Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cooking with Toddlers - Spanakopita

I grew up with a Mom who made a lot of different types of food.  She cooked her own style but always incorporated other cultures into our food.  My sister and I grew up eating all different foods and loving almost all types, ironically except a lot of typical American foods like Jello salads and heavy mayonnaise based dishes. (And she never made meatloaf, although I like it.)  Needless to say we ate a lot of variety.  One of my favorite dishes that she made was Spanakopita.  (I have so many favorites though really sometimes I say that and then I start thinking of all my favorites and the list is SOOO long.)  I love phyllo dough and when she made it I loved to eat the top layers off of the dish when she wasn't looking, while it was sitting and cooling.  (Truth be told, I think all of us did heehee. ) *As I was washing dishes after the spanakopita came out of the oven, I turn around to see the tradition continue. Patrick was holding Lucca over the dish and they were sneaking bits of yummy brown phyllo dough!*  Another reason I loved eating this dish was that it was fun to make with her.  She always let me help and helping made me super excited to eat it.  This is key when getting your kids to eat foods.  If they help you make it and are involved in the process, especially tasting process, they are more likely to eat the finished product.  I have found this true with most kids.  Spanakopita is a process, especially if you make the little appetizer triangles.  Which is probably why my Mom never did.  We always made the 9 x 13 pan.  I have made the triangles before and they are very labor intensive and time consuming, not something I have a lot of with a toddler running around.  So today while London was at school we cooked.  As stated in my previous post Lucca and London both love helping me make dough for bread and everything else that allows them to sit on the counter and help.  Lucca often will run to the pantry and take out my Kitchen Aid mixing bowl and bring it to me where ever I may be in the house.  He is very sad when I say no.  Very sad.  Cry and stomp sad.

Tips for cooking with Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers (and Kindergartners):

1. It will be messier.  They will spill and sometimes accidentally throw things.  Be prepared to clean up more flour than normal and be prepared to possibly change clothes after.
2.  They will stick their hands in the mixer, even if it is mixing so be watchful.  Sometimes they will put a measuring spoon into the mixer too.  Stand guard.
3.  They like to watch the mixer up close, sometimes this leads to sneezing into the mixer.  Be okay with family germs.  (They will lick their fingers and then put their hands back into the mix to grab some more.)  Germs in a family are going to be spread is my thought process.  Now if I were baking for someone else, I probably wouldn't be so lenient, probably.  :)
4.  Let them taste everything!  Even the raw onion, as Lucca has tried many times and each time he spits it out and asks for "agua".  It helps them to develop their palate and also for the older kid sometimes helps them realize they like something raw but not cooked.  (London for example has decided she really loves mushrooms, but only when raw.)
5.  Have them help get things out AND put away.  Sometimes this means handing them things so they can hand things right back to you.  It makes them feel important and the putting away part teaches them to clean up after making a mess.  Hand them a towel and let them push the flour around on the counter if they think that is cleaning up.  Don't freak, it will be messy!
6.  Don't forget to use teaching moments.  Ask what shape the vegetable is in, ask how things taste, get them to describe what they feel don't tell them how it should taste.  (Ask is it like a cookie? or is it like popcorn? if they don't understand sweet, salty, bitter, sour etc.)  If making bread let them see the yeast rise, it can be exciting when a big bloom shoots up to the surface.  Explain about the water temperature being just right and if you don't know why look it up together.
7.  Be careful with putting them on the counter.  That is my judgement but I can't tell you if it will work for your family.  Sometimes I strap Lucca into his seat on the barstool so that he can work right there, but usually he isn't content without sitting right next to the mixer.  This works for my kids, they both understand "Esperate! No te muevas!"  (Wait, don't move.) when I walk away.  Lucca even does the hand motion I make when I walk away.  Use your judgement with your child and do what you are comfortable with.
8.  Lastly, be careful with hot things and knives.  I never sit Lucca next to the stove and I never let him touch something hot.  London, being almost 6!!!!!, can sometimes pull a chair up and help me stir hot things or add things to a pot.  London can also cut things using a butter knife.  Lucca, NO WAY!  He's way too little.  In fact if I cut things in front of him I do it slowly and always make sure his hand isn't there, because at times he likes to reach for a piece of what I am cutting.  When I am done cutting I place the knife far far away so he doesn't grab it.  (He has tried when it was left a bit too close.)

All those tips are great, but use your own judgment.  Most importantly I think you really need to give up on things looking "perfect".  When kids help, especially with Pizza making, the shape doesn't always come out circular and veggies aren't evenly spaced, as I like, but they feel so rewarded after helping it is worth it.

My Mom always let me help with the butter in the Spanakopita.  It was fun to layer the phyllo dough and slather the melted butter on each piece.  It is such a great memory that each time I make my own spanakopita just the smells takes me back to my home kitchen with my Mom.  Ahhhhh.  So without further ado here is my recipe for Spanakopita.  It was taken from Cooking Light but adapted because it was for triangles and I didn't like how much dill was in it.


2 boxes frozen spinach, thawed, or 10 ounces fresh
1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup cottage cheese, I use 1 or 2 %
2 tbsp parmesan cheese
2tsp olive oil
1 cup green onions, chopped
2 tsp dill
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 egg whites

Phyllo dough, homemade or store bought, thawed (I buy my dough and it here in Boise I know you can get the brand Filo Dough Factory in the frozen section, usually by the puff pastry and rolls.)
olive oil

(I like to prepare the filling in the morning, placed covered in the fridge, and then assemble and bake before dinner.)  If you are using fresh spinach place over medium heat and wilt.  Fresh or frozen thawed spinach press out all the water in a colander in the sink.  You want as much of the liquid out as you can.  Combine the spinach and the cheeses in a bowl.
Heat the olive oil and saute the green onions until wilted.  Add the onions through egg whites into the spinach and cheese mixture.

Try not to let your little helper eat all the cheese.  This might be difficult depending on how much they like Parmesan! 

Melt 1/2 stick of butter with a few tbsp of olive oil in a pan.  Prepare the oven to 350 degrees.  Using a brush, brush the butter and olive oil into your 9x 13 baking pan.  Place one sheet of phyllo dough and fold it to fit, you can always cut the dough but it's easier for me to just fold it to fit and alternating sides that the fold is on. Brush it with the butter mixture.  Place another sheet of phyllo on top.  Repeat the process with 8-10 sheets of phyllo dough.  Place the spinach and cheese mixture and spread.  Place a sheet of phyllo dough on top and do the same process as the bottom layers.  Making sure to brush each sheet and melting more butter and olive oil as needed.  (It's a light version minus the butter!  Ha!)  Do this with about 10 sheets.  *Phyllo dough tends to dry out quickly and it is also very fragile.  When not using leave under a towel and handle with care.

Place into the oven for about 45 minutes.  The top should be golden brown and crunchy and delicious, because of all the butter.

Take out and let cool a bit before serving. Would be great with a greek salad of tomatoes, olives, cucumbers and feta.  Yummy.  It's not quite time for dinner here but I can smell and taste it even though mine isn't even in the oven yet.

Yes, that is a Dora plate I am rocking.  (This was Lucca's serving and he liked it, well half of it.  He's so weird.  London had two servings!)


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