Sunday 29 March 2020

RECIPES Spanokopita


Cheese and spinach pie

Spanokopita March 2020

Spanokopita October 2019

Spanokopita is a traditional Greek dish but similar varieties are to be found throughout Europe and the Arab world. In Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia and other parts of the Balkans this would probably come under the general name Burek (börek in Turkey, byrek in Albania). 

The north African version, Brik, popular in Tunisia, is often deep-fried rather than baked. 

Many people will be familiar with a sweet version of börek, made with cream cheese and honey found in Turkish and Middle Eastern grocery shops and restaurants but, throughout the Balkans, it is a very popular savoury dish - sometimes filled just with cheese and herbs and sometimes with other ingredients such as spinach. Spanokopita is almost always made with spinach. When made only with cheese the Greek version is called Tiropita or Tyropita.

When staying with my friend Vlado's family and friends in Montenegro several years ago, both on the coast at Bar and in the mountains in Durmitor, cheese pie was always on the menu, sometimes served at breakfast time (with the compulsory glass of Rakia or Rakija- the local firewater) but more often at lunchtime or for the evening meal - often accompanied by more cheese! Two things to note about Montenegrins - one they eat more cheese than any other people I know and secondly they are the second-tallest people in the world (for some reason they appear to have been overtaken by the Dutch)!

If you google Spanokopita you will find numerous recipes, usually with spinach or chard and feta or ricotta cheese.  I have made it in the past (or something similar) using grated cheddar and a little Parmesan and also smaller individual filo/phyllo parcels of Blue Stilton and spinach.  I have also made these with puff pastry. 

Making Filo or Phyllo pastry is a laborious and highly skilled process and not one to be recommended when it is readily available, ready made, chilled or frozen in most supermarkets in the UK.  If you visit a Turkish, Middle Eastern or North African grocer you may be able to get the Turkish version, Yufka or sheets (warka) of Tunisian or Algerian Brik.  Yufka is heavier than phyllo and the name may also refer to a round, unleavened flatbread.

Some recipes for Spanokopita include onion and garlic.  You may also find recipes with leeks or spring onions. Some suggest a dash of balsamic vinegar or Lea and Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce - (I suppose my Sheffield friends could add a dash of Henderson's Relish instead, which I describe as the vegetarian alternative to L&P).  On occasions I have added some Cavalo Nero or Kale - depending on what was available on the allotment - but we almost always have chard and perpetual spinach for twelve months of the year. In Albania they use dandelion leaves and nettles - we have plenty of these too but haven't tried them as yet!

Some of of the photos posted here are of a pie I made in October 2019 just after returning from Montenegro where I had been attending the Cetinje Forum but I never got round to writing up the recipe. I posted a photo of my recent pie on Instagram...

Cheese pie 23 March 2020
.............. which prompted a response from Vlado, who naturally insists that the best cheese pie is produced by his wife Marina and is best made with pljevaljski cheese, from the north of Montenegro.

Pljevaljski sir is a staple of many Montenegrin meals. It is a white cheese, traditionally made from sheep's milk, although cow's milk or a combination of cow's and sheep's milk is often used nowadays. It is matured in wooden barrels which produces its unique taste and then salted and immersed in brine.  Unlike the Greek Feta, which is crumbly, it has a creamy texture. I will try Marina's recipe on another occasion.

This is the recipe I am using now but it is fairly adaptable.


500g Chard or spinach
1 red onion (chopped)
4 baby leeks 
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
200g feta cheese
Black pepper
Zest of 1 lemon
250g Phyllo (Filo) pastry
1 egg (beaten)
50g butter (melted)


Wash the chard, place in a steamer or in a large saucepan with just the water clinging to it and boil/steam for a few minutes to wilt.

Chard (March 2020)
 Leeks are not essential but I had a few baby ones from the allotment that had been left in the seedbed and not planted out. 

Baby leeks (March 2020)

chopped leeks (March 2020)

Gently fry the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until it softens but do not allow to brown. 
Towards the end of cooking add the chopped leeks and stir heating gently for a couple of minutes.  

chopped onion, garlic and leeks
 Allow to cool.

Drain the chard and squeeze out all excess liquid, allow to cool and then roughly chop.
Put the chopped chard in a bowl. Add the fried onion mixture and gently mix together. Crumble the feta with your fingers and add to the chard/onion mix.

chopped, cooked spinach and feta cheese (Oct 2019)

Add the beaten egg and a good glug of olive oil, and season with freshly ground black pepper and salt - go easy on the salt as feta cheese is quite salty. 

