Cook's County To Go: Spanakopitacular

Cook's County To Go:  Spanakopitacular

When we popped it onto the oven it looked a little like a queen termite.

Clearly a culinary triumph, the only problem being the 12 minutes called for by the recipe was quite insufficient to cook this giant, rolled spanakopita.  12 minutes and it would be barely browned, much less cooked through.

So that part was a mystery, but the rest had been successfully sorted out by my mother-in-law and me.

I hit the jackpot in the mother-in-law department.  She has told me many times of her friend's long-ago remark that I seemed like her own actual daughter.  We do think about things similarly.  In fact she just told me today that she prefers to write longhand than compose at the computer.   We both hate shopping.  She never got pierced ears until her 50s, which I haven't hit yet so I haven't done.  I may never, but that's beside the point.  All the fiction I read is at her recommendation, and several of these I've passed on to my book group because my mother-in-law's fiction gauge is way hipper than mine.

So it's fun to visit her, and fun to cook with her.  She's open to any experiments we need to do in order to alter recipes to suit the dietary issues in my family.  Suffice to say it's a challenge to cook Greek food for lactose intolerant folks, which is my son.  His favorite food?  Spanakopita.  Hence our little exercise.

My mother-in-law makes a wonderful spanakopita that I have never been able to replicate, so I found another recipe.  Turns out she's lost hers.  She hasn't made the dish in some years because somewhere along the way she started using the dish as an appetizer instead of a meal, triangles instead of a 13 X 9.  Now she's found a really good frozen brand of spanakopitakia and tiropitakia (that's what you call the spinach and cheese triangles), and that's the easiest of all.

Of course none of those are lactose free.  Making it for my son is tricky because you can't make a spanakopita without cheese.  But the other day at the grocery store--not my usual one since we're on the other side of the country--we found lactose-free cottage cheese, and a small glimmer of hope rose in me.

We had been plotting to attempt this for some time, but hadn't ever found that key ingredient, substitute fake feta that would pass muster with someone who loved the dish.  For those of you have never experienced the joy of lactose-free dairy products, they are about ten times sweeter than their regular counterparts.  And while you can find lactose-free milk fairly easily, I have never found any other lactose-free products that I can use for cooking, no cheeses, no sour cream, no cream, no nothing.

It's hard to get around this!  For years I have been trying to cook in such a way that diminishes the irritants for my son's IBS.  The lactose in dairy, most fats, red meats, whole grain, and soy all are terrible triggers.  I have pretty much eliminated cooking with cheese and butter.  I've whittled down my oil usage to extra-virgin olive, or, for baking, very extremely non-extra-virgin olive oil. I've gone so far as to figure out how to make a tuna-noodle casserole without cream of anything soup (which, shockingly, if you read the labels, actually have milk and cream in them), without cheese, without butter.

These are changes I'm happy to make but at the same time I do miss swishing a good half-cup of half-and-half into a sauce, sauteeing mushrooms in butter, stuffing feta into absolutely everything, and following a single recipe from Bon Appetit.

But I digress.

Hope rose in me when I found the lactose-free cottage cheese.

Well the other morning we set out to meet our challenge.  My mother-in-law pulled out a "recipe," or rather, rapidly-scrawled set of approximated ingredients plus a sketch of something that looked like a cigar.  She thought the recipe had come from a cooking show, and when she showed it to me she noted with some dismay that she hadn't written down any directions.  Her picture told us the whole spanakopita was supposed to be a roll.

We debated this briefly.  Should we roll it?  Should we do it normal?

In the end, the whimsy of the roll won out.

The next question was what to do with the way-too-wet cottage cheese, and we decided that draining it (like Greek yogurt) was the thing to do.  Mom speeded up the process by squeezing it through a cheesecloth.  The result was a terrific consistency.

After sauteeing the onions, chopping the dill, and draining the spinach, we mixed it all up and put in the cheese and an unconscionable three eggs.  It looked and smelled like a suitably yummy spanakopita filling.

We prepared the filo dough which called, oddly, for "occasional breadcrumbs," which made no sense at all to me.  In a pile of ten filo sheets, we were supposed to be oiling each one and sprinkling "occasional" breadcrumbs.  I sprinkled infinitesimally.  My mother-in-law appraised the process suspiciously.

