Eastern European

Real-Deal Spanakopita, Straight from Yia Yia

March  1, 2016

The food of our grandmothers is the real “comfort food”; their dishes fill us up in a soul-satisfying way unmatched by other foods. Spanakopita is no exception.

Every Greek yia yia has her own signature version, with little tricks that make it distinct. This one comes from Kanella "Nelly" Cheliotis, a Greek woman who cooks specialties from her homeland every night for her children and grandchildren and who was generous enough to share her own recipe with me.

Nelly started cooking at the age of six, when she joined her mother in the kitchen. “There was nothing else to do in my village!" she told me. All of her recipes come from her childhood home on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece.

Spanakopita is a well-known Greek dish here in the U.S., but while you're used to seeing it in form of small triangles at catered events with passed hors d'oeuvres, Nelly explained that in Greece, it's a popular lunch dish, often prepared for visiting guests. It's also enjoyed in the afternoon with a nice glass of wine.

The traditional recipe changed a bit when Greeks started making it here in America: “Back home, we only used fresh spinach, chopped fine. We didn’t have the convenience of frozen chopped spinach we have here in the U.S. Also, back in my village, my mother and I would make our own phyllo dough to use for many of our recipes. Here, you can get it from a box!”

Her husband’s aunt, who was already here when Nelly migrated, was the one who showed her how to make the faster, updated version. Layers of flaky store-bought phyllo dough are slathered with clarified butter and used to sandwich a delicious filling of spinach mixed with feta, a Greek staple, and lots of dill. The flavors are strong and the feta is salty, so be careful with additional seasonings.

Above: Two new takes on traditional spanakopita.

Nelly also gave me a few of her secrets for a perfect spanakopita:

  • For one, she said to clarify the butter: “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.
  • Also, Nelly adds cottage cheese to the filling to create a very creamy consistency.
  • 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.
  • Another great tip I learned from Nelly is that if your filling looks watery after you finish mixing, add a tablespoon of raw rice. It will absorb the liquid during cooking and you will never taste it!
  • If you want to be creative like Nelly, throw a bunch of chicory or escarole into the mix. It was her husband Tommy’s favorite—he liked the way the bitterness of the chicory counterbalanced the sweetness of the spinach.
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43 Comments

Stephanie P. March 3, 2017
I have my great YiaYia's spanakopita recipe from Tripolis and it does not have garlic or dill. It is one of THEEEE best recipes you will ever eat.
 
Samantha V. March 3, 2017
I didn't think any Greek savory dishes were made without garlic (which causes me intense pain, nausea, shaking, and difficulty breathing), so I haven't had spanakpita in decades. But this version! I've saved it.
 
Author Comment
Anna F. April 26, 2017
Great Samantha! Hope you try it because decades without spanakopita sounds terrible, LOL. Thanks for your comment!!!
 
CHeeb September 25, 2016
Yes,Iwahl, we prep this in 8x8 foil pans to freeze for the St Peter's pantry and they work just fine. They do not last long,so I take that as an assurance that they are well received by our parishoners.
 
Author Comment
Anna F. April 26, 2017
I am so happy to hear that CHeeb!
 
lwahl September 25, 2016
Can this be frozen for later baking?
 
Author Comment
Anna F. April 26, 2017
yes it can! You can put it in the oven frozen but make sure to cook for at least 1/2 hour more. Let me know how it goes.
 
Shreya September 21, 2016
Hey Anna<br />Cottage cheese that we get here in Australia tends to be very watery; could I replace with ricotta?<br />Thank you<br />
 
Georgios T. September 21, 2016
hey shreya, from own experience yes you can but it will make it dryer, have you though of straining the cottage cheese using a kitchen towel just to remove the extra liquid ? i have a hard time getting cottage cheese in Paris too but the consistency is still better than ricotta ... if you like,you can check out my food blog where i do various versions, bye, GT : http://www.icookstuff.com/en/filo-and-feta-hand-pies/
 
Georgios T. September 21, 2016
oh yeah, 1 more thing, i only use the cottage cheese for 3 reasons, it's cheaper than feta and less salty, it adds creaminess and compensates for an overly dry feta but if you use the softer feta or water-packed in brine, then you could omit the cottage cheese ... :)
 
Author Comment
Anna F. April 26, 2017
Georgios, these are great comment and I agree that ricotta would work. Thank you for adding your Greek expert advice. Thanks again!!!!
 
Reeshiez May 13, 2016
This looks too thick. It shouldn't be that thick. I don't know why Americans love making this mistake.
 
Georgios T. May 13, 2016
hey there, perhaps you should check out my versions if you like them thinner or rounder or squarer or with various fillings ! :) www.icookstuff.com
 
CHeeb March 13, 2016
Again, a great Food 52 recipe came to the rescue for a St Peter's cooking day. We used your spinach pie recipe exactly as written,only making five smaller portions. This way five families get to enjoy your vegan Lenten dish. I know this will become a regular recipe in our rotation. It became an assembly line activity after we got the steps organized and assigned . Thank you from our ever hungry Parish ...ch
 
Author Comment
Anna F. March 15, 2016
This warms my heart! So happy you all got involved making it. Recipes from our grandmothers (or yia yias) are those we need to cherish and preserve. Thank you for doing just that! HAPPY HOLIDAY!
 