Lemon zest

Add the lemon zest and herbs.  If fresh herbs are available, add a few chopped leaves. Oregano and mint go well.  Normally I would have used fresh chopped oregano or marjoram, from the garden but as it is winter I am waiting for the oregano to reappear and on this occasion added 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano. I topped this with a generous grating of nutmeg.

It is now best to ensure everything is well mixed together, without breaking up the cheese too much and the best way to do this is with your hands.  Set the mixture to one side.

the mixture is ready for the pie

I had some frozen phyllo which I had defrosted overnight in the refrigerator.  It is advisable to take it out of the fridge half an hour before using to bring it closer to room temperature.

Take the pastry from its packaging, unroll and lay the pile on your worktop and cover with a damp tea-towel to prevent it drying out.  Take a suitable oven proof dish and brush the inside with melted butter.

Brush the top sheet of pastry with melted butter... 

Filo pastry brushed with melted butter (Oct 2019)

...and lay on the bottom of the pie dish with the sheet overhanging the dish, do the same with a second sheet of pastry overlapping the first.   

buttered sheets of phyllo in the baking dish

Continue building up several layers until you have used about half of the pastry.  

Remember, each time you remove a buttered layer of pastry from the pile, cover the remaining sheets with the damp towel. 

have a damp tea towel to hand

Spoon the chard and feta mixture into the dish and spread evenly.  Fold over the overhanging pastry, brushing each with melted butter as you do so.

the pie is filled!

Butter a couple more sheets of pastry and lay on top, tucking the excess in at the sides.
With the remaining sheets, butter them one by one with melted butter, then roughly scrunch up and put on top of the pie.  

finishing touches almost oven-ready (Oct 2019)
Continue until you have covered the whole pie with the scrunched up phyllo pastry.

Oven ready

Place the dish in the pre-heated oven.  Ovens seem to differ widely - some recipes suggest pre-heating to 190C/170C fan and cooking for 30 minutes, others 180C/160C fan and cooking for 40 minutes.  I pre-heated my fan oven to 160C and took it out when the pastry was golden brown after 30-35 minutes.

It looks cooked (Oct 2019)
Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly

Ready to serve (Oct 2019)
Cut into portions and eat whilst still warm.

left-overs for the next day (Oct 2019)

What goes in the filling is pretty much up to you - whatever you like and whatever is available, so have fun experimenting.  Good baking.

John Austin

Hove, March 2020

Monday 23 March 2020


Rhubarb and Yoghourt Cake 

We have a plentiful supply of rhubarb on the allotment and had our first picking in early March.

So when Selina, a near neighbour on the allotment, posted a photo of her rhubarb cake on Instagram, it looked so good that I just had to ask for the recipe, which she kindly sent.

Selina's recipe and instructions

I think I could have coped with the instructions above which Selina sent but she also referred me to a useful link to the Riverford website which has a plethora of recipes - sweet and savoury - using rhubarb, but here's my version of Selina's rhubarb and yoghourt cake.


300g Rhubarb
310g self raising flour
230g sugar
zest of one orange
pinch of salt
2 eggs
125 mls yoghourt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 tbsp orange flower water 
125g unsalted butter


Normally, when making a cake, I would cream together the butter and sugar then add eggs and liquid and fold in the flour, but surprisingly this recipe was different.  I decided there must be a reason - (perhaps it is so the sugar can draw the juice from the rhubarb) - so I followed instructions! 

Firstly, pre-heat the oven to 180C - as mine is a fan oven I set it to 160C (and it often seems hotter than the set temperature)

I mixed together the flour, sugar and salt as instructed...

flour, salt and sugar

...and then added the orange zest.

add zest of one orange

I cut the rhubarb into 1 inch long pieces...

chop rhubarb

...and added to the flour/sugar mixture...

add rhubarb to flour/sugar mixture

...folding over to ensure all the rhubarb was coated.

stir to ensure rhubarb is coated

I then mixed together the beaten eggs, melted butter, yoghourt and vanilla essence.  I didn't have any orange flower water, so I substituted Rose water.  When these were well mixed, I added this to the flour/sugar mix and gently folded the mixture with a wooden spoon to ensure the dry ingredients were fully integrated.  Riverford advises against "over-mixing", which I assume is to keep the cake light.

add mixed butter, eggs and yoghourt

and mix together with the flour/sugar

folding in flour

I greased a 9 inch cake tin with butter and added the cake mixture, levelling off with a spatula.

place mixture in greased cake tin

The tin was then placed in the middle of the pre-heated oven. After 45 minutes the top was looking a little overcooked and perhaps I should have covered it sooner with foil or buttered paper. (Every oven is different and mine seems a bit fierce)  I was worried that the inside might not be cooked but a test with a skewer suggested it was.

fresh from the oven
I removed the the cake from the oven, left to cool for 10 minutes before turning out on to a cooling rack.  We decided, however, to try some whilst it was still warm............

crumbly and moist
...........with crème fraîche - and it was delicious.  It was equally delicious later, cold.

