Spinach pie with phyllo dough (and feta and ricotta cheeses): the awe-inspiring traditional Balkan (Yugoslavian) pie created by several layers of soft filo pastry intertwined with a flawless filling. Also known as pita zeljanica or pita od zelja, this is the pie that’ll make you forget you ever had spanakopita!
(Recept na bosanskom: Slagana pita zeljanica (od kupovnih jufki/ kora))
Balkan spinach pie: aka pita zeljanica
If you’ve ever traveled there, YOU KNOW that stuffed phyllo dough pies are an unforgettable Balkan delicacy. Today’s feta, ricotta spinach pie is a perfect example!
These traditional pies were introduced to the region by the Ottomans centuries ago. However, they have since evolved into something very Balkan. They’ve taken over tastes and habits of the inhabitants.
Although many pastries fall under the umbrella of a pie (or pita, pronounced pe-tah, with a hard “t”), individual pies are usually named after their stuffing.
Spinach pie is called pita zeljanica or pita od zelja, zelje being “leafy greens.” In some Balkan regions (but definitely not in Bosnia) this pie is also known as burek with spinach.
What is it about these pies makes them so irresistible?
It’s the union of, at the same time, flaky and soft phyllo dough layers and luscious fillings that bake together to golden perfection. And to top it off, a topping of butter and milk. Oh mama!
And in today’s case, when you mix a few cheeses like ricotta and feta (other cheese mixes work too!) with fresh spinach, the combo is an explosion of flavors.
What is phyllo dough?
First things first. What is phyllo or filo or pastry dough?
These terms can be, and are, used interchangeably. They refer to dough that’s stretched out until it’s paper-thin. It’s usually stuffed with sweet or savory fillings, and baked.
(By the way, phyllo means leaf in Greek.)
(Oh and let’s make a distinction between phyllo (pastry) dough vs puff pastry. Puff pastry is a specific type of pastry dough. It’s phyllo dough that’s been laminated, or folded with butter, until a special kind of flaky dough is made, used most often for croissants and danishes.)
When making any Balkan pie you’ll have to choose whether to:
- Make homemade filo dough for superior taste, or
- Buy filo dough for an excellent taste.
The best pies are, of course, made with homemade. Homemade filo is easier to manage and manipulate into different shapes and thicknesses.
For instance, spinach and cheese pie with homemade dough is usually shaped into one big spiral. Or many small ones.
However, store bought phyllo will do just fine for today’s recipe. You’ll get a spectacularly quick pie that’s as close in taste to the homemade as you can get.
(If, on the other hand, you’re feeling ambitious, check out my detailed how to make phyllo dough recipe. It’ll help you succeed on your very first try.)
Consequently, each type of dough requires tailored handling. We’ll be making today’s feta spinach pie with filo you can buy at the grocery store. Let’s take a look at how to best work with it.
How to handle store bought filo (phyllo, pastry) dough?
What to look for when buying pastry dough:
Store filo is shaped into long rectangular pastry sheets that are rolled up together. There are usually around 15-20 filo sheets in one package. Rolled up sheets are placed in a plastic sleeve, and then boxed up.
Phyllo’s usually in the freezer aisle of your local grocery store. When buying, be careful not to pick up puff pastry instead. They sometimes come in similar packages.
Additionally, always buy a package more than you think you’ll need. The quality may vary from box to box, even if you buy from the same, trusted brand. Also, if you mess up the recipe, you’ll have a “just in case” box.
In that vein, don’t be afraid to switch brands up. Be mindful of the quality as it can change. This has happened to me many times.
Finally, brands vary in filo dough thickness. The US brands tend to run on the thin side. This isn’t good or bad, it just means for some phyllo recipes you might have to use 1/2 to 1 sheet more per a layer.
Handling phyllo tips:
All types of phyllo are fragile, especially the grocery store kind. Be gentle with the sheets.
On the other hand, feel free to adjust them to your pans. Depending on the recipe you’ll be able to manipulate filo until you get the desired shape.
You can cut them (pizza cutter is helpful here), wrinkle them, or double the sheets up. Sky is the limit.
How to store filo and what to do with leftover phyllo sheets?
How to store filo sheets:
If you plan to use them soon, store filo sheets in the fridge for up to 3-4 days. Keep them in the box, or sleeve, but don’t open the sleeve.
On the other hand, don’t store them first in the fridge and then transfer to freezer later. (You should NEVER do this with any food anyway!) If you plan to use them later, freeze them right away.
Phyllo can be in the freezer up to 2-4 months, 2 is better than 4 due to freezer burn. To thaw, transfer the filo box from freezer to fridge 8-12 hours ahead of using.
Don’t thaw phyllo quickly, or in a warm environment. The sheets will be dried out, stick together, or get flaky and disintegrate like ashes.
Finally, take out of the fridge 30 min to 1 hour before use. Leave on a counter to adjust to room temperature.
Open the sleeve just ahead of using the phyllo. If the recipe is complex keep it in plastic and a slightly damp kitchen towel and take out one by one. (For today’s recipe you don’t have to worry about this step as assembly moves pretty quickly.)
Leftover phyllo sheets:
I’m no fan of refrigerating phyllo sheets. I’ve tried many different ways to keep extra sheets once I’m done with the recipe. However, once exposed to air, they become breakable, hard to manage, and dry.
Indeed, the best advice I can offer you is to plan ahead and think of another, simple recipe you can use them up for.
Spinach, sour cream, egg, feta and ricotta mix, a sleeve of filo (phyllo), milk, salt, butter, oil.