"I don't think you're using enough.  Here's what I think occasional means," she said, grabbing the breadcrumbs and using a generous hand with them.

"'Occasional breadcrumbs' means that occasionally you get to grab them from your daughter-in-law and shake on as much as you want," said I.

Still we couldn't decide what was the purpose of the occasional breadcrumbs. But we followed what little we had to go on.  And soon it was time to attempt the roll.

We decided longwise was the best, mostly because there was a huge amount of filling and it never would have fit crosswise.

So we spooned on the filling leaving a couple inches at each end and began to roll the thing, which took four hands on account of the ungainliness, and we tucked and rolled, tucked, rolled, and rolled, leaving a large bundle which would have been perfectly darling but for its resemblance to a queen termite.  We scored the top at a jaunty angle, brushed a bit more oil on, and popped it into the oven for its ridiculously brief 12 minutes.

30 minutes later we pulled out a gorgeously browned giant rolled spanakopita.  I was giddy when I told my kid about his spanakopita.  "We made it with lactose-free cottage cheese!" I cheered, and he looked a little green around the gills, mildly protesting his dislike of such a product.  But he was intrigued.

We couldn't even wait for dinner and ate it for lunch.  It was delicious.  It was nearly perfect.  It will require only the tiniest bit of tweaking before it is actually perfect.

The only remaining question was what was with that 12 minutes?

Combing through the web I found a recipe for rolled spanakopita from Ina Garten.  Ina!

My mother-in-law introduced me to her too.  I sort of avoid cooking shows because everything they seem to make is exhausting to contemplate, and I am lazy.  My mother-in-law says she also is lazy, and I really need to watch the Barefoot Contessa because she leans a little toward the lazy too.  After one show I was sold on this woman.  Store bought appetizers for a dinner party?  She's my hero.

Well here was Ina's recipe, but I had to read it three times to understand that you used one sheet of filo per 3/4 cup of filling, and made ten little wee rolls which cooked for 12 minutes.  Not one big roll after all.  The occasional breadcrumbs were supposed to keep your pile of oiled filo from sticking together (a brilliant idea).

And then it hit me.

My mother-in-law and me, we were innovators!  We invented a new dish!

And here it is, with apologies to Ina, my new cooking show BFF.  Sorry, Ina, I think we made it better.

And mom, thanks.


This recipe is based on Ina Garten's mini rolled spanakopitas, altered for your lactose-intolerant loved ones, and with your basic IBS triggers removed.  You won't notice.  I promise.  We're skipping the breadcrumbs completely since we're not making ten small rolls, but one spectacular one.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 bunch chopped green onions, white and green parts
1 16 oz. bag frozen chopped spinach, defrosted (m-i-l does this by poking a few holes in the bag, putting it on a plate, and defrosting in the microwave, then squeezing it dry)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
3 eggs beaten
1 carton lactose-free cottage cheese, squeezed through a cheesecloth to remove all moisture
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon  pepper
10 sheets frozen filo dough, defrosted overnight in the refrigerator

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan and add the green onions. Cook for 5 minutes or until soft.

Meanwhile, squeeze most of the water out of the spinach and place it in a bowl. Add the scallions, dill, eggs, cottage cheese, salt, and pepper and mix together.

On the counter unbox your filo dough and unroll  it.  Working quickly, lightly brush olive oil onto the top sheet and slide it off the pile, starting a new pile right next to the first.  Brush the next sheet with oil and slide it on to the second pile, lining it up well.  Do this until you have a pile of ten sheets all lined up, oiled.

Now take your filling and spoon it evenly along one long edge of your heap of filo, leaving a good inch and a half free of filling at each short end.  The rolling business is a tiny bit tricky, but nothing near as bad as making the triangles.  Roll the filo over the filling once, then turn in the ends (kind of like you would for a burrito). Keep rolling till you've reached the end, put the seam side down, and brush olive oil over the top.  With a sharp knife score the top every inch or so (exactly where you will want to slice it when you serve it), cutting though a few layers of filo but not all the way through to the filling.  (If you slice all the way through, filling will ooze out during cooking.)   Bake at 400 for 20 to 30 minutes.  Keep your eye on it after 20 minutes; it should be a lovely golden brown when it is done.






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