I noticed that my cake looked very different from the one Selina had posted on Instagram!  Having sent me her recipe, Selina informed me later that she had used brown flour and brown sugar and had added ginger in syrup as well as upping the rhubarb by 100g as brown flour can absorb more moisture.  Obviously this is a very adaptable recipe.

I think we are on a new adventure here - I love the combination of rhubarb and ginger and will certainly try adding some next time.  I often make rhubarb and ginger jam and usually add crystallised ginger when stewing rhubarb or making rhubarb pie - I'm not a crumble fan but, if you are, try rhubarb and ginger crumble.  I must also try Riverford's rhubarb, pistachio, orange and cardamom cake it sounds yummy!

Thanks for the recipe Selina. Happy baking everyone.

John Austin

Hove, March 2020

Postscript : I have since made it with an extra 100g (i.e. 400g) rhubarb and 100g crystallised ginger.  JA April 2020

Tuesday 3 March 2020

Life on the Weald - February 2020

Life on the Weald - February 2020

There were signs that winter was drawing to a close with the hellebores in flower in the garden at home.

Hellebores at home in the garden

And we were enjoying the fruits of last summer/autumn - it was time to try the last of the stored squashes, a Crown Prince. This is one of the best squashes both for eating and storing (no wonder they only put 5 seeds in a packet for almost £2.50!)

Crown Prince - ready for roasting

The beginning of the month saw Seedy Sundayan annual event organised by local volunteers, where you can swap or buy seeds from fellow plot holders and suppliers.  I fear I may have given in to temptation and bought rather too many seeds.

Amongst the seeds I bought were several varieties of chilli peppers, some of which I have sown in pots at home in the conservatory.  I have also sown some parsnip seeds in cardboard tubes, as they tend to develop long tap roots early in their growth. Unfortunately, however, they are notoriously difficult to germinate and some growers suggest soaking the seeds in tepid water overnight before sowing.  I will give them at least 28 days before trying again.

At the allotment, the soil is very wet at this time of year and and it's not a good time for digging but I felt I had to make a start in preparing the areas for early potatoes and brassicas as there are a lot of deep rooted and perennial weeds.

6 February
Where the runner beans were last year and our site for the brassicas for 2020

6 February
making a start on the brassica patch

It was heavy going and hard work but the following day it felt that some progress was being made

7 February
Progress with the brassica patch

7 February
some progress with the brassica patch

I have also made a start clearing the area around the pond where I will plant some ground cover plants and create a patch for wild-flowers as well as clear a sitting out area so there will be somewhere pleasant to relax during the spring and summer months.

7 February

I bought some organic mangetout seeds at Seedy Sunday harvested by the organic gardeners' group at The Weald so I am hoping these will do well.  These seeds are the round seed variety (not wrinkled) and are deemed suitable for sowing in wet autumn and winter conditions.  I sowed some indoors in pots on 2nd February. I also managed to get some more Aquadulce broad bean seeds at Seedy Sunday and also sowed these in small pots indoors in the unheated conservatory on 2nd February.

By 10 February they had germinated and some were showing through
10 February Broad beans (Aquadulce)

10 February Broad beans
I also prepared the 2nd early Nicola potatoes for chitting in old egg boxes and put them by the window in the garden shed alongside the Duke of York.

10 February Nicola 2nd Earlies

Storm Ciara struck around this time with lots of rain and gusting winds up to 60mph.  Fortunately we sustained little damage, but a near neighbour lost their fruit cage which had blown over several plots until stopped by the fence where the allotment adjoins Hove Park School.
11 February - post Storm Ciara
Our immediate neighbour had built a greenhouse last year with a wooden base and acrylic windows - storm Ciara had manage to overturn it
11 February
Few of the polytunnels on site survived!  But despite the winds all our crops seem to be intact - although the broad beans and the broccoli are at a rather jaunty angle and may need staking or tying up.

11 February
I also made a half-hearted attempt to clear some more weeds from the potato patch but the ground was so wet, I soon abandoned it.

