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Celebrate Greek Independence Day with Spanakopita and Baklava

Milton chef Connie Spiros shares two recipes that prove why March is the perfect month to break out the Greek food.

When it’s March and you think of food, do you think of corned beef and cabbage?  Most people do.  Unless you happen to be Greek, when March brings thoughts of celebration with phyllo dough as the main event!  But before we get started cooking, let me tell you why March 25 is a big day for Greeks around the world. 

 On March 25, 1821, the War of Greek Independence began. After 400 years of occupation by the Ottoman Turks, the Greeks decided it was time to take back their culture and religious freedom. With the help of some allies in Europe, the war ended in 1829 with the establishment of an independent Greek state.

Celebrations take place on March 25 throughout the world, and parades, parties, and great food help to remind Greek people of the importance of freedom. 

 In my family, the typical fare for any special event, (and even some not so special events), is Spanakopita, or Spinach Pie. Every village of Greece has its own version, but we’ve made it a bit lighter by using reduced fat cottage cheese alongside the feta, and olive oil as a complement to the butter traditionally used in pita.

And what’s the dessert that comes to mind when thinking of Greek food?  Baklava of course.  Here’s a version that’s light and very easy to make.  Enjoy the recipes, and when you do, be sure to say Happy Greek Independence Day!

Spanakopita – (serves 3 as an entrée, or 6-8 as an appetizer)

2 (6 oz) pkgs of fresh baby spinach, large stems removed and roughly chopped

¼ pound of feta cheese

½ pound of reduced fat cottage cheese

3 eggs beaten

1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp melted butter, mixed with 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, placed in a bowl

1/2  a pkg of Athens Phyllo, thawed  in the refrigerator – freeze the other half

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet.
  2. Place chopped spinach in a colander and pour boiling hot water over it.
  3. Press the liquid out of the spinach using a spoon or your clean hands.
  4. Add spinach, cheeses, eggs, ¼ cup olive oil to a large bowl and mix well.
  5. Place 1 sheet of phyllo on a cutting board, and brush the butter and oil combination lightly over it.
  6. Add a second sheet and repeat this process of brushing the butter/oil using a total of 7 sheets.
  7. Place 1/3 of the spinach cheese mixture on one end of the phyllo pack. 
  8. Turn in the long sides of the phyllo somewhat covering the spinach and roll up the phyllo jelly-roll style. 
  9. Place on the cookie sheet seam side down. Repeat twice more using up the rest of the spinach mixture.
  10. Bake for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Let cool for about 5-10 minutes.  Serve warm.

  

Easy Baklava (makes 30 bite-sized treats, serve 2-3 per person)

Filling                                                             

2 c walnuts, chopped fine                              

¼ c sugar                                                        

½ tsp cinnamon, more or less                                               

1/8 cup of unsalted butter                             

Syrup

¾ cup sugar

½ cup water

1/8 cup honey

½ tsp grated lemon peel

2 cinnamon sticks                                                      

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Place phyllo shells onto a parchment paper lined cookie sheet.
  3. Melt 1/8 cup of butter and brush inside of each shell with it.
  4. Mix the rest of the filling ingredients (walnuts, sugar and cinnamon.)
  5. Fill each shell with nut mixture. The filling will shrink in baking, so be sure to really fill the shells.
  6. Bake at 325 for 20 minutes or so, or until shells are a golden color.
  7. Meanwhile, stir syrup ingredients together in a small pan, bring to boil.  
  8. Turn down heat and simmer uncovered for about 20 min.
  9. Remove cinnamon sticks, spoon syrup over each slightly cooled baklava.
  10. Store in airtight container for several days.

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