What is Spanakopita ?
Spanakopita is a beloved Greek dish with a rich history spanning centuries. The name translates to spinach pie or spinach filled pastry. It is made from phyllo dough filled with a tantalizing blend of spinach and feta cheese.
The Origins of Spanakopita Spanakopita has its origins in ancient Greece, where wild greens like spinach grew abundantly. There is evidence from Greek writings that spinach was prepared in pastries as early as the 1st century BC. The ancient Greeks valued spinach for its nourishing nature and considered it a symbol of virtue. The earliest known recipes combined spinach with cheese and herbs in a rudimentary phyllo dough.
Over the centuries, the dish evolved across the Mediterranean and Middle East, with filo dough becoming the standard wrapping. As Greek and Turkish cuisine overlapped under the Ottoman Empire, chopped spinach and feta fillings became more prevalent. When Greeks migrated in the 20th century, they brought spanakopita to North America and Australia. Its popularity soared in the 1960s as Greek cuisine became trendy. Spanakopita is now globally enjoyed at Greek restaurants and by home cooks.
The Meaning and Symbolism of Spanakopita In Greek culture, spanakopita is more than just a delicious appetizer or main course. It holds a symbolic meaning related to the spinach inside. Spinach was associated with strength, vitality, and virtue in ancient Greece. The Greeks dedicated spinach to the gods as a symbol of the valor needed in battle and athletic competitions. The roots of the word spanaki (spinach) also connect it to vital bodily fluids.
Eating spanakopita was thought to transfer the essence and energy of the spinach to whoever consumed it. It was often served to Olympic athletes and soldiers before competitions and battles. The Greeks also saw spinach as a hardy and resilient plant that could grow in poor soil conditions. Consuming spanakopita was meant to pass on the resilience of spinach to the eater. Even today, Greeks may refer to spanakopita as a dish that provides strength and renewal.
The Ritual of Preparing Spanakopita For Greeks, making spanakopita is a beloved communal tradition tied to their cultural identity. It is commonly prepared by groups of women working together. The process of layering the phyllo and filling each parcel is ideally a social affair paired with conversation and music. Friends and relatives may gather in the kitchen to lend a hand around the table. Preparing spanakopita together helps celebrate bonds and pass on traditions. It is also associated with Easter and other religious holidays when Greek families come together.
The Vibrant Flavors of Spanakopita That first crisp, flaky bite of spanakopita is an explosion of tastes and textures. The phyllo provides a delicate crunch that gives way to the savory filling. The spinach offers an earthy, vegetal base while the onions and garlic lend sweet and pungent notes. Bright parsley and dill punctuate each bite. The tangy feta pulls the flavors together in perfect balance. Laced throughout is the fruity pepperiness of Greek olive oil. Each component builds on the others for a symphony of Mediterranean flavors in one singular dish.
Serving and Eating Spanakopita.
- As an appetizer for Greek-style meze along with tzatziki, olives, dolmas, and other small dishes
- Cut into wedges for easy finger food at parties or gatherings
- Served alongside Greek salads with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and feta
- As a light lunch or dinner entrée, along with soup or salad
- For a hearty breakfast or brunch either warm or at room temperature
- As a vegetarian main course or for meatless meals
- Baked into a large pie and sliced into squares for potlucks or gatherings
- Enjoy it on picnics or as part of an al fresco Greek meal
- Paired with a crisp white wine, sparkling rosé, or Greek beer
Spanakopita can be served warm straight from the oven, at room temperature, or chilled from the fridge. The phyllo retains its signature crunchiness when stored properly. Leftover spanakopita also holds up very well. The advisable storage time is 3-5 days refrigerated or 2-3 months frozen. Reheat refrigerated spanakopita in a 350°F oven until warmed through before serving.
The Global Popularity of Spanakopita Since Greeks brought this dish to America, Australia, and beyond, spanakopita has become a beloved staple around the world. Its popularity has expanded far beyond Greek communities. You can find it in mainstream grocery stores, restaurants, and cafes. Frozen spanakopita is readily available. Many chefs and home cooks now include it in their repertoire as an appetizer or vegetarian dish.
The rising popularity of Greek yogurt in recent years has also brought more exposure to Greek cuisine in general, including spanakopita. People have a growing appreciation for the Mediterranean Diet. Spanakopita fits into many dietary lifestyles as it is vegetarian, high in nutrients, and lower in carbs than many other pastries. It also appeals to cheese lovers! The global spanakopita craze only continues to grow.
Cultural Significance of Spanakopita Within Greek culture, spanakopita is more than just an appetizing food. It holds a deeper meaning tied to Greek identity and traditions. Spanakopita is featured at Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations when families come together. The communal ritual of making spanakopita is a way of celebrating community and passing on food traditions to the next generation. Greeks take pride in making spanakopita with homemade phyllo and filling. Serving spanakopita to guests is also an act of hospitality and generosity. The offering of spanakopita represents the warmth and spirit of the Greek household.
