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Real-Deal Spanakopita, Straight from Yia Yia

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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's "Greek Festival" Spanakopita
Nelly's "Greek Festival" Spanakopita

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.

Batsaria (Phyllo-less Spanakopita)

Batsaria (Phyllo-less Spanakopita) by cookbookchick

Spanakopita Grilled Cheese

Spanakopita Grilled Cheese by Alexandra V. Jones

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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Nelly's "Greek Festival" Spanakopita

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Serves 8 to 10

For the filling:

  • 4 pounds frozen chopped spinach
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
  • 5 scallions, chopped
  • 1/2 bunch dill, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 5 eggs, beaten
  • 1 pound cottage cheese
  • 1 1/2 pounds feta cheese, broken up into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the dough:

  • 1 packet phyllo dough, #4 (Nelly likes Apollo)
  • 1 pound clarified butter

Tags: spanakopita, grandma, heirloom recipes, greek