Spanakopita & Tiropita
Written by Calliope Pappadakis   
Monday, 23 November 2009 21:42

One is spinach + cheese and the other is cheese. They are both fantabulous, oozing with butter and they are two of my favorite things to make and eat. They are Greek finger foods, small triangles of crispy bliss. A bit labor intensive, but totally worth it.

Cheese and Spinach Pies - Done!

There are so many variations of this recipe, but I like my paternal Greek grandmother's (Ya-Ya Angeline Merambeliotakis) the very best.  I have a cousin in Alaska who uses cheddar cheese in hers, I've tasted Turkish recipes with pinenuts and currants, and I've had them with a lot of spinach, and very little cheese at all. The Cheese and Spinach Pies passed down to me from my Cretan grandmother are cheesy, flaky, buttery and un-be-lieve-able! How I got the recipe was through my Mom (of French New Orleans descent), who learned Greek cuisine by spending time in the kitchen with Ya-Ya. My mom tends to have a French flair to her cooking, so if these pies bring up thoughts of Julia Childs or a Parisian Cafe on a lazy June afternoon, you'll know why.

I admit, I've changed one thing to this old recipe, but only because it makes it easier to make both the cheese and the spinach pies in one session while eliminating a big step. I'll explain that in a minute.

Oh, by the way, just so I've made this clear from the get: the pies are to be frozen and not refrigerated prior to baking. They are to always remain in the freezer if they are not in your oven or on your plate. Yet another reason why these love puffs are worth all the time and energy to make - you can pull them out two months later and impress the pants right off your dinner guests. They are perfect for the holidays or special occasions because they can be made in advance and kept in your freezer.

There are several memorable occasions where I made these pies and a celebration ensued...

In my freshman year of college I was asked to make a Greek meal as part of a monthly celebration of food and culture at the Student International House. My friend Carinne (she's Italian and Scottish and loves to play in the kitchen with me) and I busted out enough food for 50 people on a very small budget. We made Greek salad, rice pilaf, Keftedes (Greek meatballs fried in a skillet) and both kinds of pies. I didn't have a whole lot of cooking experience at 19 years old, but we were successful and the food was a hit (although I do remember something about chopping cloves of raw garlic and adding them to the Greek salad. One student in attendance asked, "What are these? Spicy Greek nuts?" Note to self: salads don't really need chunks of raw garlic). For this particular event, having made enough to cater a wedding when I was 18, I had some frame of reference that I could tap into. At the end of my senior year of high school, my mom catered my sister's wedding, and I helped: I made over 800 little triangle pies, so I remembered that part of the creation. From my dorm room the night before the Greek meal, I called my mom and jotted down her list of ingredients over the phone on a torn piece of a flyer in red ink. I still have it and just pulled it out last week to check my memory against the original. It was pretty close. I had forgotten the parsley, probably intentionally since I didn't have spare money to get fancy with parsley back then. I didn't write down the ingredients for the cheese pies, but kept it in my memory. Another pie-related story happened in 1998 during a semester-long Wilderness Abroad program in Lincoln, Oregon. I made them for a friend's birthday dinner in the tiny kitchen of our rural bunkhouse while it snowed. She loved them so much, the other students nicknamed her "Tiro" (after the cheese pies) which sounded more like "Tito" and it stuck the whole semester. In fact, I think I recently heard an old friend reference her in a story as "Tito".

Another time, I was standing in the Earthy Cowboy's kitchen in Marysville when we had first started dating and I proceeded to unroll and prepare the phyllo dough behind him while he worked on his computer. I hadn't bothered to tell him what I was going to make him. I loved his surprised looked and smile when he turned around to see what I was up to. I think he was impressed. He loves them as much now as he did then.

So, without further ado, here's the recipe, the instructions and other sorts of squawk-doggin' ...

Tools you'll need:

  • 1 pastry brush
  • Wax or Parchment Paper
  • Mixing Bowls
  • An electric mixer to combine the ingredients evenly, or a strong arm and good wooden spoon
  • A microwave safe bowl or small pan for the stovetop to melt the butter
  • A glass of wine for yourself
  • Some relaxing music
  • Large freezer proof storage containers with lids. I've used everything from a dozen small tupperware containers to cookie sheets that I seal with foil and plastic wrap. Whatever you have. I do not recommend wrapping them in foil and placing them on the fire escape off the side of the apartment building, even if temps are sub-zero: the squirrels will have a hey-day. Trust me on this one. These pies freeze very well and last a while in the freezer. They are perfect to keep around in case you need to impress a last minute dinner guest. They won't let you down. I once accidentally left pies in the freezer for 4 months (sometimes I forget exactly what the contents of my freezer are) and pulled them out, baked them and they were nearly as delicious as they had been the day I made them.