Cooking spanakopita connects Greeks to their heritage through food and cooking methods that have spanned millennia but are still part of modern traditions. Its symbolic ties to strength and virtue continue today. Spanakopita represents the coming together of family to celebrate life’s special moments and honor their cultural roots. For the Greek diaspora around the world, making spanakopita is a nostalgic way to keep their history alive across oceans and generations. Spanakopita is the quintessential food of home for any Greek family.
The Many Variations on Spanakopita A hallmark of spanakopita is how adaptable it is to different culinary preferences and dietary needs.
- Adding leeks, scallions, chives
- Using a blend of spinach and kale or chard
- Mixing spinach and feta with ricotta or cottage cheese
- Using nutmeg, cinnamon, or lemon zest for added flavor
- Adding chopped walnuts or pine nuts for crunch
- Using herbs like dill, parsley, mint, oregano, basil
- Adding ground lamb or beef for a heartier pie
- Whole wheat or flour alternatives
- Phyllo brushed with butter instead of olive oil
- Adding nuts like walnuts or almonds to the phyllo
- Mixing phyllo sheets with puff pastry
Shaping and baking:
- Making individual hand pies or mini spanakopitas
- Braiding into a wreath shape
- Coiling into a snail shape
- Assembling in a sheet pan and cutting into squares
- Using low fat feta and low fat milk for a lighter version
- Making it fully vegan without eggs and feta cheese
- Adding protein like chickpeas or lentils for vegetarian/vegan diets
- Serving smaller sizes for low carb/keto diets
The flexibility of spanakopita makes it the perfect dish to modify for various nutritional needs and personal preferences. The core flavors still shine through in endless shaping and filling possibilities. Experiment and have fun with putting your own unique twist on spanakopita while still celebrating Greek culinary culture.
The Timeless Appeal of Spanakopita
For centuries, spanakopita has been a staple of Greek cuisine, culture, and family traditions. There are many reasons why it has remained so beloved over generations and geographical distances:
- An ingenious combination of flavors and textures – The crispy, flaky phyllo with the sweet, earthy spinach filling simply entices the palate.
- Satisfyingly savory yet approachable – It appeals to many tastes from vegetarians to meat lovers.
- Nutritious ingredients – Spinach and feta provide a healthy dose of nutrients and plant compounds.
- Versatile and customizable – Easy to modify for dietary needs, add other ingredients, and experiment with shapes.
- Appetizing aroma – The scent of phyllo and spinach baking is irresistible.
- Texture holds up over time – It retains its signature crunch for days unlike many pastries.
- Transportable and shareable – Triangles or slices are perfect for potlucks and parties.
- Comforting flavor profile – Evokes the warmth of Mediterranean culture and hospitality.
- Strong cultural connection – Centuries old traditions tie it closely to Greek identity.
- Brings people together – The communal ritual of making it strengthens social bonds.
For all these reasons and more, spanakopita has earned a cherished place at Greek dinner tables and beyond. Its timeless appeal shows no sign of waning. If anything, spanakopita is more popular globally now than ever before. This flavorful pastry encases the very essence of Greek cuisine within its crisp, flaky layers. Spanakopita has truly proven itself to be a centuries-spanning culinary icon.
The Signature Ingredients in Spanakopita Spanakopita achieves its unique flavor and texture from the creative combination of phyllo dough, spinach, onion, garlic, herbs, eggs, cheese, and olive oil.
Phyllo Dough Also called filo, phyllo is the delicate, tissue-paper thin pastry dough that provides the base of spanakopita. It is made from flour, water, and a touch of oil or vinegar. When layered and baked, the sheets become crispy and flaky. Phyllo likely originated from rough Arabic paper-bread but became refined by the Greeks. It can now be found freshly made or frozen in Greek bakeries and supermarkets worldwide.
Spinach Fresh spinach is the essential filling that lends its name to the dish. Spanakopita is made with chopped savoy spinach or sometimes silverbeet. Both provide an earthy, vegetal flavor. Using frozen spinach is also common as it is easier to drain off excess moisture that could make the filling watery. Spinach is a nutritional powerhouse, packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds that provide numerous health benefits.
Onions and Garlic Sautéed onions and garlic provide a savory, aromatic backbone to the filling. Onions become sweet and caramelized while garlic offers pungent bite. They balance the spinach and provide depth of flavor.
Herbs Parsley and dill are the most commonly used fresh herbs. Their bright, grassy notes punctuate the other ingredients. Mint, chives, or scallions may also be added. Dried herbs can be substituted but won’t provide quite the same vibrancy.
Feta Cheese Crumbled feta cheese adds a tangy, salty creaminess while also binding the ingredients together. Traditional Greek feta is made from sheep or goat’s milk. Cow’s milk feta or other brined white cheeses can be substituted. The creamy texture and assertive flavor of feta is a defining spanakopita ingredient.