11 February - potato patch
I was able to harvest some of the remaining kalettes which have been a great success.

11 February - kalettes

By the middle of the month, the broad beans at home were doing well and really needed to be hardened off outside, but after Storm Ciara, Dennis was on the way!  I wasn't sure that the beans were ready for a battering, so they stayed indoors.

15 February Aquadulce broad beans
Despite storms Ciara and Dennis we had crocuses and anemones in addition to the hellebores to cheer us up in the garden at home.

Garden flowers 16 February

And the early daffs were out and the Camellia just coming into flower.  Camellia's don't thrive on our soil - like the blueberries they require an acid soil.  When planting I dug a hole and filled with ericaceous compost and I mulch the plants from time to time with more but in the growing season I also water the plant including the leaves with a liquid ericaceous feed. I must remember to do the same for the blueberries.

Braving the elements, I ventured to the plot on 18 February with vegetable scraps for the wormery.
18 February - the worms are doing their job
The worms are very efficient in breaking down the vegetable matter to produce good compost and the run off, known as Worm Tea, is a great nitrogen rich liquid fertiliser (which needs to be diluted before being applied).

Towards the end of the month, the broad beans sown in the open in the autumn were beginning to flower.  This brought mixed feelings - one of joyful anticipation of a good early crop but also of fear of a sudden frost which could undo all the hard work.

Autumn sown broad beans (Aquadulce) 18 February

Fingers crossed!

Autumn sown broad beans (Aquadulce) 18 February
With the passing of storms Ciara and Dennis (and before the arrival of Ellen), I decided to plant out the current crop of Aquadulce sown at home as they were getting rather leggy.

18 February - winter home sown broad beans planted out
This late February visit to the plot revealed that the purple sprouting broccoli was beginning to sprout.

Early purple sprouting broccoli 18 February
Pigeons had begun to peck at the tender top leaves but thankfully, all the heads were intact.  I had not covered or protected the plants and with all these strong winds I don't think any netting or fleece would have survived.  The wind had managed to lift all the netting from over the redcurrant bushes in my fruit cage despite being well secured with clips.

Early purple sprouting broccoli 18 February

I folded some of the larger top leaves over the flowering heads in a probably vain attempt to hide them from the birds.

Well it worked for a couple of days!  But I didn't want to take any further risks, so I picked the main heads which will encourage the side shoots and they were absolutely delicious. English early purple sprouting broccoli is one of the best vegetables ever. 

first pickings of purple sprouting broccoli 2020
18 February

first pickings of purple sprouting broccoli 2020
18 February

The weather this month has been absolutely atrocious, although in the south east we have fared much better than those communities in the Wales and the north of England and the Midlands where there has been severe flooding as major rivers have burst their banks.  We have had so much rain and high winds here - with the pebble beach blown several feet upwards on to the promenade - that we have made few trips to the allotment.

And when we have, the ground is so waterlogged it is difficult to dig - you just get stuck in the clay mud with heavy boots which are difficult to lift.  We did make one final excursion though on Saturday 22nd and despite the strong winds, and with the help of Luke, did manage to dig up half of the raspberries, remove the couch grass from around the roots, which was entangling them, and replant the canes. But after an hour and a half enduring the wind and increasing drizzle abandoned the task and this was our last visit of the month.

There were however some tasks that could be carried out at home.  On 21 February I sowed some kalettes in seed trays in the unheated conservatory.  I also sowed some leeks.

I said that I had gone a little crazy at Seedy Sunday and had bought rather a lot of chilli pepper seeds!  The ones I sowed this month are:

Chocolate Habanero - 425,000 SHU
Hungarian Yellow Wax - 5/15,000 SHU
Purple Cayenne - 50,000 SHU
Trinidad Scorpion - 1,460,000 SHU

The numbers, as given on the packet indicate the heat level on the Scoville scale which is a measurement of the pungency (spiciness or "heat") of chili peppers  recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) based on the concentration of capsaicinoids.
I have more which require later sowing!

On 28 February I also sowed some more leeks and some early ripening baby plum tomatoes and an early bush variety of cherry tomatoes.

I had intended a last visit of the month but this idea was abandoned with the arrival of Storm Jorge!  After Ciara and Dennis  we had been expecting Storm Ellen but she hadn't been officially named when on 27 February, the Spanish authorities named Jorge and the Met Office has gone along with this.  Jorge is predicted to be less windy than Ciara or Dennis but much colder!

John Austin

Hove, February 2020