My Greek Grandma's Secrets for Making the Best Spanakopita
Pictured Recipe: Classic Greek Spanakopita
No Greek table is complete without spanakopita. For me, it's the ultimate comfort food, and it was a staple in our home growing up. It's the food of my mother, of my grandmother and of my childhood. My YiaYia's classic recipe (pictured above), which I've shared here, is the one she made almost every week since arriving in the United States as a young girl. There are as many different recipes for spanakopita as there are cooks. I've made many versions over the years—rolled, folded and stuffed with all kinds of greens;: kale, chard, even dandelion greens. But the gold standard for me has always been YiaYia's spanakopita with spinach.
In the early 1920's, my young grandmother and her sister immigrated to America from a tiny, mountainous and war-torn Greek island off the coast of Turkey. We called them "YiaYia Upstairs" and "YiaYia Downstairs" because they lived in a duplex in Albany, New York, one up and one down. For many years later, YiaYia Upstairs lived with our family in her own small apartment attached to our house in Vermont. Every day, in her sunny, little Vermont kitchen, she cooked the Greek comfort dishes of her family. What usually drew us kids into her kitchen was the aroma of chicken and oregano; thick potato wedges and garlic roasting in a pie plate; frothy lemon and rice soup; cookies, like koulourakia sprinkled with sesame seeds; and, of course, spanakopita. There was always spanakopita.
At least once a week, YiaYia made spanakopita in a large, heavy aluminum pan used only for that purpose. That pan now lives with me and continues to be our dedicated spanakopita pan. Usually, she would cut it into squares for easy snacking, but for holidays or special occasions, like Greek Easter, she would make a fancy version, folded into triangle packets and arranged decoratively in concentric circles on a big round platter. We ate it at all times of day, with any meal, and when we had company, there would always be a freshly made pan of spanakopita on the counter.
YiaYia's Secrets for How to Make Spanakopita
If you've made spanakopita, you know the process can take a minute. But don't be intimidated by the idea of working with phyllo dough—once you've done it a couple of times, I guarantee you will be fearless. So what if the dough tears? Just layer it on patchwork-style—it only makes it more crispy! Here are a couple of YiaYia's little secrets for making the crispiest spanakopita ever. First, rather than brushing melted butter onto each layer of phyllo, use a pastry brush to spatter it on instead, Jackson Pollock-style. Second, just before baking, sprinkle the assembled spanakopita with a tiny bit of ice water. The little bit of steam that's generated creates a nice, crispy top.
I make spanakopita a lot, not every week like YiaYia did, but it's still a tradition in our family, and all our kids have learned to make it, so thankfully the tradition continues. If I'm ever tempted to give in to laziness, I think about YiaYia Upstairs and her early days in America, when she and her sister would make their own homemade phyllo dough, hand-kneading large balls of dough, taking turns using a long wooden dowel to roll out the dough until it was paper-thin, and then gently spreading it out on a bed lined with clean cotton sheets before cutting, filling and assembling it in a large pan. A half-day endeavor—made every week! We love the flavors of our Greek heritage, and in uncertain times, those familiar flavors and cooking traditions are more comforting than ever.
Lisa Cassell-Arms is a recipe developer, photographer and cookbook author based in Vermont. Follow her on Instagram @seasonsinvermont.