Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sister-in-law Slumber Party Smorgasbord: Spanakopita & Pear Tart

So Friday night was a baking extravaganza. I invited my sister-in-law Adriana to come over and spend the night so we could attempt to make spanakopita and she could teach me to make her famous-at-every-family-occasion pear tart. She agreed to come over and to bring our dog Ruby's puppy cousins, Elvis and Chopper, as well as some chilled champage. Already, we had the makings of an eventful evening.

The spanakopita idea had been brewing for some time, but had never come to fruition. I crave it often and regularly lament the absense of good Greek restuarants in San Francisco. Sure, there's Kokkari, but that's sort of gourmet Greek. What I crave are the rustic flavors and preparations I remember from the 3 glorious years of childhood I spent living in Greece. My fondest memories are Friday nights at the local taverna eating souvlaki, fried zucchini and tzatsiki, and summer days at Piraeus eating calamari (so what if I spat my squid across the table upon learning I was chewing the same sorry creatures that were strung over the rocks along the nearby seashore. So what if I'd always assumed I was eating onion rings). I can chart most of my childhood memories in exotic locales by conjuring up the tastes and smells of the places. And when I think of Greece, I always imagine myself eating spanakopita purchased at a kiosk in some city square while waiting for a ferry.

Despite my love of this simple pastry staple, I've been phyllo-phobic for years now. It seems every recipe I read warned that handling the delicate pastry was an exercise in frustration. That thawing the phyllo improperly or neglecting to cover it with a damp cloth would ensure total failure. So the spanakopita, she's been a long time coming. But now I can say, with great pride I might add, that the pastries we made were simple to assemble, gorgeous to behold and gratifying to taste. I think the following combination will meet the standards of anyone looking to replicate "the real thing".


2 lbs fresh spinach, well washed and dried
1 large bunch dill, stemmed and roughly chopped
2 c. finely chopped green onions
sea salt & pepper
olive oil
1 stick butter & brush to apply
1/2 lb feta
4 eggs
1 box phyllo pastry sheets

Pull your phyllo dough from the freezer 2 hours before using. If your box contains two individually wrapped stacks of phyllo, return one to the freezer as you're not likely to use it all in one go. Once the phyllo is thawed, pull in from its wrapper and lay it flat on a countertop with a damp, well-wrung rag on top of it. This is important to ensure the pastry doesn't dry up while you're assembling your pies. Preheat oven to 350. Combine the washed spinach, dill, green onions and sea salt in a bowl. Mix well and let stand 15 minutes, then press out all the liquid. Heat the olive oil in large skillet and saute the spinach mixture–in batches if necessary. Saute until spinach is well-wilted and drain liquid from the pan.Transfer to a bowl, add crumbled feta and pepper and lightly toss. Lightly beat 4 eggs and fold into spinach mixture. Melt a stick of butter in a small saucepan. Now uncover the phyllo and cut the sheets in half down the length of the sheet. You should end up with 2 piles of sheets, each about 12" by about 3". Cuts may differ brand to brand, but I imagine most sheets are this size. Gently lift 2 sheets together from one of the stacks and then cover the stacks again. Spread your two sheets out on top of one another and lightly brush the top layer with melted butter. Then scoop a spoonful of the spinach mixture on the left corner closest to you. Gently lift that corner and fold it as a triangle, with the filling inside, over towards the right. Then continue this triangular folding pattern up your strip of pastry until you've reached the end. Then just lightly press the pastry closed, brushing it with butter to seal if necessary. Place the folded pie on a greased cookie sheet and brush once over the top with butter to brown. Once your trays are full, put them in the oven. They will cook for between 15-30 minutes. Let them turn golden brown and crisp, but not too dark. When a toothpick comes out clean, the egg has set and they're good to go. Let them cool, take a bite, smash a glass and yell OPA!

Next on the menu was Adriana's pear tart. I've been enjoying her signature dessert for years now and never believed her when she swore it was ridiculously easy to make and called it "white trash" due to its reliance on canned pears. It's a beautiful product and it tastes as good as any Parisian fancypants tart I've ever had. So fool your friends and family with this ever-so-easy offering and pretend you slaved all day.

Bavarian Pear Tart

1/2 c. butter, softened
1/3 c. sugar
1/4 tspn vanilla
1 c. flour
1/4 c. chopped walnuts
2 tart pans with removable base

8 oz. cream cheese
1/4 c. sugar
1 egg
1/2 tspn. vanilla

2 28 oz cans pears

Preheat oven to 350. Mix all crust ingedients using hand mixer, blender or bowl mixer. Press mixture into bottom of both tart pans. Don't worry about pressing it up the sides, just cover the bottoms. Bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes and remove to cool. Beat ingredients for filling together in same mixer. Spread evenly over cooled crusts. It will make a very thin layer, which is fine. Drain pears and slice thinly, lengthwise. Starting at the outer edge of the tarts, place the pears around the perimeter, slightly overlapping them and spiraling in towards the center. Once you've covered the top with pear slices, sprinkle a little sugar and cinnamon on top and bake for 30 minutes at 350. Once they've cooled, gently push the tarts through the removable sides so they rest on the base alone. Then transfer to a serving plate and dig in.

And that's not the end. We made basil cinnamon ice cream and swapped a few additional recipes, including a summer salad and oven fries that rival any deep-fried spuds. Those recipes will have to come tomorrow 'cause carpal tunnel's setting in. Go make a pear tart and we'll talk mañana.


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