When I was a kid growing up in Monte Sereno, California, we had Greek neighbors. Let’s call them the Constantines. All the Constantines had dark brown eyes and black hair, which, in my world of blond-blue-eyedness, I found beautiful.
At Easter, the family dyed all their Easter eggs red, to signify “God’s blood,” Greg’s older sister Andi told me. Eastern Christian, or Eastern Orthodox Easter does indeed opt for bright red eggs as opposed to the pastel rainbow favored by Western Easter, both secular and religious.
However, in my over-romanticized child’s view of the world, I was sure she said, “the gods’ blood.” I managed to convince myself that the family worshiped all the Greek gods—and since my Greek mythology book was one of my favorites, I thought that was very cool indeed. Those red eggs surely symbolized some exotic ritual that had something to do with pomegranates. It was wildly exciting.
I didn’t try Greek food until years later, when I lived in Ithaca, NY, for an interesting experiment of a year at Cornell. (I was in the MFA acting program and it didn’t really take, particularly since I got a chance to move to New York City and live in a downtown apartment for $265 a month.) The Greek restaurants—really diners—in Ithaca are wonderful. It was there that I ate spanikopita for the first time.
Greek diner spanikopita tends to come in a big pan, kind of like lasagna with filo. Fun fact: Filo (or phyllo, depending on which box you buy) and strudel are basically the same thing. Why?, you may ask. Well, think about geography. The Austrian-Hungarian empire went pretty far east; Turkey and Greece, as you can see, are not that far to the south.
Those inventive cooks and bakers who transformed a handful of flour, water, and fat into a Nerf-ball-sized lump of dough, which they then rolled out to about the size of a bed sheet, inspired and probably taught the Magyars, Serbs, Croats, and Bulgarians how to make the same stuff. Next time you tuck into a crispy, shattery apple strudel, realize it could just as well be spinach and feta cheese, or honey and pistachio nuts between those layers.
By the way, you can use this same recipe to make the lasagna-esque version of spanikopita. Still, I prefer these little triangles, which are only a little time consuming, and otherwise easy. And while it helps to have a decent size counter to work on, I have made these in tiny NYC kitchens. So it can be done.
- Take a package of frozen spinach, thaw it, and squeeze the hell out of it, until it’s as dry as possible. I always use thawed frozen spinach. The volume of raw spinach necessary to cook down to 10 ounces takes up a ton of room in the fridge.
- Chop scallions, dill, and parsley. Add to a bowl with the squeezed-dry spinach. Mix in one egg, a pinch of salt, a sprinkle of nutmeg, and 4-6 ounces of crumbled feta. Naturally, the better quality the feta, the yummier this will be.
- Melt about a stick of butter and have a pastry brush ready. (If you use coconut oil instead, you will have a cracklier spanikopita, which may be fine for you.) Line a counter-top the size of a cookie sheet with parchment. You can work directly on your baking sheet if you want, but it will have some butter on it afterward, and that could smoke up your oven.
- As lightly as possible, brush the sheet with butter, then lay down your first sheet of filo. Brush that lightly with butter, lay down another sheet, until you have 3 sheets.
- Put a heaping tablespoon of filling at the top of the sheet. Then repeat so you have four tablespoons going across the sheet.
- Take a sharp paring knife and cut rows down the length of the sheet.
- Fold one corner of the sheet over in a triangle, the way you’re supposed to fold a flag. Just keep flipping, until….voila.
- Repeat, then repeat the whole exercise until you run out of filling.
- When you’re done, brush the tops of completed triangles with butter. You can either freeze them in layers. Or you can bake the spanikopita in a preheated 350º oven for about 12-15 minutes. They should be nicely golden.
Spanikopita are, to my mind, the absolutely perfect Easter meal appetizer. But they are really pretty darn wonderful any time of year. Just hunker down, do the work, and feel safe and secure that you have a store of yum in your freezer for the next 6 months. You probably won’t need a reminder to eat them.