Span-ah-KOH-pita: Greek spinach pie. Properly prepared, it consists of moist, somewhat salty, very spinach-y filling encased in flaky layers of phyllo pastry which crumble as you bite through them.

First, the pastry. It's not puff pastry, which is much too soft and puffy; not pie crust, which inevitably ends up like like a hard dry shoe sole when pressed into service here. No, it's phyllo pastry you need. And be sure that each layer of phyllo is properly coated in fat so it doesn't turn into dry tasteless parchment when baked.

And then the filling. It should taste like spinach, not some undefinable green paste, so don't go muddying it up with parsley and basil and other green stuff: stick with spinach. And there should be a healthy dose of dairy involved. Not something bland, but strong and salty feta, and lots of it. Get Greek feta if you can, for it's creamier in texture and less salty than lesser fetas. A bit of ricotta or cottage cheese rounds out those flavours; egg binds it all together; and pepper adds a slight zing (no need for salt with all that salty cheese). But this stuff should taste primarily of spinach and feta. This is Greek food after all.

I used to leave it at that, until one day I hit on the addition of cumin seeds, I think because I saw a recipe that added chopped fresh dill, and I didn't have any, and this seemed like a reasonable substitute. I liked it, and so it has stayed.

So here you have it then: wonderful tasting spanakopita that is not too difficult to make. Smaller ones shaped like triangles or rolls make excellent appetizers, while a whole pie makes a delicious main course.

What you need:

What to do:

If you are unfamiliar with, or nervous about, phyllo, please read phyllo and tips for working with filo.

Prepare the filling: Steam spinach till fully wilted, let cool, and squeeze dry. Meanwhile, heat a little olive oil in a frying pan, then saute onion till soft. Chop spinach and add to onion, stirring to combine. Toast the cumin seeds in a small dry skillet till aromatic; let cool. Finally, combine spinach and onion mixture with cheeses, the eggs, the cumin, and the pepper; mix well.

Preheat oven to 350°F (170°C).

Remove one sheet of phyllo at a time, and keep the rest covered with a sheet of plastic wrap or parchment paper and a slightly damp tea towel. Now decide if you want to make one big pie or many small triangles, rolls, or purses. Directions follow for each.

Pie: Oil a large rectangular baking pan or coat with cooking spray. Lay one sheet of phyllo on the bottom of the pan, spray entire surface with cooking spray or brush with melted butter or olive oil. Top with seven more sheets, spraying each layer, then spread filling over the dough. Top with eight more layers, spraying each layer, then roll the overhanging dough up to form a border. If desired, score the top layers of phyllo into diamond shapes with a sharp knife. Spray with cooking spray and bake for about 45 minutes, till phyllo is crisp and golden brown.

Triangles: Place one sheet of phyllo on a dry surface with the long side facing you. Spray entirely with cooking spray (or brush with melted butter or olive oil), then cover with a second sheet and spray with cooking spray. Cut sheets crosswise into seven equal strips. Place one teaspoon (5 ml) spinach filling on the bottom of a strip and fold the dough into a triangle, then continue folding up and over the filling to the end of the strip. (This is apparently like folding a flag for all you boy scouts out there.) Place the finished triangles on a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet and spray tops with cooking spray or brush with oil or butter. Bake for about 20 minutes, till golden brown.

Rolls: Place one sheet of phyllo on a dry surface with the long side facing you. Spray entire surface with cooking spray (or brush with melted butter or olive oil), then cover with a second sheet and spray with cooking spray. Cut sheets crosswise into three rectangles. Place one tablespoon (45 ml) filling on the bottom end of a rectangle, fold the sides up over the filling, then roll like a cigar to the end. Place the finished rolls on a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet and spray tops with cooking spray or brush with oil or melted butter. Bake for about 30 minutes, till golden brown.

Purses: Place one sheet of phyllo on dry surface, spray entire surface with cooking spray (or brush with melted butter or olive oil), then cover with a second sheet and spray. Cut sheet in half lengthwise, then into three crosswise, making six squares. Put one tablespoon (45 ml) filling in the centre of each square, pick up the corners and gently bring together, then squeeze together and twist lightly. Place on a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet and spray phyllo with cooking spray or brush with oil or melted butter. Bake for about 20 minutes, till golden brown.

You can freeze uncooked spanakopita tightly sealed in plastic. Cook from frozen, adding an extra 5-10 minutes on baking time.

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