Ingredient and Method Notes:
Spinach: Use fresh (raw) spinach only! NEVER use frozen spinach for this recipe. Sub partially with swiss chard or nettle, it’s a green pie after all! When cutting up spinach, mincing it will make the flavors come out in the best way.
Cheese: You can sub with goat cheese or queso fresco, but avoid strong cheeses so they don’t overpower the spinach. (For example, ricotta and feta make a perfect combo because ricotta softens the harshness of feta, giving the spinach space to shine.)
Oil: Sub with sunflower oil. Don’t use olive oil for this recipe.
Serving: Best to serve the pie 20-30 minutes after baking.
Storing: Store in the fridge up to 2 days. Do not freeze.
Assembly: Assemble just before baking.
How do you make spinach pie with filo? Lightening quick instructions!
1. Make the filling. Heat oven.
2. & 3. Assemble phyllo, coating and filling into several layers.
4. Bake pie.
5. Coat pie with topping. Rest. Eat.
Spanakopita versus our spinach phyllo pie with cheese
You may have come to this recipe by searching for spanakopita, a similar Greek dish.
However, there are a couple of major differences between Balkan spinach pie with cheese and spanakopita.
Spinach – most spanakopita recipes use frozen spinach. For spinach pie you ALWAYS use fresh (raw) spinach.
Layering – spanakopita is usually made in three thicker layers: phyllo on the bottom, then the filling, and another layer of filo sheets to top it off. Spinach, on the other hand, can be shaped in many different ways. When layered it has many more thinner layers of filo and filling.
Taste – spanakopita is more tangy. Ricotta spinach pie has a milder, softer, chewier taste. This is what makes it perfect as a lunch, dinner, and an appetizer too.
Texture – spanakopita is flakier and crunchier. Flakiness is one of its defining moments. Spinach pie can be both, although the topping makes it more soft than crunchy.
Topping – spanakopita usually doesn’t have a topping. Spinach pie is topped with milk and butter, or some type of shortening with dairy. The addition of this topping makes all the difference.
Want more recipes like today’s spinach pie?
- Crustless spinach pie
- Cheese phyllo pie
- Zucchini pie
- And if you’re crazy about spinach as we are, check out How to Use Up Spinach: 41 Smart Ideas and Recipes!
Would you do me a favor? If you make this spinach pie leave a rating, comment or tag @balkanlunchbox on IG. (P.S. I read every comment!) Prijatno (aka bon appetit)!
Spinach pie with phyllo dough and cheeses. Also known as pita zeljanica this is an amazing, quick lunch the entire family will love.
- 16–18 ounces fresh (raw) spinach (minced)
- 4–5 ounces ricotta cheese
- 4–5 ounces feta cheese (shredded)
- 16 ounces sour cream
- 5 eggs
- salt to taste
Phyllo and phyllo coating:
- 1 box of phyllo dough (16 ounces of phyllo, or about 18–20 sheets)
- 3–4 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 cup milk
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Filling: In a large bowl, combine filling ingredients. Whisk until ingredients are completely integrated. Heat oven to 450°f (230°c).
- Assembly: Grease a baking pan.* Layer one phyllo sheet on the bottom of the pan. Brush a thin layer of (butter and oil) coating over the sheet. Add another sheet of phyllo on top of the first one and repeat the coating.
- Grab a generous amount of filling (about 4 tablespoons), and spread evenly over the top sheet. Layer two sheets on top of the filling, coating each before adding the next layer (just like in step two). Top with the filling again and spread it evenly. Repeat phyllo, coating and filling layers until you run out ingredients. Make sure the last, top, pie layer has at least 3-4 sheets of phyllo.* Brush it with coating put the pan in the oven.
- Bake 5 min. Lower temperature to 400°f (200°c) and bake another 30 min.* Monitor the pie so it doesn’t blush too much (or burn). If it blushes too much lower the temperature to 355°f (180°c) or cover with foil.
- Topping: In a small pan combine milk and butter. Warm up the milk just until the butter melts. Take the spinach pie out of the oven and using a teaspoon distribute the topping evenly over the pie. Turn the oven off and return the pie inside for a few minutes; alternatively, you can cover it with a clean kitchen towel. (If able to resist) Rest pie for 20-ish minutes, then serve.
Step 2: My pan is approximately 10.5×15.5 inches (27×39 cm), however, many similar, rectangular, pan sizes will work. If you use a smaller pan you’ll have more layers and a thicker pie, and vice versa. You can cut phyllo to fit your pan, or shrivel it up a little bit. You may have to use just one sheet, doubled instead of two, per layer. The point is that phyllo is malleable and adjustable, while this recipe is forgiving.
Step 3: Sometimes the top sheet will blush or even burn slightly. This way you can remove it once you are done with baking, unless you like it a little charred.
Step 4: As always, be mindful of your oven. If it runs on the hotter side, lower the temperature to 355°f (180°c) when baking and maybe add a few more minutes if necessary. If it runs on a cooler side, you can raise the temp to 410°F (210°c) but not much higher.
Nutritional information is a rough estimate based on 1 of 6 servings.
- Serving Size: 1 of 6
- Calories: 496
- Sugar: 4.1g
- Sodium: 601mg
- Fat: 41.6g
- Saturated Fat: 23.8g
- Carbohydrates: 15.8g
- Fiber: 2g
- Protein: 17.8g
- Cholesterol: 232mg
Keywords: spinach and ricotta pie, cheese spianch pie, feta and ricotta pie