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For her book, Heirloom Kitchen, Anna Gass traveled the country to cook with women who immigrated to America. Her goal was to learn and transcribe their "secret recipes"—you know, the family recipes kept only in your head and not on paper. The book also tells the inspiring stories behind these women and their journey to America. Anna learned how to make this wonderful spanakopita from a woman who immigrated to the U.S. named Nelly Cheliotis (She adds cottage cheese to the traditional feta in the filling, which gives it amazing creaminess.) Nelly loves eating it in the afternoon with a nice glass of wine.
"This is the recipe for the spanakopita you can order at any good Greek diner. It's not what you would find in Greece, but it shows how the American influence changed the original dish to something we have grown to love here in the States. I call this recipe 'Greek Festival' spanakopita because it's the one Nelly makes annually for her church festival." —Anna
Pro Tips from Nelly:
Clarify the butter for the dough: it is an extra step, but it is very important. It creates a beautiful shiny finish to the top layer. Otherwise, the butter will brown unevenly.
Make sure the spinach is dry. The most important step is ensuring the spinach is completely defrosted and very dry. Use cheesecloth to drain it so that you don't end up with a watery filling and a soggy final product. If your filling still looks watery after you finish mixing, add a tablespoon of uncooked rice. It will absorb the liquid during cooking, and you will never taste it!
Get creative: Throw a bunch of chicory or escarole into the mix. Chicory was her husband Tommy's favorite—he liked the way the bitterness counterbalanced the mild spinach.
For another recipe from Heirloom Kitchen, check out this Poppy Seed Cake.
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
For the filling, melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat, then cook the scallions until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool.
Thoroughly drain the spinach of all water by squeezing it in a cheesecloth. (Wet spinach will cause your spanakopita to be soggy.)
Add the spinach, dill, salt, pepper, eggs, cottage cheese, feta cheese, and olive oil to the
bowl containing the scallions. Fold the ingredients together until fully combined, being careful not to break up the feta. Set aside.
For the dough, using the melted, clarified butter, lightly butter a 10-by-15-inch baking dish or baking sheet. Remove the phyllo from the package, unfurl each piece, and lay flat. You should have around 25 to 30 sheets. As you work, cover the flattened dough sheets with a damp tea towel or moistened paper towel to prevent them from drying out.
Carefully peel off one sheet of phyllo and lay it on the bottom of the dish. Do not straighten or pull tight. With a pastry brush, generously spread clarified butter over the sheet until it is moistened. Continue laying down sheets and coating with butter until you have used half of your total phyllo dough (10 to 15 sheets).
Spread the spinach filling over the sheets of phyllo in an even layer, to the edges of the dish. Layer the remaining phyllo sheets, brushing with butter between each layer, until 3 sheets of phyllo remain. Place the final sheets on top together, tightly, to create a smooth top. Brush the top with clarified butter to finish.
Using a very sharp paring knife, score 4 even lines lengthwise down the phyllo about
½ inch deep. Then cut five even lines across horizontally, to create 30 rectangular pieces. Cut a diagonal line across each piece to create triangles. Nelly likes to cut the corner pieces in opposite directions.
Brush clarified butter into each cut. This keeps the phyllo in place while cooking. Using the paring knife, carefully tuck the borders down by running the knife around all 4 edges. Brush the borders with butter.
Bake for 1 hour, until the top is a deep golden brown. (Check after 45 minutes to assess the level of browning. If it is already dark brown, cover with foil for the last 15 minutes of cooking.) Let cool; serve at room temperature.
Excerpted from Heirloom Kitchen by Anna Francese Gass. Copyright © 2019 by Anna Francese Gass. Used with permission by Harper Design. All rights reserved.