Spinach and Cheese Pie (Spanakopita)

Down some side alley  in old-town Athens is a little hole-in-the-wall cafe that serves a magnificent spanakopita, one that has earned legendary travel-food status in my book. The meal was only made more memorable by the rich okra and lamb stew and the perfectly prepared meat pastitsio that it came with, but to send the entire experience over the top was Victor and Nikki Newman's drama on the 'Young and the Restless' playing in the corner on a 17-inch tube TV, all dubbed in Greek. Fantastic!

No spanakopita could match that Greek trip, but this one certainly comes close. I have been making spinach pie for years, long before that trip and every year since, all the while tweaking the recipe, and never completely satisfied with the results. However I have I finally stumbled upon a version that meets my expectations.

The cheese version of spanakopita is really just a quiche wrapped in a phyllo crust with Greek flare, and quiche is really nothing more than a savory custard, so what seemed like the best approach was to create a better custard base and build up from there. While I like feta, I rarely if ever have enjoyed biting into a chunk hot, I prefer feta cold, but the flavor is essential to the dish and far more appealing when mixed with a less pungent cheese. For years I've cut the feta with Swiss (but Kasseri would be equally as good) to get a slightly less intense feta bite, and overall I think spinach and Swiss are a terrific match. However, even with these adjustments I felt the spanakopita was falling short on the satisfaction scale.

In comparing recipes I noticed many included cream cheese, usually as a substitute for the feta (probably for the same reasons I was cutting in the Swiss) but most seemed a bit too Americanized for what I was after in terms of a flavor profile. Adding in cream cheese did make sense though, not as a cheese substitute, but as a cream base to improve the custard-like consistency I was seeking for the middle. Pulsing the works through the food processor was inspired more by laziness than any culinary genius  but it worked! Now I was on to something, the flavors all seemed to meld together with a more consistent texture, and using the food processor meant it all came together in a snap with less knife work. I adopted the dill, green onion, and parsley additions that I liked so much in the vegan version I make and finally I wowed the family with memorable spanakopita; no drama needed.

Spinach and Cheese Pie

1/2 large white/yellow onion, chopped
2 lbs fresh spinach
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 lb Swiss cheese, chopped/slices
1 cup parsley
8 green onions, white and light green parts included, chopped
8 oz feta, crumbled
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 ounces cream cheese
1/4 cup dill
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
6 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 lb phyllo/fillo dough
1/4 cup + 1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup butter

Heat oven to 350-degrees.

Using the food processor, chop the white onions to medium consistency and saute in 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet until translucent. Add the spinach and salt and toss until wilted and water has been released. Turn off heat.

In a small sauce pan, melt the butter with the 1/4 cup olive oil as the rest of the ingredients come together in the food processor.

Pulse the Swiss cheese, parsley, and green onion until finely chopped. Combine the feta, heavy cream, cream cheese, dill, white pepper, nutmeg, and eggs and pulse to combine. Press out any remaining water from the spinach and onion mixture, discard water and add vegetables to the food processor bowl. Pulse to chop lightly with each addition, if the food processor bowl is small, this may require working in batches.

Layer half the package of phyllo in either a 9"x 13" baking pan or a large 12" pie dish, brushing each sheet lightly with butter.  If using the round pan, stagger the sheets to make an even overhang and brush those sections so the sheets do not dry out. If using a rectangular pan, place the sheets so they continue up the side of the pan so that the filling will be completely enclosed once added. Continue until half the phyllo sheets have been used.

Pour in the spinach, cheese, and egg mixture. Apply phyllo sheets to the top of the custard mix in the same manner. Cut all the sheets intended for the top layer if using a round pan to square to eliminate unwanted overhang. If using the rectangular baking dish, fold any longer sides from underneath over the filling and place all remaining sheets even with the dish sides. To create the crust appearance on the round dish, cut the excess phyllo with scissors to create 3/4-inch strips all the way around the outside of the dish. Twist these strips to the right, twisting the one beside under the other as you work around the outside edge until all the strips are used and the top is sealed under the bottom edge overhang. Brush any remaining butter mixture on top of the pie. Score the top phyllo into serving portions with a sharp knife.

Bake the spanakopita for 75-80 minutes or until golden brown (rectangular pan will take a shorter time.) Allow to cool at least 20 minutes before eating. Spanakopita is best at room temperature, but it can be served either warm or cold. Prior to serving, use a sharp knife to cut through all the phyllo layers. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.