September 29, 2008


There is something so satisfying about putting a pie together. And then when you serve it, no matter how humble the occasion, it feels like a celebration. Though truth be told, my mother made this pie, not me. And it was a celebration actually, a family get-together.

We tend to associate pies with winter, with cosiness and beer, but on the Continent they make lighter pies for the summer; like spanakopita, pictured above. So it was fitting that the weather happened to be good, probably one of the last warm days we are likely to get this year, and we ate in the garden, in the shade of the oak. The white table-cloth was solid with dishes – tomato salad and potato salad and a mound of cheeses my sister had just brought over from France, and French bread and quiche…You get the idea; we barely had room for our plates.

Orange roses were in bloom and the whole garden was lush from weeks of rain. It’s a proper English country garden with hollyhocks and lavender and at this time of year huge floppy dahlias in crazy colour combinations.

Sometimes in the early morning you can find deer cropping the lawn, their noses in the dew. They also ate up all the lettuces in the vegetable patch at the bottom of the garden. There wasn’t much of anything left in the patch this weekend, except potatoes, but I liked the criss-crossed bean canes; the beans had all been eaten but you could look through the canes at the hill-side beyond the garden, where cows were munching their way through the day, and it was all like something from a film of Jane Austen.

The pie was great. Spanakopita just means ‘Spinach Pie’ (I presume ‘pitta bread’ is ‘pie bread’ because it is bread which can be filled). Mum used a recipe by the great and grizzly Antony Worrall Thompson. We ate it cold, as you should, which was a new idea to me, but one which worked. I think I might have added even more feta than Mr AWT.

Back in London where the sky had inevitably clouded over, I began to dream up a winter version. The more I thought about it the more complicated it got, with pine-nuts and cream and then mushrooms and finally – why not? – in a moment of brilliance the filo pastry was replaced by puff. So all in all what I came up with might not be recognisable to a Greek. But I think it’s pretty damn fine.

Cheese and Spinach Pie (for 4, at least. 4 large people)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 courgettes, sliced
450g/1 lb fresh spinach, washed and shredded
110g/4 oz mushrooms (button is fine)
55g/2 oz pine-nuts
3 fl oz milk

2 eggs

3 dsp cream

225g/8 oz ricotta

2 tbs olive oil

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp grated nutmeg

1 tsp English mustard

Pinch cayenne

1 tbs vegetable bouillon powder

450g/ 1 lb puff pastry

Beaten egg yolk to glaze

Sesame seeds to decorate

Set the oven to 180C/250F/Gas 4.

Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the onion, gently, for about five minutes. Add in the garlic, courgettes and mushrooms, and cook for a few minutes, until the vegetables are almost, but not quite tender. (ie they should still have ‘bite’).

Add in the spinach, cover, and give it a couple of minutes. Stir. Throw in all the spices and a good grind of fresh pepper and cook over a low heat for another few minutes. Remove from the heat.

Beat up the eggs in a glass bowl, mix in the cream and milk and stir the mixture into the vegetables. Follow this with the cheese. Check the seasoning (for extra tang , replace half the ricotta with crumbled feta).

Spoon into an ovenproof dish.Dust your work surface with flour and roll out the pastry, so that it’s just bigger than the dish. Wet the edges of the dish, roll the pastry round the rolling pin to lift it, and cover the pie. Pinch in the edges to seal and then cut off the excess with a sharp knife. You can make decorations on top with the extra pastry.When you’re done, brush the pastry well with the beaten egg, and – if you like – sprinkle over with sesame seeds.

Cook for 40 minutes at the centre of the oven – but check after 30. If the pastry is cooking too much at the edges, turn down the heat slightly. Serve hot.


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