Here's the Tiropites Recipe

  • 1 container of Kraft grated Parmesan. *Okay, so I've changed two things. I don't use this. I grate my own fresh parmesan. I would guess that I use about 1/2 cup, but really I just dump it in and taste it. You don't want too much so that the other cheese flavors come through and it isn't overly salty. This goes for the feta, too. I use to use equal parts cheese, but I've since changed my ways. This is ultimately up to you. I like the creaminess of ricotta and want that to shine with a hint of bite in the background. Others prefer a sharp salty bite from parm and feta. This recipe is totally flexible.
  • 1 block of feta *You've probably seen the blocks you can get at the grocery store. I think it's about 8 oz. You can also use the crumbled feta. I don't usually use the whole block since feta is really salty and I like to taste the other cheese at play (see below). If you are making Spinach+Cheese and Cheese pies all in one sitting, I betcha an 8oz block would be ok for the entire recipe. It's pretty strong.
  • 1 8oz container of whole milk Ricotta Cheese *not Ricotta Salata* (still searching for Ricotta in a #1 or #2 plastic so I can recycle it)
  • 1 8oz package of cream cheese (light or regular)
  • 1 box of phyllo dough *Since most of us do not know how to make homemade phyllo dough and don't have the time to do it if we knew how, we'll stick to the factory made stuff. Don't be afraid. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be making origami with it. If you get a decent brand, it's mostly easy to work with. You just have to take control and let it know whose boss. My mother always warned against Pepperidge Farm Phyllo Dough, she said it crumbled and didn't hold up, so she recommended Athens brand. They've improved over the years and I buy PF if the grocer is out of Athens. I have recently and with great joy discovered a Phyllo Dough that blows all the other guys out of the water. It is the most supple and easy-to-work-with dough when raw, and when baked, it is smooth, crispy and light. While you are making your pies, it doesn't stick to the other sheets, it doesn't crack and this means you can work faster. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce xxx. (Oh rats, I forgot the name...) Plan B is Athenos Brand. Please note: purchase the phyllo dough at least 24 hours before you plan to make the pies. It is sold frozen and needs to sit in your fridge to thaw for one day. Don't attempt to defrost it in the microwave or on your counter. The pile of thin layers will become a sticky blob. This site has some good suggestions: http://www.theperfectpantry.com/2007/07/phyllo-dough.html
  • 2 sticks of unsalted butter *My mom swears by unsalted, but I've recently come across food bloggers who never use unsalted with the exception of one or two sweet recipes. I have started to use salted more. This is up to you. You may find that with all this sharp cheese, who needs more salt?!
  • 1-2 eggs
Thoroughly combine the 4 cheeses and eggs; see below for instructions and photos on folding the beautiful triangles.

Here's what my notes say for the Spinach Pies:

Spanakopita Recipe

  • 2 boxes of thawed, squeezed spinach. *My mom didn't tell me the ounces, but back then they only sold it in one size. I think it's 10 oz. Now I use only fresh and organic spinach, and usually grown by yours truly in the high tunnel. I wilt it using no salt, olive oil or water. When it's cooked, let it cool, and squeeze all the water out of it. Please note: 1 lb fresh is about 5 ounces frozen. That means you'll need 4 pounds of fresh spinach! I'm going to double check this.
  • 1/2 bunch green onions ("scallions"), chopped small
  • 1/2 small container of ricotta or cottage cheese. *I always use the former, but both are fine.
  • 1/4 cup of quality parmesan (you can use the Kraft shredded in the green plastic canister if you're trying to save some dough, but for ultimate flavor, shred your own Italian Parmigiano Reggiano).
  • 1/2 cup of feta (8 oz from the block or the crumbled. Same as the parmesan, the more quality cheese, the better the flavor, but the cheap stuff doesn't taste half bad and works just as well).
  • salt and (freshly ground, if available) pepper
  • 2-3 eggs for creamy consistency
  • olive oil (just a swirl or 2 and optional at that. I made these pies for years forgetting about the aforementioned recipe on the torn flyer, so I left out the olive oil swirl, and the pies were still delish.)
  • parsley (optional, but fresh parsley is divine.)
  • 1 box of phyllo dough

So at this point, if you've scanned both lists of ingredients, you will have noticed that with the exception of spinach and onions and cream cheese, they are almost identical. Here's where I put my noggin to work and cut out some of the extra mixing. Ready? ...I simply double the Tiropita Recipe. You know what I'm going to say next don't you? I put a little more than half of the Tiropita mix in a mixing bowl and set it aside. In the other bowl with less than half the cheese mix, I add my cooked and squeezed spinach (squeeze again - watery pies are the worst!), my green onions and maybe an extra egg and bada bing! I have my mix for both kinds of pie! So there's my big change. Instead of following 2 recipes, follow the first, divide, add the green stuff to one, and then begin folding. Easy-peasy. Flavor-wise, you can't go wrong. The only difference is that the spinach pies now have cream cheese. No one will complain about this, and if they do, they are on dish duty. You may add salt and pepper (just a little) to the spinach pies, but leave those cheese pies alone. Trust me, they are perfect as-is. The trick is figuring out exactly how much less than half of the cheese pie filling. I never get it exactly right, so I may have 5 more cheese or 8 more spinach. No one will complain about that either. They'll gobble them down and beg for more. That, I can guarantee.

