overhang. Peel another sheet from the pile, replace the covering, and place the filo into the pan, next to the first sheet of filo, overlapping it slightly. Repeat, arranging a total of 6 sheets around the entire pan: Two on each long side and one each for the short sides. With a pastry brush, gently dab the some of the melted butter all over the surface of the filo, including the overhang, holding the filo gently with your hand. Don't worry if some breaks off.
Build the second layer of the filo crust: Arrange another layer of 6 sheets on top of the first layer, following the instructions in step 6. (You will have used a total of 12 sheets.) Brush with butter again.
Add the filling: Spoon the filling into the crust. Use a silicone spatula to spread it evenly and smooth the top. Make sure to spread the filling into the corners.
Begin sealing the pie: Fold the filo overhang up and onto the filling, beginning with the pieces on the long sides of the pan and finishing with the pieces on the short sides. You might find that some of the pieces break in the folding; you can simply place these pieces on top of the filling as if they had been folded. Other pieces might resist your attempt at folding. Use kitchen shears to cut these and fit them into the pan if needed.
Build the top crust: Carefully peel 1 sheet of filo from the pile and again replace the covering of paper towel. Place this sheet of filo lengthwise on top of the filling and tuck the edges into the sides. With a pastry brush, gently dab some of the melted butter all over it. Top with another sheet and brush with butter again. Repeat with 2 more sheets, brushing each with butter. Then place 2 sheets on at a time and dab the surface liberally with the butter. Repeat until you have used up a total of 8 sheets.
Bake the spanakopita: Bake at 375° for 35 to 45 minutes or until the top is golden-brown and crispy. Serve immediately.
Once you unroll the defrosted filo, place a large piece of parchment over it and then cover the parchment completely with moistened, but not wet, paper towels or a kitchen towel; filo dries out very quickly and this will help prevent excess breakage. Of course there's no getting around the fact that some always break; it doesn't matter — it will still taste good.
The baked spanakopita can be kept in a covered container in the refrigerator for at least 2 days. Be forewarned — it will not be crispy again, at all, no matter how you reheat it, but it will be completely yummy. It's a great next-day breakfast food. Try it with a fried or poached egg on top and a fistful of salty, briney, pitted Kalamata olives, finely chopped.
Extra filo should be rolled in parchment paper and then wrapped well in plastic wrap, refrigerate, and used within 3 days.