THIS WEEK, dear reader, I’ll admit I was in a bit of a bind. As I’ve told you many times, inspiration either flows like a tap or dribbles like a leaky radiator. This week has been one of those leaky radiator weeks, unfortunately.
Activity on our new project is progressing almost exponentially (more news on that very, very soon, I promise!) and this has involved plenty of masonry dust, paint splodges, countless phone calls, car journeys (an especially long one to a tea tasting in Kent, and back to Huddersfield in the same day!) and general whizzing around for all of us.
Plus, it was my wife Tracy’s birthday on Friday, so all in all it was a busy old week, and I had very little time to even think about what we should cook this week.
And when I finally sat down at the computer to think of something, my mind went blank. I could literally think of nothing to write about.
Then, out of the blue, Tracy mentioned that she was thinking of cooking Greek this week (we’ve both been thinking of all sorts of Hellenic dishes since I made that delicious custardy bougatsa a few weeks ago) and that I’d mentioned I rather like the famous crispy, squishy cheese and spinach pie, spanakopita. Bingo!
The recipe was sorted. I had my subject for the week, and a delicious crunchy pie as a bonus!
So, this week, it’s a return to the crunchy delights of filo pastry.
Filo, along with its Austro-Hungarian cousin, strudel, is an incredibly difficult pastry to make.
I’ve made it only a couple of times, back at catering school, and I’m in no hurry to try again.
The basic dough is easy enough to knock up, but it’s the process of rolling and stretching that takes almost superhuman patience and effort.
True filo and strudel pastry should technically be so thin that you could read a newspaper through it.
It is said that the great patissiers used to test their students this way; now that’s harsh!
It’s one of the rare occurrences when I’m more than happy to recommend you use the machine-made, shop-bought version.
It works brilliantly, and you won’t end up throwing cups in the sink and running out into the street in floods of tears.
It’s a very versatile pastry, providing a satisfyingly loud crunch in all manner of pastries and tarts.
The texture and flavour is extremely rewarding, crunchy, buttery and comforting.
From something very basic like a thick cheese béchamel, folded samosa-like into triangles of filo and baked until meltingly hot, to fancy supper dishes like ‘spring rolls’ of sweet pumpkin and pistachios, there’s plenty of ideas for using this amazing product.
Try layering several sheets together with melted butter in muffin cases and filling them with sweet slow-roasted onions, olives and goat’s cheese for a super-crunchy tartlet, perfect with a little salad and a tart raspberry vinaigrette.
Perhaps a rich roasted tomato sauce with some tiger prawns?
Have fun playing with a few ideas.
So let’s get cracking on this nice easy little recipe, shall we? Aprons on!
225g filo pastry
500g fresh spinach, washed and chopped finely
200ml extra-virgin olive oil
2 large white onions, finely diced
1 bunch spring onions, trimmed and chopped finely
120g feta cheese, crumbled
120g ricotta cheese, crumbled (cottage cheese at a pinch)
2 fresh free-range eggs, beaten
Handful of fresh dill, chopped
Handful of fresh parsley, chopped
Grating of fresh nutmeg
8” Deep tart case or pie dish, pastry brush
Melted butter and olive oil for brushing
First, let’s make the filling. Heat the 200ml of olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan and gently fry the white onion until it’s soft and translucent.
Add the spring onions, and gently sauté for a few minutes.
Add the spinach, parsley and dill and cook gently until the spinach is wilted but still vibrantly green, and the moisture has all gone.
Add a good grating of fresh nutmeg, and season to taste, bearing in mind the feta cheese is often very salty.
Remove from the heat and cool completely.
In a bowl, mix the crumbled feta, the ricotta and eggs, and add the spinach. Mix well, check the seasoning, and leave in a cool place as you prepare the pastry.
Unwrap your filo pastry, and cut the long sheets in half, so you have several square pieces, and keep it beneath a damp tea-towel (if you unwrap it too soon it will dry out and become unusable.)
Mix the melted butter and olive oil and keep warm.
Brush the tart case liberally and layer about 10 sheets evenly around the base, brushing each one with plenty of butter and oil.
Tip in the spinach mixture and smooth it out with a spatula or spoon.
Repeat the filo process again, layering about 10 sheets of filo with plenty of butter and oil.
Heat the oven to 190°C / Gas 5. Score a few of the upper layers of the spanakopita with a sharp knife to ease slicing.
This works well if you pop the pie into the freezer for 10 minutes.
Then bake for about 20-25 minutes, until golden and crunchy.
Slice carefully and serve in wedges with perhaps a tomato-cucumber salad and a glass of something dry, white and crisp. Yiamas!