Adventures in Recipe Testing, Part 1: In Which I Become a Dope-ita While Making Spanakopita

Adventures in Recipe Testing, Part 1: In Which I Become a Dope-ita While Making Spanakopita

Have you ever wondered what four and a half pounds of spinach looks like? Me neither. This is what four and a half pounds of spinach looks like:

You might say, “Holy cow, Debbie, that’s a lot of spinach!” I would agree. You might ask how I came to need four and a half pounds of spinach. I would say, “Well, I always thought it would be cool to be a recipe tester. In all my years marketing cookbooks, I hinted at it occasionally to various editors, but I never screwed up the courage to ask them to use me. Then I heard that Leite’s Culinaria has volunteers testing recipes for them, and I thought it might be fun. At the very least, I’d get some new material for Words to Eat By, right?”

At this point you might interject: “But the spinach, Debbie, the spinach!”

Yes, the spinach. I signed up to test recipes monthly, and promptly got an email inviting me to select from November’s list of nine, three each from three different cookbooks. Among them was a recipe for spanakopita from Cat Cora’s Kitchen. I lived in Astoria, New York’s huge and vibrant Greek neighborhood, for over a decade, so I’ve eaten some spinach pie in my time. Since I moved to S’s place in Brooklyn in February, I’ve really missed the easy access to skordalia, the divine potato/garlic/olive oil dip; and saganaki, little squares of salty fried Kasseri cheese with fresh lemon squeezed on top; and moist cubes of chicken souvlaki; and perfectly grilled fish with crackling skin…oh I may cry just thinking about it. So you see: the chance to test a recipe and have a taste of my old neighborhood all at the same time was simply too tempting.

I should’ve realized when pre-reading the recipe that I was asking for trouble. It called for four and a half pounds of fresh spinach, stems removed. (at last: here’s the explanation for the mountain of green!) It sounded like a lot, but I knew that spinach cooks down to practically nothing so it seemed reasonable. The part I didn’t consider fully was just how much prep goes into that quantity of Popeye’s Choice. I planned to buy the spinach at the farmer’s market that takes place near me every Saturday, but I went to my brother’s in Jersey yesterday and missed this week’s market. Instead, I stopped at a humongo suburban supermarket the likes of which we just don’t have in the city. Spinach was on sale! I did some quick math and decided that for 4 ½ pounds of spinach, five ten-ounce bags would do. Don’t ask how I arrived at that number—usually I’m pretty good at basic arithmetic. In retrospect, I think it was a subconscious denial of the magnitude of the task.

So, today I pulled my five bags of spinach out of the fridge to prep. This was when I realized that the prep itself was a HUGE job—in order to wash spinach properly, you must fill a big ol’ vessel with enough water to float the leaves above all the grainy dirt that comes off. The biggest stock pot I own holds perhaps two gallons of water, and my salad spinner is definitely not restaurant-capacity. This meant I could wash roughly a third of a bag of spinach at a time. Remember: I had five bags to clean and stem. Thank heavens I missed the farmer’s market—at least the bagged spinach was pre-washed! If I’d bought “fresh from the farm” spinach, it would’ve taken three times longer to clean. Forty-five minutes into this production—the prep that got me to the beginning of the recipe—I realized that I’d miscalculated. 4 ½ pounds = 72 ounces of spinach, and I had 50. I put everything on hold and went to my local store, where annoyingly the spinach was not on sale and yet was $.50/bag cheaper. So much for living in the city being more expensive…

All told, it took me about an hour and fifteen minutes to clean and stem the spinach, not counting the time it took for that second trip to the store.

Finally, on to the recipe itself! It called for an equally large volume of chopped onions and herbs, so I pulled out the cuisinart. This part took only a few minutes, and at last I was ready to cook. I dried off my biggest pot—the one I used to wash the spinach—and fifteen minutes later, that mountain of spinach was reduced to this:

Pretty impressive, huh? While the spinach was cooling I washed the equally impressive mountain of dirty pots & knives & cuisinart bowls, etc., and began to write these notes. Busy busy busy. An hour later the spinach was fully cool, so I added the feta and began building my pie.

Until today, I was a phyllo virgin. Who knew it was so easy? A piece of plastic wrap and a damp towel to keep it moist while you work, a pastry brush and some olive oil… OK, confession: The recipe said to do the brush & oil thing as you lay down each individual sheet of phyllo, but the phyllo box said you could also use olive oil spray. At first I wanted to be scrupulously honest and follow the recipe exactly, but after about twenty sheets of dipping the brush in oil, then brushing carefully, then dipping some more, well—I got tired. I pulled out that can of cooking spray, and finished the job in half the time.

Here’s what it looked like before it went into the oven:

I was sort of amazed that all that spinach fit into my little baking dish, but it did. Popped that sucker in the oven for fifty minutes (ten more than the recipe called for, but what am I gonna do, serve it underdone?), and when it came out it looked like this:

I was thrilled. I made a salad to go with it, throwing in some dill and feta to make it more Greek. It looked quite pretty:

And then, the big moment: The First Bite. It tasted…fine. The spinach part was a little bland; the bottom crust was strangely dense, almost tough–interesting, since the bottom was the part I did with the pastry brush, following the recipe exactly. It took nearly five hours from when I started cleaning the spinach to taking that bite—definitely not worth the effort. And now we’ve got enough leftovers for two more meals. Sigh. That’s the chance you take when you test a recipe, I guess. Leite’s also had some chocolate recipes that looked pretty good. Maybe I’ll do one of them next.

(FYI I’m not posting the recipe the way I’d usually do, since I’m not sure if that’s allowed by Leite’s. Take my word for it—you don’t want to make this particular one, anyway!)