Yia Yia Nelly's 'Greek Festival' Spanakopita

First stop, Greece!

Yia Yia Nelly

Yia Yia Nelly

One of the first people I reached out to when I decided to start my Nonna project was my dear friend Kostas.  He, like me, is a first generation kid.  Both of his parents came from Greece in the early 1970s, set up house, and raised two children.  Early discussions we had made me certain our childhood homes were very similar.  So, I thought it would be a great place to start.

Kosta’s mom, Kanella (Nelly) Hiotis Cheliotis was born on the Greek peninsula of Peloponnese. When I asked Nelly about her permanent move to the US, she explained that as a young bride, and her husband already in the US, she left her home and joined him.  I then inquired of Nelly, why, at such a young age, she had the courage to leave all she knew and go to America.  She simply said, “We came here for a better life.”

As a young mom, along with working full time in Manhattan, Nelly would come home and cook dinner for her family every night.  Her children grew up eating traditional, Greek specialties that are worthy of any fancy restaurant menu.  I will always cherish my time in her kitchen.  She is a precise, meticulous chef that created a five-course meal in what seemed like a blink of an eye.  She is a beloved mother and Yia Yia and all who know her, adore her.  Her excitement in the kitchen is contagious.

We made a number of dishes together and this Spanakopita will forever remain in my repertoire.  The cottage cheese gives it an amazing creaminess and the clarified butter creates a beautiful sheen that makes this a dish any Top Chef would be envious to replicate.

Nelly’s ‘Greek Festival’ Spanakopita

This is the recipe for the Spanakopita you can order at any good Greek diner.  Its not what you would find in Greece but it shows how the American influence changed the original dish to something we have grown to love here in the States.I call this recipe ‘Greek Festival because its the one Nelly makes annually for her church festival.

Serves 6 to 8

For Filling

4lbs frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained of all excess water

1 lb cottage cheese

1 ½ lb feta cheese block broken into small pieces

5 eggs

½ bunch dill, chopped

5 scallions, chopped

½ c Extra Virgin Greek Olive oil

ground pepper, to taste

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons (½ stick butter)

For Dough

clarified butter *recipe at bottom

1 lb package phyllo dough, #4 (Nelly likes Apollo brand)

Preheat oven to 400.

Make the filling

Melt ½ stick butter with scallions over medium heat and cook until scallion is soft and translucent, about three to five minutes

Transfer to a large bowl and add dill, salt, pepper, eggs, cottage cheese, feta cheese, spinach and olive oil. Fold ingredients together until fully combined, careful to not break up feta.  Do not overmix.

Prepare the Phyllo

Remove from package and lay flat.  Should have around 25 to 30 sheets.  Lay damp tea towel or moistened paper towel on top to prevent drying out as you work. 

Lightly oil a 9x13 baking dish.  Prepare filo by removing from package, roll out and cover with a damp towel.

Carefully peel one sheet of filo and lay on the bottom of pan.   Sheets of filo should not be pulled tight.  Instead, lay in a crumbled fashion to create a textured layer.  With pastry brush, generously spread butter until the sheet is moistened.  Continue until you have used half of your total filo dough (about 10 to 15 sheets).

Spread filling over the sheets of filo to create an even layer, to the ends of the dish. 

Begin again with the dough until two to three sheets of filo remain.  The final layer should be pulled tight to create a smooth top.  Brush top layer with clarified butter. 

Using a very sharp paring knife, score six even lines down the filo, about ½ inch deep.  Now, on the horizontal, cut four even lines across.  In each square, cut a diagonal line to create two triangles in each box.  Nelly likes to cut the corner pieces in the opposite direction.

Take the remaining clarified butter and brush directly into each cut.  This will keep the filo in place while cooking.  Then, take the paring knife and carefully tuck border down, running the knife around all four edges.  Brush border with butter.

Bake at 400 degrees for 1½ hours until the top is a deep golden brown.  Serve at room temperature.

**Clarified Butter

Nelly taught me a great trick for clarifying better.  Instead of melting and skimming milk solids off the top, Nelly does something much faster and easier.

She melts a pound of butter and then pours it into a glass bowl.  She lets it cool and then sticks it in the fridge for a few hours.  When you take it out, all the milk solids create a thick layer on the top, leaving the clarified butter underneath.  She pokes a hole through and pours out the butter!  Nonna, (I mean…Yia Yia) Genius!!!