Spinach, Feta and Filo Pie – Variations on a Theme

This pie was made and photographed by my friend Vraja. This recipe attempts to recreate something as elegant.

A feta and spinach pie made with filo (or phyllo) pastry is called spanakopita but this recipe is a variation on a theme; ideas of things you can put into a nice spiral shaped pastry. I haven’t deliberately made this recipe look complicated. I wanted to provide a few different ways of making it, to suit you, how much time you have available and the ingredients you have.

Pastry

Let’s start with the pastry. I have never made filo pastry as I believe it is fiendishly hard to make (and I work full time.) I buy it but it is very fiddly to handle and it doesn’t keep terribly well once opened due to its tendency to dry out and start flaking. I don’t think I’ve ever used a whole packet at once – make sure you wrap it up really well in clingfilm if you’re going to keep it in the fridge. You can of course freeze the rest, or make several things with it, to either eat or freeze.

My preferred pastry for this is spring roll pastry. It may not win me any prizes for authenticity but it’s thin, robust and easy to handle. It is a bit of a faff unpicking the individual sheets and laying them out but I’ve found it much easier to work with than both filo and Turkish pastry sheets.

Filling and shape

This can be baked as a pie in a dish with a layer of cheese and spinach sandwiched between brushed sheets of pastry. Ottolenghi suggest five layers of filo above and below the layer of cheese and spinach; each one brushed with butter. Jamie Oliver wraps the filling up in the sheets of pastry, so it’s closer in appearance to a galette. His filling is more liquid than mine and he does it in a frying pan – as my filling is drier, you can follow this technique by heaping it into the middle of buttered sheets of filo and assembling it on the flat, rather than in a pan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8R7CEmveSeM

I remembering seeing a Sabrina Ghayour recipe for a coiled savoury Moroccan m’hanncha or m’hencha. This means snake and it is traditionally filled with a sweet almond paste, laced with rose water and lemon zest. It is made with a sort of pastry called warqa or brik but spring roll/filo/Turkish pastry can be used instead. In their book Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi included a recipe for a sweet mutabbaq; sweetened ricotta flavoured with orange blossom baked between layers of buttered filo, which I have been known to make in a coiled spiral shape. ( I used to work very near a Turkish shop which sold big frozen coiled spanakopita.)

Ottolenghi makes his pie with lots of fresh herbs – dill, mint and parsley, which I really liked the flavour of. He uses chard and rocket and mixture of ricotta, cheddar and feta. You could use a mixture of greens – it’s terribly fashionable and indeed practical to use cauliflower leaves and beetroot leaves. I’ve even been known to use sad, wilted bagged salad greens in place of spinach.

I’ve also tinkered with the filling, in my mission to use things up in the cupboard and fridge. (I have been known to make it with leftover homemade paneer, which I made to use up some milk that was past its sell-by date.) This pie can very easily be made vegan; Violife does a great vegan feta or you could make it with crumbled firm tofu, salting it accordingly. Roasted butternut squash, sweet potato, spinach, sundried tomatoes, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and olives in various combinations could all be very nice. (You could either roast small cubes of root veg or roast bigger pieces, then mash them up a bit.)

Assembly and presentation

If using frozen pastry, leave it in the fridge for at least 24 hours before you need it. I used twenty sheets of spring roll pastry but would advise using all thirty that come in the packet to create a more elegant pie. My friend added a second coil of pastry to make the pie look as she wanted it to. You could do this or lay out more filo pastry, perhaps running along the length of your table/work surface rather than the width. I used two layers of pastry, buttering the sheets before adding another layer of sheets and buttering them.

Ingredients

2 blocks of feta

Half a bag of frozen spinach (250g) or 300g fresh spinach or other greens

Dill, mint and parsley – use what you have, fresh or dried.

1 packet of filo pastry/Turkish pastry/spring roll wrappers

100g butter

a tablespoon of sesame seeds

  1. Defrost the spinach and wrap it up in a tea towel or muslin cloth and squeeze to get rid of the water. (I usually keep the water to use in soup or dal.) If you would like to use fresh spinach, wilt it first by steaming before squeezing out any excess liquid.
  2. Put the spinach in a big bowl. Crumble the feta up into the bowl and add a tablespoon total of the herbs you’re using and a twist of black pepper. Cover the filling with a tea towel while you prepare the pastry. If using frozen pastry, give it at least 24 hours to defrost in the fridge.
  3. Lay the pastry out along the length, rather than width of your table or work surface. Melt the butter and brush the first layer of pastry, using a pastry brush. Add the second layer on top and brush with butter.
I’d aim to use half as much filo as this again, laying it out along the length.
  1. Lay the filling out along the bottom edge of the pastry, two inches up from the bottom and an inch in on the left hand side. Spreading the filling out over a larger space will allow you to create a more elegant pie with a greater number of thinner coils. When you get to the other side, leave two or three inches of free pastry. This is to make a neat end to tuck in and under when coiling the pie up.
Make sure to leave more of a gap on the right hand side.
  1. Roll the bottom of the pastry over the filling and keep rolling until you have a very long sausage.
  1. Put the left hand end onto a round greased baking tray and coil the filled pastry up to create a neat spiral. Tuck the loose end of pastry under the body the outer coil to neatly finish it off.
Spreading the filling out over a greater length of pastry will give a neater pie.
  1. Brush with more butter, sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake for 30 minutes at 180C. Check it after 20 minutes and rotate if needed. Give it a bit longer in the oven if needed – the pastry should be nicely browned. Rather than baking it immediately, I sometimes make it earlier in the day and have it ready to pop in the oven once my guests arrive. It keeps well in fridge overnight.