Otherwise known as Spanakopita, this is a variant of a dish that I have known since I was a teenager. I went to Greece for the first time in the 1970s and still vividly remember the food: huge Greek salads of intensely-flavoured tomatoes and olives, yoghurt in earthenware bowls with a delicious creamy layer on top, Kolokithakia (light, crispy fried courgette slices) served with tzatziki, moussaka rich with aubergines (then hard to find in the UK), and spanakopita: spinach and feta encased in golden filo pastry.
I used to make it according to Claudia Roden’s recipe in Middle Eastern Food: spinach cooked in butter and crumbled feta for the filling (no egg), and 8-10 sheets of filo pastry each brushed with melted butter. It is delicious, but feta can be very salty and with around 125g of butter it makes rich eating and is not so good for eating cold. So my recipe has gradually drifted (recalling Mae West’s “I used to be Snow White but I drifted”) away from authenticity to something lighter yet equally delicious.
Fresh, milky ricotta replaces over half the feta, an egg gives a gentle set to the filling and olive oil turns the sheets of filo into the same golden shards in a more artery-friendly way. A Greek shop is the best place to buy good feta, olives and filo but I don’t have one nearby. Luckily, filo pastry and olives are now widely available, and I have discovered that some supermarkets stock barrel-aged feta, which is sweeter and creamier than the young cheese, if you can stomach the higher price. You can use an onion or half a dozen spring onions instead of the leek if you wish – the latter will obviously only need to be softened very quickly. Last night I also went completely off-piste and added a layer of roasted butternut squash, which we decided was A Good Thing – I give instructions for both variants below.
I love the light freshness of the ricotta combined with the soft, mineral taste of spinach and the sweet saltiness of the feta, all contrasting with the crisp filo. Including the squash makes it a slightly more substantial meal, adding another texture, and the chilli flakes add a hint of heat.
This is an excellent dish for a crowd, as I think it is best served warm or at room temperature (as it is in Greece), rather than hot. It can easily be assembled and baked ahead of time, and it looks splendid as you cut generous squares of it from in a big dish. All you need to serve alongside it is, of course, a Greek salad – tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, green or red pepper and red onion (if you like it), liberally dressed with green Greek extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar – with extra feta if you wish.
The dish I used for these quantities is 25 x 18 x 5 cm and made enough for 4 portions. It remains good eating for a day or two, so you may want to consider scaling up so that you have leftovers for packed lunches or an easy supper the next day.
450g spinach or 260g spinach and 200g butternut squash
1 or 2 eggs
5 sheets filo pastry
a good pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
1 tbsp sesame seeds
If you are using the butternut squash heat the oven to 200º C/Gas Mark 6. Peel and deseed the squash and cut into small cubes. If you’re in a hurry you could use one of those bags of ready-prepared squash (often on special offer in the supermarket chiller at the end of the day). Put on an oven tray, drizzle with olive oil (keep your fancy Extra Virgin oil for the salad – you don’t need it for any of the oven cooking), season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the chilli flakes. Roast for 15-20 minutes until the squash is just tender to the point of a knife, while you get on with the rest of the recipe using the smaller quantity of spinach.
Otherwise, heat the oven to 180º C/Gas Mark 4. Wash the spinach thoroughly, discarding any tough stems, and drain in a colander. Trim and clean the leek and cut into 1cm slices. Put a large frying pan or wok over a medium heat and add about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the leek and cook, stirring regularly until it softens and turning the heat down if it shows any signs of browning – a matter of about 5 minutes. Put the ricotta into a sieve to drain (I don’t always do this, but it is worth it if the ricotta looks wet).
When the leeks are soft, add the spinach, with the little water clinging to its leaves, in batches if necessary, stirring it around as it collapses. When all the spinach has been added and is soft, take the pan off the heat and either press the mixture with a spatula and pour off the excess liquid or tip everything into a colander and press the liquid out.
Everything can be prepared up to this point in advance. When you’re ready, beat the egg(s) in a mixing bowl – using 2 eggs if you are using the larger quantity of spinach – and stir in the spinach mixture, ricotta and crumbled feta. Season with a good grating of fresh nutmeg and black pepper (you don’t need salt because of the feta). If not using squash, you can add a pinch of chilli flakes at this point if you wish. By now the squash should be ready and you can take it out and turn the oven down to 180º C/Gas Mark 4.
To assemble the pie, oil your tin and open your stack of filo pastry (ideally under a damp tea-towel to keep it soft). Using a pastry brush and a small dish of olive oil, oil the top sheet of filo and lay it across the tin with the edges hanging out. Then oil the next sheet and carefully lay it in the opposite direction. Continue adding two more layers of oiled filo in alternate directions, making sure that you arrange them so that you have enough extra to fold over the top at the end (I kept back one sheet to make sure there was enough to cover the pie).
Now fill with the spinach and cheese mixture – and add the butternut squash in a layer if you are using it. Fold in each layer of the pastry in turn, brushing on a little more oil as you go, until it is all securely enclosed. Sprinkle sesame seeds across the top if you wish. I don’t really recommend the black sesame seeds but couldn’t find any regular sesame seeds in my over-stuffed spice drawer. Put into the pre-heated oven and bake for 35 minutes, giving it a peek after 20 minutes to check that it is not browning too fast – if so, loosely cover it with some foil or turn the oven down a bit (say 170º C/Gas Mark 3).
Allow to cool a little before serving with a Greek salad (or, as here, the totally improvised salad we had with the leftovers!).