Baked spinach and cheese empanada, with the filling wrapped in filo pastry. A cross between spanakopita and empanada? Maybe, but at least no need to make empanada dough from scratch.
The great cheese mystery
Cheese making is a complete mystery to me. Not the process itself since, I figure, you curdle milk, strain it and let it sit to ferment, solidify, age and turn into cheese, give or take a detail or two. But how do they make all those wonderful variations that are different wherever in the world you go?
Is it all down to cows (and sheep, and goats. Donkeys?)? Is it in the grass they eat, in their happiness levels and the climate they live in?
Compare Cheddar with Emmental: at a glance both are types of cow’s milk hard cheese but the difference in taste? You couldn’t possibly confuse them at the blindest tasting.
So when I encounter a recipe that calls for a particular type of cheese that isn’t readily available in my neck of woods, I’m usually stumped.
Replacements work, provided the result is similar, and the way individual cheeses behave is so varied, it’s a difficult trick. This spinach empanada recipe for instance, from Great British Chefs whom I fully respect, demanded Torta del Casar. Wtf? Exactly.
Obscure cheese substitute
Having read all I could about the mysterious Casar, I decided it must be a relatively smelly cheese, in a firm rind but runny in the middle. Sheep’s milk, to make things more challenging.
Feta is the only sheep origin dairy usually available to me, but it mixes well so will do for one part. For the rest I go for ripe Camembert, but a good goats’ in thick rind may do well too.
Filo empanada = enfilada!
I was wondering whether it can still be called an empanada if the cheese is of non-Spanish provenience.
The word 'empanada' means ‘wrapped in bread’ so maybe this is an ‘enfilada’? And maybe my innovative naming will catch on?
But anyway – spanakopita is not pita bread either so I hope some culinary license is allowed, even among the cultural police these days.
Universal spinach filling
Spinach filled things are invariably delicious. Pancakes, for instance: if you’ve ever only had lemon and sugared pancakes in your life, you’ve missed out big time.
Spanakopita mentioned already is everyone’s favourite Greek meze dish. Lasagne with spinach-ricotta layers possibly beats the classic meat kind in popularity.
And the old-school, spinach filled puff pastries from office party buffets, always get snatched before all the other stuff, by vegetarians and meat eaters both.
The only challenge, as always with spinach, is to cook it off sufficiently so it isn’t soggy.
Fresh or frozen?
You can make a good filling from both fresh and frozen spinach, though the latter will make it mushier.
The key thing is to cook off most of the liquid, and we all know spinach is a watery beast.
This recipe starts with onions and garlic, finely diced and sweated in some oil to soften but not to colour. Onions make the filling more robust: on other occasions by all mean omit them and hit the pan with spinach, fresh or frozen.
It should cook vigorously, uncovered, to get rid of the liquid. Once it’s thick, whatever the cheese combo you decided on can be added and mixed in well until it melts and thickens the spinach.
That mixture is really versatile, for pancakes, omelettes, pasta and pastries.
Empanadas in the Spanish and Latino worlds are made with a pie-type, shortcrust dough. This recipe cuts corners, though some might argue layering filo is a hassle – not as much as kneading dough is, my dear!
To make the filo taste more like a pie crust, each layer is brushed with egg instead of butter or oil. So the end result is more cohesive, less flaky.
The top of rolled up empanada is also egg-washed, making it glossy. That shiny surface is topped with gorgeous toasted pine nut, almond and honey mixture, making it a really exquisite dish.
More spinach recipes
Spinach and cheese bake, a healthy casserole served as a side dish or for brunch. This is an easy recipe for baked spinach with cheese, made using fresh spinach.
Tian de courgettes, courgette and spinach gratin, courgette bake - however you call it, it's a great vegetarian recipe. Zucchini and spinach are a well matched couple, appearing in risottos, pasta and frittatas.
Spinach and mozzarella oven baked balls, with crunchy breadcrumb coating and hearty garlicky seasoning - the signature dish of my favourite home chef!
More filo pie recipes
Greek lamb, spinach and feta filo pastry pie, using leftover roast lamb, is better than the original roast. A spanakopita bulked out with shredded roast lamb, this pie can be lunch, dinner, a snack or a party dish.
Moroccan lamb pastillas are shaped like cigars with leftover lamb wrapped in filo pastry. Inspired by Jamie Oliver's recipe, these lamb pastillas are served with a yoghurt harissa dip.
Ottolenghi inspired fondue filo pie, with butternut squash swapped for mushrooms. It’s a combo of Savoyard raclette experience and a Greek or Middle Eastern filo pastry, and it’s excellent.