Georgios T. March 7, 2016
attagirl ... YIAYIA always knows best !!! feel free to check out my versions on www.icookstuff.com !<br />http://www.icookstuff.com/en/spanakopita/ and/or other types of greek filo pies : http://www.icookstuff.com/en/filo-and-feta-hand-pies/
 
Author Comment
Anna F. March 15, 2016
i will, and thanks!!!
 
Georgios T. March 15, 2016
your version is GREAT, my mom in Montreal does the cottage cheese/feta thing too, but it's really hard to get cottage cheese in Paris, but a little cream cheese also does wonders ! THANK-YOU :)
 
Catherine D. March 6, 2016
I love the generous amount of feta cheese in the recipe.<br />
 
Machuca March 5, 2016
I followed this recipe pretty much to the letter, but found two shortcuts that I would like to share: first, I used a salad spinner to pre-drain the defrosted spinach. It took a lot of the excess moisture. I only had to use bunched-up paper towels to really dry them off. Instead of clarifying my own butter, I purchased ghee in a jar from Trader Joe's. I hit it in the microwave for 20 seconds and proceeded as indicated, brushing the ghee on each phyllo sheet. I used a lot less than the suggested amount of clarified butter and it was a very easy substitution. My spanakopita looks and tastes great!
 
Author Comment
Anna F. March 7, 2016
Machuca, Thank you for the great ideas. I have used Trader Joes Ghee too and it does work well. I am so happy you liked how it tasted. After learning how to make it from Nelly, its a family favorite!
 
Dia March 3, 2016
My dear American friends,<br />This recipe is very good , there are other versions but we don't use butter only EXCELLENT EXTRA VIRGIN GREEK OIL, we never use cottage cheese ONLY FETA CHEESE not so many eggs 1-2 eggs, we could also use leek, fresh onions, mironia & kafkalithres(?) we find them in our vegeterian markets , sometimes greek yogurt the fat one. We spray every phylo with oil and on the last one on the top we spray of course oil but also water , we can also make the pita with two phylos or three (the one in the middle of the spanakopitta) only but not the thins one. I love cooking , any time I can be at your disposal. Kisses to all!!<br /><br />
 
demiep March 2, 2016
I am Greek an I can't say that spanakopita is less than amazing!<br />The only comment that I want to say is that the eggs are too many... 1-2 are ok... if you want may even don't apply any (I personal don't put eggs)! Also we don't use butter....only olive oil in the mix and on the phyllo dough!!!
 
Jason G. March 2, 2016
This looks and sounds AMAZING - Cant wait to make it!
 
Windischgirl March 1, 2016
That said, I have all the ingredients and think I'll make it this weekend. Yum!
 
Windischgirl March 1, 2016
This recipe looks wonderful, and I love Greek food, but I will take issue with the tags: I consider "Eastern Europe" to be the former Soviet Bloc countries (as a Slovenian married to a Ukranian, this is our heritage),.<br />I think of Greece as a Mediterranean country.<br />So I'm confused. I wonder if those of you of Greek heritage could clarify this.
 
Author Comment
Anna F. March 2, 2016
Thanks for your comment! Its funny, whether Greece is part of Eastern Europe or Western Europe seems to be a matter of debate. While most believe it is Western Europe due to its proximity (and similarity to the Mediterranean like Italy), technically, it is classified as East Europe. So, I think its a matter of opinion. Interesting! So, I think the tag is ok but somewhat confusing. Hope you try it. East or West, it's amazing!
 
gabrielle March 1, 2016
I love spanakopita and can't wait to try this. Especially legit coming from Nelly! I enjoyed reading about Nelly, her heritage and her secret tips. You're a gifted storyteller. Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Anna F. March 2, 2016
thank you for your kind remarks! i hope you try it and love it.
 
Luciana D. March 1, 2016
As a very pregnant woman, the moment I saw this post today, I got an immediate craving and just had to make this. it was so beyond delicious, I could have eaten the entire dish, but figured I'd be nice and let my husband have a try! This recipe is definitely going into weeknight rotation at our house!!!!
 
Iris C. March 1, 2016
Love me some authentic spanakopita!! Yeh for Yai Yai nelly! And Anna! Xx
 
inpatskitchen March 1, 2016
This is so similar to one I make but I must admit, I prefer fresh spinach to frozen. And cottage cheese is essential!
 
Author Comment
Anna F. March 1, 2016
Pat, do you cook the fresh spinach ahead of time or put it in raw? Nelly's Greek version has raw fresh spinach that cooks while it bakes and that one is amazing too!
 
inpatskitchen March 1, 2016
I steam the spinach, wring out the liquid and then chop. A little more work but a "fresher" tasting pie! Cookbookchick's Batsaria uses raw spinach and is absolutely amazing!!
 
Author Comment
Anna F. March 2, 2016
wow, that sounds GENIUS! i will try that next time. thanks for the comment!
 
Jennifer E. March 1, 2016
One thing I miss most about my honeymoon in Greece is the food...so excited to discover this recipe as a way to bring this incredible dish into my own kitchen!