In Bulgaria I made my share of banitsa, putting leeks or spinach in it whenever I had them. One day I put in a ton of spinach and an extra helping of yogurt, and when I took a bite, I said, “Oh! This is spanikopita!”
Spanikopita was always something that my mom made on special occasions or that I got to eat at the Greek Orthodox church’s annual festival, and really never more often than that. It seemed labor- and time-intensive, and I never had enough of a mania over it to want to spend the effort making it. Coming back to giant American refrigerators from my just-big-enough Euro chill chest is almost exhausting, but it does mean that I get excited about tossing in ingredients from major fridge rummages. This spanikopita got extra love from cream cheese, lemon zest, and a squeeze of orange.
The thing about spinach: it’s watery. When I’m baking with it, I prefer to get frozen spinach, because then it’s easier to control the amount of liquid in it. After you let it sit out in a collander for an hour or so to thaw, you’ve got to squeeze the ever-lovin daylights out of it, because if it lets out any of that water during baking, you’ll get a soggy mess and end up ordering pizza for dinner. So squeeze, and squeeze hard.
How unintimidating is spanikopita? So unintimidating I didn’t even look up a recipe. This is spinach and feta and phyllo dough. Nothing to freak out about. If I had covered this up while it was baking, the top leaves wouldn’t have fanned up this way, but I like that they did, so I skipped the foil. If you want a nice well-mannered spanikopita, though, cover this for 50 minutes and uncover for the last 10.
1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled
1 shallot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 packages frozen spinach, thawed and strangled
1 cup whole milk yogurt (don’t use low-fat – that’s just watery)
a few gratings of nutmeg
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
a squeeze of orange juice
zest of half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
a few heavy grinds of black pepper
toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
Preheat to 350F. In a bowl combine all ingredients except phyllo, olive oil, and walnuts. Drizzle olive oil over the bottom of a 9″x13″ baking dish and place 2-3 layers of phyllo in the bottom. Spread with 1/3 of the spinach mixture. Put 2-3 more layers of phyllo down, drizzle it with olive oil (you don’t even have to pull out the pastry brush! How easy is this?), and spread another third of the mixture. Repeat once more, then top off with another couple of layers of phyllo, topping off with another drizzle of oil – but this time, make sure you get the oil out on the edges too, since you don’t want them to get too dry in the oven. Pop it in for an hour. When it’s golden brown and bubbling, you’re good to go. Let it cool for about 10 minutes, then cut it up and serve garnished with walnuts.