The February Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by Audax of Audax Artifex. The challenge brought us to Greece with a delicious, flaky spanakopita – a spinach pie in a phyllo pastry shell.
So first off, I have to say that Audax has been a very active voice in the Daring Cooks fora since my very first challenge (and likely long before that!). Aside from his seemingly endless well of encouragement for newbies and helpful hints for everyone, what makes Audax stand out is his whole-hearted enthusiasm for every challenge. I’ve been excited about some of them in the past… but never excited enough to make two (and sometimes three!) different variations of the challenge, just to really get a feel for flavours and techniques. Audax, however, manages to do this pretty much every month — and not just that, but everything is meticulously documented with clear, crisp photos. When I saw who was hosting this month’s challenge, I admit, I was a little nervous — Audax sets the bar pretty high!
Happily, I shouldn’t have worried. This month’s challenge was one of my favourite Greek foods — spanakopita — and, as if to set my worries to rest, it started with the very calming* task of chopping up a whole mess of onions.
* Is that weird, that I find that calming? Well aren’t you the judgey one. Hmph.
The rules allowed for a fair amount of play in terms of onions and herbs used, but the recipe below is the one from “Mrs. Maria” — Audax’s source for this challenge.
2-3 large bunches (1 kg) fresh (or thawed frozen) spinach
1 packet (375 gm) phyllo pastry sheets. Notes from Audax: I used half the packet for this recipe, about 12 “thicker-style” sheets or about 20 “thin-style” sheets
2 cups (300 gm) good quality feta cheese, crumbled
1 bunch (30 gm) dill, soft stems and fronds finely chopped
1 red (Spanish) onion, chopped
2-3 shallot onions, chopped
1 bunch spring (green)onions, white and pale green parts chopped
1 large leek, well washed, white part chopped
Optional crushed garlic clove (only use one) — fishy note: Optional?!?!
One half nutmeg, freshly grated (optional but highly recommended)
1 to 2 large eggs
4 tablespoons of good quality extra virgin olive oil
large handful breadcrumbs (or cous cous, cracked wheat, etc.) — fishy note: I used bulghur
½ cup (120 ml) softened butter or olive oil (or a combination) for the phyllo sheets
Salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to moderately hot 375°F.
- Wash the spinach and dry thoroughly, discard the tough stems, chop or tear the leaves into pieces, place into a large bowl. (If using thawed chopped frozen spinach just place into a large bowl).
- Add the chopped onions, chopped leek, finely chopped dill, four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the crumbled feta cheese and the optional garlic and nutmeg.
- Using your hands vigorously massage the filling ingredients until the mixture loses about half to three-quarters its original volume.
- Over a bowl or a large plate squeeze large handfuls of the mixture till they feel dry, continue until you have done all of the filling mixture, and you have collected all the excess liquid.
- Cover the excess liquid with enough breadcrumbs, cous cous or cracked wheat (or similar) to absorb the liquid. The breadcrumbs should be moist. I used ¾ cup of cous cous and it took about 5 mins to absorb nearly all of the liquid. Note: I don’t know why, but my mixture was a lot drier. It took a scant 1/2 cup of cracked wheat for me.
- Return the moisture-laden breadcrumbs back into the filling mixture.
- Add an egg (or two depending on how dry the mixture is) and mix well using your hands. Note: So, uh, chalk this up to whatever you like, but I completely forgot this step. Still turned out fine! But… I would definitely include it next time.
- Taste, season with some salt (careful feta contains lots of salt) and plenty of pepper. Set aside. The filling can be stored in the fridge for a day or two if well covered.
- Butter (or oil spray) the baking dish.
- Cover the phyllo sheets with a damp tea towel.
- Cut (with a knife or with scissors) the phyllo sheets to the correct shape for your baking dish. Cover the cut sheets with the damp tea towel until needed.
- Butter (or oil) every second sheet, cover the base and sides of your baking dish making sure that the sheets overhang the edges of the baking dish. Use about ten “thin-style” phyllo sheets or about six “thicker-stye” phyllo sheets for the base and sides
- Spoon the filling into the phyllo pastry case.
- Fold the overhanging sheets over the filling.
- Use four to six more “thicker-style” phyllo sheets or about eight “thin-style” phyllo sheets to cover the top, butter each layer. Use a spoon or similar to neaten the edges of the pastry case.
- Cut into slices before baking. Note: I also forgot to do this, which had a very sad effect on my pie’s aesthetics, as you can see. (At this stage you can freeze the unbaked spanakopita to be baked for later, add 30 mins extra to baking time.)
- Bake in a preheated moderately hot oven for 30 mins up to one hour (depending on the depth of your baking dish). Cover with foil if over-browning. Mine took one hour and my dish was almost 6-inch (15 cm) high. Check for doneness by using a thin knife, insert it into the spanakopita for 30 secs, the filling should feel set and the knife should feel hot to the touch.
Note: I baked mine in a standard 9×9 pan, and it was set at 35 minutes. The onions still had a little bite, though.
- Cool for 30 minutes. Note: We totally didn’t do this. Can be eaten hot or cold.
In the end, despite all my omissions and mistakes, it turned out really well! I was a little worried that The Boy would find the bitey onion a little off-putting, but he was actually a pretty big fan. (Yes! A freezer-able vegetarian side that goes well with soups! Self: take note!)
I would like to report on how the leftovers fare as a lunch (especially at room temperature…) but as of this writing, I haven’t tried it yet. I shall report back when I do.
In the meantime, thank you Audax for a wonderful (and delicious!) challenge!