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

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