Yesterday, Hubby's coworkers had an "international food party," in which all participants brought one or more dishes from different countries, and we watched the movie "Kick Ass." As you can imagine, it was a great time (one might even say that it "kicked ass"). I was so super-impressed with everyone's dishes. There was not one thing that was even remotely less than delicious.
We had a bevy of starches: Fried plantains, fried potato puffs, and two different types of Arepas from Columbia, Pelmeni from Russia, Potato and cheese pierogies from Ukraine, Veggie and rice noodle dumplings from China, Kugelis (both vegetarian and non) from Lithuania, Chicken & dumplings and garlic-cheese grits from the USA, a wonderful spicy chickpea-tomato-tamarind Indian appetizer (I forget the name), Lemon cookies from Italy, Banana-coconut-lime bread from Jamaica, Lamingtons from Australia, and of course, Spanakopita from Greece.
Whew. Yes. You can correctly assume that everyone was bloated with food. We all tried everything--just one of everything or a little bit of everything. And still, we could barely lift ourselves up to leave. I was the kind of full where you're thirsty, so you try to drink water, but it hurts to drink water. Yeah. But I don't regret it. Kick Ass International Food Night was totally Kick Ass.
But, on to the main attraction: Spanakopita!
I was terrified of working with Phyllo dough for the first time. As you probably know from tales or experience, Phyllo is a picky customer. Just a couple points to illustrate the finickiness:
1) You must unfreeze it slowly in the refrigerator, at least overnight, preferably closer to 24 hours. You may not unfreeze it on the counter or in the microwave, because it will accumulate too much moisture, and you will not be able to pick the sheets apart.
2) You may only work with one sheet at a time. All other sheets and/or finished products must be covered at all times.
3) The covered products must be covered with saran wrap or parchment paper AND THEN a damp towel. Not a wet towel. Lightly moistened.
Anyway, I knew all this, and I prepared very carefully. I took some deep breaths and said, "Okay. Okay. We can do this. Okay." I set the roll of Phyllo on parchment paper and gently unrolled it. I was pleased to see that nothing was stuck together. A triumphant joy washed over me, and I thought, See?? I KNEW you could do it! You're so silly, getting worried over nothing!
And then I attempted to pick up a sheet. It immediately ripped into at least 3 parts. Okay, I thought, that was the trial sheet. I put it aside and gently lifted the next sheet--to say I was gentle would be an understatement...I was downright ginger! But it tore in half. A panic rose in my chest. "This is not good, Greg," I said, "I cannot lift this up without it ripping."
Greg came in to try. I held my breath as he lifted up a sheet. It held together. He laid it down on my work surface so that I could brush it with butter. Of course, I managed to rip it as soon as the pastry brush hit the surface of the Phyllo. I wanted to scream. I may have screamed, I don't remember. This was all very stressful. Nonetheless, I was running short on time before the party, so just had to proceed with the ripped dough. It got easier once I got into a rhythm. The dough being slightly ripped doesn't matter much, since you're wrapping up layers. Besides, you slather it in butter and hide all the tears, anyway.
Greg's job became to lift the dough and bring it to me for butter brushing and assembly. He managed to not make even one tear over the course of nearly 20 sheets. Apparently, he has a gentle touch that belongs in a Greek bakery. Greg will forever be known as the Phyllo Whisperer.
Spanakopita (from the Smitten Kitchen)
-1 tablespoon unsalted butter
-1/2 cup green onions, sliced
-1 clove garlic, minced
-1 pound fresh spinach (coarse stems removed, if necessary)
-12 ounces feta, crumbled
-1 tablespoon lemon juice
-Salt and pepper to taste
-10 (17x12") sheets of Phyllo dough, thawed if frozen
-1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1. Melt one tablespoon butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat. Add onions and garlic, saute for a minute. Then, cook spinach, stirring until wilted and tender an additional 4-8 minutes. Remove from heat and cool 10 minutes. Press mixture in a mesh colander to remove as much liquid as possible, then coarsely chop. Transfer to a bowl, stir in feta and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let filling cool.
2. Preheat oven to 375. Melt butter in saucepan or microwave, let cool a bit. Cover phyllo stack with 2 overlapping sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper, then a dampened kitchen towel (**it might help to spray the towel with water from a spray bottle**).
3. Take one phyllo sheet from stack, and arrange on a work surface with the long side nearest you (keep remaining sheets covered!), and brush with butter. Top with another phyllo sheet and brush with more butter. Cut buttered phyllo stack crosswise into 6 (12 x 2 3/4") strips.
4. Put a heaping teaspoon of filling near one corner of a strip on the end nearest you, then fold corner of phyllo over to enclose filling and form a triangle. Continue folding strip (like a flag), maintaining triangle shape. Put triangle, seam-side down, on a large baking sheet and brush top with butter. Be sure to keep triangles covered with parchment paper! Make more triangles in the same manner, using all of the phyllo.
5. Bake triangles in middle of the preheated oven until golden brown, about 20-25 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly.
-Pastry triangles can be formed, but not baked, three days ahead. Arrange in one layer in a heavy-duty sealed plastic bag, then freeze. Bake pastries (do not thaw!) in same manner as above.
-Your phyllo sheets may be differently size. You will need to adjust your strip sizes and amounts accordingly. For instance, my sheets were 8x14. I just cut them into 3 strips each, instead of 6.