I was in a baking mood yesterday. I had heaps of writing deadlines and things to do (including cleaning the house), but I wanted to cook. Specifically, I wanted to make a Greek spinach and feta pie (spanakopita) to take to a Good Friday potluck bash at friend’s house. There are always lots of foodies there and I wanted my contribution to be fab. And I wanted to make the filo pastry from scratch.
“I really think you should concentrate on writing because making the pie, let along the pastry, will take a lot of time,” said Neil.
“Yeah, you are right,” I conceded. But I still harboured a secret desire to make the filo pastry. I’m crazy like that. Sometimes I just get the itch to cook something particular, and it is hard to stop me.
You see, last weekend I was at Tom’s Superfruits Superstore at the Belconnen Markets just before closing time on Sunday. Because the market is only open from Thursday to Sunday, and because Tom’s Superfruits Superstore only serves fresh produce — trucked in fresh from the Sydney Markets each week — they sell surplus produce at discount on Sunday afternoons.
It is a frugalista’s dream: laden trestle tables of fresh fruit and vegies going cheap because Tom’s Superfruits has a commitment to reducing waste. “Only buy what you need,” warned Neil. But of course, I couldn’t resist the temptation of buying up several bunches of fresh greens, including a HUGE bunch of fresh silverbeet for only $1. And it was huge, a real miracle of Autumn’s bounty.
How should I cook it? I put it out to my friends on Facebook, and suggestions came thick and fast. “Quiche,” suggested one friend. “Frittata,” said another. Others suggested gnocchi, lasagne and even crepes. But the idea that made my mouth water was spanakopita: spinach and feta pie. I always associate this with Easter, and this is probably because it is often made as part of Greek Easter celebrations.
I was thinking of using commercial filo pastry to make this dish, but even with my $1 bunch of silverbeet, it would have put the dish over my $5 limit. So I decided to make the pastry myself. Did I mention I am crazy? I honestly thought it was super difficult and it would be super impossible to make the super thin layers. People kept telling me it was really, really hard to make. But I surprised myself. It was easier than I thought and the pie (with the combination of fresh pastry and fresh silverbeet) even got a nod of approval from a Greek friend at the potluck lunch. And my uber cool Macedonian-Australian DJ cousin in Melbourne remarked on Facebook that, despite being non-ethnic, I was doing a good job.
Making your own spanakopita is a bit of work, but the reward is worth it. I have noticed these days that a lot of manufactured dishes that combine cheese and spinach now include a higher ratio of cheese to vegies. I can only assume that this is because it is much cheaper to use processed cheese than processed vegetables. Growing up we always used frozen spinach in cooking. I was in my twenties before I even knew how to prepare fresh spinach. I was certainly missing out: the flavours of fresh silverbeet and spinach are sensational. Try this dish and you will see what I mean.
Oh, and my Neil ended up helping me make the filo pastry. He even filming me when was making it; I didn’t quite realise what he was doing at first. And he was a fan of the finished pie, or at least he said he was. I am lucky indeed.
1 large bunch of silverbeet
200g feta cheese
100g soft cheese (I used labna made by draining yoghurt)
1 tablespoon mint, chopped
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and lots of cracked pepper
2 cups of plain flour
3/4 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons oil (olive oil if your budget can stretch that far)
1-2 tablespoons butter
- Combine the flour, water, salt and olive oil. Knead for around ten minutes until the dough forms a ball (I used a bread maker). Cover with cling wrap and leave for an hour or two (I left my dough in the bread maker to save on plastic).
- Meanwhile, prepare the mixture. Wash the silverbeet, and cut into pieces. Reserve the stalks for later use. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add the silverbeet. Cook in batches until wilted. Remove to a strainer.
- Allow the silverbeet mixture to cool, then take a handful and squeeze out as much water as possible. Cut into fine pieces, then squeeze again to remove even more water. Place in a large bowl and repeat with remaining silverbeet.
- Combine the silverbeet with the cheeses, mint, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Place aside until needed.
- Now the fun part – making the filo pastry. Take a small piece of dough – around 20g. It is a good idea to weigh to make sure the pieces are a consistent size. Shape the dough into a ball. Dust generously with cornflour and roll out thinly into a circle. Set aside and repeat three more times.
- Stack the four pieces ensuring that there is a sprinkling of more corn flour in-between each sheet (you can try more if you like). Roll them out a few times until they are around twice as long.
- Unstack the pastry rounds again, sprinkle with more corn flour, and then restack them. This time, roll them out as thin as you can. My pieces ended up around 30cm by 40cm.
- The next step is buttering the pieces and lining the baking tray. Filo pastry is forgiving. Do not panic if you end up with a bit torn. You can simply just brush on a bit of butter and place an untorn bit on the top. I actually found that fresh filo pastry was much easier to work with than frozen filo pastry. The trick is just to work quickly and do your best.
- Unstack your filo pastry. I found that I could not separate each and every layer, but I managed around every second layer. Brush with butter, reassemble and line the bottom of a baking tray. Repeat. Use around eight layers.
- Press the filling into the filo pastry, and then top with another six to eight sheets of filo pastry. Brush with more butter, and then bake at 170C for twenty minutes or until golden brown on top.