Once I make these again, I'll take pics of the folding process. It's really easy and pretty close to how kids fold paper "footballs" or my high school boyfriend folded love notes to pass to me in between classes.

November 2012. I made them again! Here's folding instructions through pictures. Be sure you have a nice size counter space to work on:

1. Melt your butter. Melt 2 sticks at a time; that way, if you're new to the process, and take a little longer, you don't risk the fat and liquid separating while you work. This isn't a big deal, but it's nice if you can avoid it.

Butter

2. You do have to work fairly quickly because phyllo dries out fairly quickly, but you can keep a lightly damp towel over it to prevent this. Caution: too damp of a towel turns the dough to mush. If you are accustomed to working with phyllo dough, make 2 pies side by side; otherwise, start with one at a time. If you want to get really wild and have the counter space, try three.

Spana 12

Lie the sheet(s) on the counter facing you vertically. Brush with butter. If you add too much butter and it's getting gummy, just skip butter at the next fold.

Spana 1

2. Then fold top to bottom, and brush with more butter.

Spana 2

3. Fold top halfway down to the middle and the bottom halfway up to the middle. Brush with butter.

Spana 3Spana 4

And then turn like so. Now it's vertical again.

Spana 5

4. Have your cheese or spinach/cheese mixture ready and here's where it comes into play... place a heaping teaspoon of the mixture on the bottom left of your rectangle. You may keep a little towel handy so in between you have something to wipe your messy fingers on.

Spana 6

Spana 7

5. Then start yer foldin'! Admittedly, these pictures do not represent my best folding skills; however, as you can see from the final pics below, they turned out great. So don't be too hard on yourself if they are "imperfect".

Spana 7

My best advice is pinch as you go. Make sure the edges are sort of pressed together before rolling/folding further along. The more seals you create on the way to the final triangle means a better sealed pocket of hot cheese. Bring on the jiggle. One time I folded them in a hurry and when they were done baking I had a pan full of hot cheese and empty triangles. That was a sad day.

Spana 9

Not sure why there is gold fairy dust in this pic. Sometimes magical things happen in the kitchen.

Spana 10

Making a triangle out of a rectangle.

Spana 11

Almost done! Last fold!

Final Fold Spana

Done! Now repeat 79 times. There are approximately 80 sheets per box, 40 in each plastic rolled tube of plastic. You need about 1 box each (80 sheets) for cheese and spinach. So this recipe should make 160ish. Guests are not ashamed to eat 6 or more of these.

6. When you're done folding your pies, pack them onto cookie sheets, into tupperware, or sealable/freezer-proof boxes. If you plan on baking them the next day, use a cookie sheet and make room for it in your freezer; cover with foil. When it's time to bake them, they're ready to go. I wouldn't recommend this for longterm freezing. A cookie sheet is spatially awkward in a standard-size freezer.

Spana on a pan

Frozen Pies

Freeze them in an airtight container and when you are ready to bake them, preheat the oven to 375-400 F (both work and everyone's ovens cook differently; I prefer 375 especially if you use frozen spinach (which should NOT be frozen when you make your mixture; rather, it should be thawed and triple-squeezed. 375 cooks slower and thus combines the flavor of the ingredients better, I think.) Place them on a baking sheet -not touching- and brush the tops with an egg wash (optional). Bake for 15-20-25 minutes until crispy, golden brown. I cooked them in a convection toaster oven and the temperature and time is about the same, maybe even a little quicker. This also may be the reason why if you imagined this as a full size oven, the pies below looked enormous.

Here they are at about 1/2 way and 3/4's of the way done.

1/2 way done pies3/4 of the way done pies

 

Spinach and Cheese Pies - Done!

And here they are done. When they are golden and dripping with butter, they are done. Let them cool for a few minutes otherwise you'll scald the roof of your mouth. They are really hot.

 

Then, share them with your loved ones and anyone who needs a reminder of 2 good things in the world: labors of love and deliciousness.

Spana Final

These handhelds go swell with rice pilaf, my favorite salad (I sub Brie for Blue), and...

Salad and Rice with Spana

Osso Bucco from Blue Rooster Farm.

Osso Bucco

Cheers and happy pie-making, friends,

TFM