Eggs Eggs help set the filling when spanakopita is baked, providing structure and richness.
Olive Oil Olive oil is essential for brushing the phyllo sheets to keep them moist and prevent drying out. The flavor of extra-virgin olive oil also infuses into the dough. Olive oil is a staple of Greek cuisine and culture.
Other Possible Spanakopita Ingredients There are many variations on fillings. Some additions include leeks, shallots, scallions, chives, cottage cheese, ricotta, nutmeg, cinnamon, lemon zest, and ground lamb or beef. The cheeses, herbs, and sautéed aromatics can be adjusted to suit preferences.
The Different Types of Spanakopita Spanakopita comes in several forms, from appetizer size to large platters.
Tiropita Tiropita, meaning cheese pie, is made without spinach and contains only feta cheese in the filling. It can be formed into triangles or rounds.
Spanakotyropita A hybrid version with both spinach and cheese in the filling. It may contain onions and herbs as well.
Triangular Pies Individual triangular hand pies are the most iconic shape. Each triangle is like a single serving. The triangles are often served as a meze appetizer.
Braided Spanakopita Long sheets of phyllo are layered with filling and braided into a round, wreath-like shape before baking. Sliced wedges reveal the lovely braided pattern.
Spiral Spanakopita Also known as snail or coiled spanakopita, this impressive form stacks phyllo around a filling in a circular pan. When sliced, a beautiful spiral is revealed.
Sheet Pan Spanakopita Sometimes the phyllo and filling are layered in a sheet pan then cut into squares post-baking. This is easier for larger crowds.
Mini Spanakopitas Smaller versions are made with phyllo cut into smaller pieces and less filling per parcel. These bite-size spanakopita are perfect party food.
How to Make Classic Spanakopita Making homemade spanakopita requires some time and effort but is very rewarding. Withpractice, you can learn to layer the phyllo dough into beautiful parcels.
- Cook the filling first by wilting the spinach, caramelizing the onions and garlic, mixing in herbs, cheese, and eggs, and seasoning it. Allow to cool before assembling.
- Thaw frozen phyllo overnight in the fridge if needed. Keep covered with a damp towel when working to prevent drying.
Layering the Phyllo:
- Brush each sheet thoroughly with olive oil. Work quickly to keep phyllo from drying out. Use 5-8 sheets per parcel.
Filling and Folding:
- Place filling towards bottom of stacked phyllo sheets. Fold sides over filling, then roll up from bottom into a triangular parcel.
- Bake at 350F for 40-50 minutes until phyllo is crispy and golden brown. Allow to cool for the best texture.
Serving and Storing:
- Serve spanakopita warm, at room temperature, or chilled. Store leftovers in the fridge for up to 5 days. Frozen for 2-3 months.
Tips for Making Perfect Spanakopita
- Be sure to squeeze out as much moisture from the spinach as possible so the filling isn’t soggy.
- Allow the filling to cool completely before assembling or it will melt the phyllo.
- Work quickly while layering phyllo and keep it covered with a damp towel to prevent drying.
- Brush each sheet thoroughly with olive oil so the phyllo bakes up flaky.
- Don’t overfill the parcels or they may burst open while baking.
- Bake until phyllo is crisp and golden brown for that signature texture.
- Let baked spanakopita cool for at least 10 minutes before serving if possible.
- When reheating, bake spanakopita in a 350F oven until warmed through to maintain that crispness.
Here is a recipe for making Spanakopita (Greek spinach pie):
- 1 lb frozen spinach, thawed and drained
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
- 1/2 cup dill, chopped
- 1 lb feta cheese, crumbled
- 1 package phyllo dough, thawed if frozen
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Squeeze as much liquid out of the thawed spinach as possible. Chop spinach finely and place in a bowl.
- Add the chopped onion, garlic, parsley, dill and feta cheese to the spinach. Season with salt and pepper and mix well.
- Unroll the phyllo dough and cut the sheets in half to fit your baking dish. Cover with a damp cloth to prevent drying out.
- Brush the bottom and sides of a 9×13 inch baking dish with olive oil. Lay 1 sheet of phyllo in the dish and brush with olive oil. Repeat with 4 more sheets, brushing each with olive oil.
- Spread half the spinach mixture evenly over the phyllo. Top with 4 more phyllo sheets, brushing each with olive oil.
- Spread the remaining spinach mixture and top with the last 5 phyllo sheets, brushing each with olive oil.
- Tuck excess phyllo tightly under filling and brush top with remaining olive oil. Score top few layers with a sharp knife.
- Bake at 375°F for 40-50 minutes until golden brown. Let cool for 10 minutes before cutting into squares.
Serve warm or at room temperature. Can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. Enjoy!