An intense desire to channel my maternal grandmother's cheese pie recipe has taken hold of me as of late and I really wish she was still around to direct me how it is to be made. The cheese pie she made was epic. I still have friends from high school raving about it. The ingredients are not the challenge in this case, as I felt like making spinach cheese pie instead, a slight variation. Cracking the code involved figuring out how to roll the pies in swirls and get the topping just right so that everything melted or molded all together into one glorious well-formed individual pie that could be cut out of the pan, creating her signature touch. We're not talking about your generic spanikopita here people!
Enter fillo dough, a force to be reckoned with. The force is two-fold, as defrosting the dough can pose challenges when ready to separate the delicate and extremely fragile sheets, as well as needing to keep an eye on how fast one assembles so as not to let the dough dry out and start cracking into brittle pieces. The intention here is not to scare you away from working with fillo, although I know that it may not be for the faint of heart. For those of you up to the task, stay with me, it is well worth it!
Immediately as I opened the package, a wave of memories overtook me, mainly from my childhood when it seemed as though fillo dough was always strewn across the kitchen table being used for making baklava or sweet and savory pies of some sort. And, as if possessed, it didn't even take a second before my husband came scurrying over to tear off corners of the "paper" and eat it raw, something I think all Romanian children do.
"Don't eat too much or your tummy will hurt," I found myself instinctively telling him, echoing my mother's and grandmother's words from decades ago.
Having not worked with fillo dough since high school, I guess I forgot the tricks to making it easy to work with. So I set off on this adventure blindly, hoping it would all come back to me. I think the most important part is once you decide to make your pie, stick to the timing and don't let the dough sit in the fridge for too much longer than the time needed to defrost (I waited until a day later). Otherwise, I think what happened to my dough will happen to yours and the sheets will stick to one another in certain areas and not separate. I think I wasted half a roll of dough because of this.
The next challenge was figuring out how to make the pies creamy and "held-together" like my grandmother would make them. Enter my husband's recollection of his maternal grandmother's technique, the special topping.
So here is my rendition of Spinach Cheese Pie:
1 roll of fillo dough (found in freezer section at market)
1 bag of frozen spinach (organic if possible), thawed
16 oz. good quality cottage cheese
About 5 oz. good quality feta cheese
1/4 bunch green onion, chopped finely
About 1/2-3/4 cup fresh fill, chopped finely
About 1 cup olive oil
Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper
About 2 heaping tablespoons greek style yoghurt
Special equipment needed:
2 Baking Sheets (I used a 12"x19" to roll out the dough so that it can easily lay flat for use and not make a mess and a 9"x13" for assembling the pies. You can lay the fillo straight out on the table if you have enough surface area, but putting it in a sheet pan contains the mess.)
1 baking pan
1 pastry brush
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Defrost fillo dough according to instructions on box. In a sauté pan, heat about 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté the green onion for a minute then add the spinach and sauté for a few minutes until softened. While preparing the spinach, in a bowl, crumble the feta using a fork and add the cottage cheese. Add spinach and onion and add dill, eggs, salt & pepper to taste (bear in mind feta is salty) and mix until all ingredients are well incorporated.
I cut the fillo dough sheets in 1/2 starting on the long side to form smaller rectangles. These sheets fit perfectly into my 9"x13" pan. Pour olive oil into a bowl and with pastry brush, brush the bottom of the sheet pan and lay down one layer of dough. Brush that layer with oil until transparent, add another layer on top and repeat oil brushing. Repeat 2 more times until you have 4 layers (sheets) of dough with the top layer brushed with oil as well. If your dough starts to tear (and it will), do not fret, do as I did and it works out very well. Just piece together enough to form a complete sheet and make sure you brush well with oil. The sheets will miraculously adhere once you roll everything up.
Spread a very thin layer of filling across the dough and starting from one corner, start to roll the dough on a diagonal. When you reach the end, pull the whole roll closer into you to the center of the pan so you have room to complete the roll. Taking one end of the roll, loosely roll it in to meet the other end, like into a lollypop swirl, until you have a round pie formed.
Brush the baking pan with oil that will hold the rolled pies and continue assembling and rolling pies and place them snugly in rows, using a spatula to carry the pies carefully intact. I was able to fit 3 rolls per row. Since half of my dough was all stuck together, I was left with filling and got 6 rolls total. I am sure I could have made another 3-4 rolls with the mixture I had remaining, for a total of about 9-10 pies.
Give the tops of the rolls one last brush with oil and into the oven they go. Time will vary according to your oven, I had to keep them in for about 45-50 minutes, watching carefully for that magic moment when the pies are perfectly golden brown, but not overly brown. You will be able to see the mixture breaking through and the cheese will be bubbling and a bit browned as well. While waiting, beat one egg and mix in the yoghurt until a creamy liquid forms. It should not be too watery, but not too thick either. Adjust amount of yoghurt needed.
Take the pan out when pies are ready and brush the topping on top. Pour remaining topping so it fills all of the nooks and crannies and spaces in between each pie and down the sides of the pan. Put back in oven for about 10 minutes and watch carefully again. At first, the topping will cause the dough to look like bad wrinkled skin, but then it will baked on to form a nice custard-like layer and become golden brown again. Use your judgement and do not leave in too long as to over-bake.
The result is this amazing sheet of twirled goodness that should be cut immediately into individual servings and savored pronto.
I conveniently chose the salad to accompany the pie that uses some of the same ingredients so that prep time efficiency is maximized. This is one of my husband's favorite salads that I was introduced to by my mother-in-law and it has quickly become one of my family's favorites as well. On one of my "Vegan Tuesdays" at my Mom's, we made kidney bean salad and my Mom had made some quinoa on the side. I simply added it to the salad and it was so utterly amazing that now my husband is hooked. This salad is not a Romanian recipe, but we think it may be Armenian since my husband's aunt married an Armenian and my mother-in-law seems to think that is how she learned the recipe. It is so refreshing and packed with protein, especially with the quinoa. In fact, it makes it a complete protein salad and accompanies the vegetarian pie perfectly!
Kidney Bean & Tri-colored Quinoa Salad.
1 can red kidney beans (organic preferably), well washed and drained
3/4 - 1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
1/2 -3/4 cup loosely packed fresh dill, finely chopped
2 lemons, zested and juiced
About 1/3 cup olive oil
Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper to taste
1 cup dry quinoa prepared according to instructions on packet (I used tri-colored quinoa from Trader Joe's) and let cool for about 10-15 minutes
In a large bowl, combine the kidney beans, green onions, dill, zest of both lemons and juice of both lemons, olive oil to coat well and salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked quinoa and mix until all is coated well in lemon and olive oil juice.
So when grandmothers' forces unite, huge success ensued, a complete match made in heaven just like me & hubby!