You’d think I’ve been taking entrance exams for a job at Cook’s Illustrated. I imagine one of the more challenging tests they could give an aspiring test kitchen cook there would be: figure out how to make spinach fatayar that never open up when you bake them.
I thought it was going to be a breeze to make spinach fatayar with you. Then I realized that most of the fatayar (fah-TIE-ah, which in Arabic refers to any savory little bundle of dough—a pie—with a filling) I’ve made in the last year has been stuffed with meat. I needed some serious spinach ‘taya tutorials.
Here’s the thing: spinach is mostly water, and that water steams and juices out of the spinach when it’s cooked. Which forces open the tidy triangle you have pinched, ever so lovingly, together. Then the juice gets all over the pan and the bottom of your fatayar and burns. Then you start thinking about baking perfect chocolate chip cookies instead. You end up saying some harsh words meant only for the fatayar, and you remember it’s a beautiful spring day in March and the windows are wide open. Construction workers next door just look at you and then each other when you walk out the door. There goes crazy.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that you rolled your dough out nice and thin and pulled together a really pretty triangle that then, as if just to spite you, bakes up looking like the misshapen work of a five year old.
Now that I’ve been to cooking school, and the OCD-factor is in fine working order, it seems I can’t stand to have my fatayar looking too…rustic. Dan said they never all look the same; they’re like siblings, he said, different but the same, and they’re cute. But here’s a guy who has never seen the Sound of Music, so I’m not sure I can trust him. As he buttered up the fatayar with labne and ate them down like candy, I was forced to admit that yes, they do still taste incredibly delicious even in their artisan state.
Cindy happened to call when I was in the middle of my third round of testing. This time I had used cake flour for a softer dough, hoping that would contribute to the sticky factor and keep the pinched edges together. I got all excited by how beautifully that dough rolled out and was sitting in front of the oven watching them, just daring them to open up again. Cindy could hear the concentration in my voice. How about a staple gun!, she said, and you could just tell people how many staples are in each one so they’d know how many they need to spit out. Like an olive pit, I said.
The batch came out pretty, and without much fatayar-opening, but the cake flour dough just didn’t have the right chew, the right flavor, the right color. No go.
Cousin Teresa makes tons of fatayar, and she told me that her key is a dry dough, but then she folds her dough over into a turnover triangle rather than pinching it. I notice that’s what Aunt Louise does too, but I can’t seem to get past my desire to pinch them closed, the way my mom does it.
The chef at the club where Tom and Amara had their wedding reception last month made little tiny fatayar, the smallest I’ve ever seen, and he told me he rubbed egg white along the rim of the dough circles to help them stay closed. I tried it and it can be helpful, but not foolproof, and it’s another step I’d rather avoid if I could.
In the end there are two factors that I’ve found work well to keep pinched fatayar closed: a dry spinach filling and a sticky dough. The spinach is dried out by squeezing it practically to death before adding finely chopped onions, cinnamon or allspice, and then a little lemon juice right before filling the dough. Fresh chopped spinach gives up its water when it is salted and left to rest for a few minutes; then squeeze away. Chopped frozen spinach thaws out wet and can be squeezed out from there. You keep the dough sticky rather than dried out by not dilly-dallying when you are cutting, filling, and closing them. I don’t recommend stopping to take pictures along the way. Or staples.
Lebanese Spinach Pies, or Fatayar
This recipe makes about 30 spinach fatayar using a 4” round cutter. Fatayar make great picnic or road trip treats!
For the dough:
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup canola oil, plus more to coat the pans
2-3 tablespoons olive oil, to coat the fatayar
Proof the yeast by dissolving it in ¼ cup of the warm water with the sugar and letting it activate for about 10 minutes.
Whisk together the flour and salt in a mixer bowl or medium bowl. Create a well in the center and add the oil and proofed yeast mixture. Using a stand mixer fitted with the hook attachment or by hand, slowly work the wet ingredients into the dry, adding the remaining 3/4 cup of water slowly. Add more water only as necessary to create a sticky dough.
Knead by hand or with the dough hook in the mixer until the dough is very soft, smooth, and tacky/sticky to the touch (but it should not leave dough on your fingers when touched). The kneading by hand can be awkward at first because it’s such a wet mess, but as you knead, the dough will firm up a bit and absorb all of the water.
In a clean bowl at least twice the size of the dough, lightly coat the dough and the sides of the bowl with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 90 minutes.
For the spinach filling:
8 cups of fresh spinach, chopped or 2 lbs. frozen chopped spinach (thawed, drained, and squeezed dry)
1 ½ cups yellow onion, finely diced
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon cinnamon or allspice
½ cup toasted pine nuts or chopped toasted walnuts
If using fresh spinach, sprinkle with the salt in a medium bowl. Set aside to macerate for 10 minutes, then squeeze the spinach of as much juice as possible. Discard juice. If using frozen spinach, squeeze as much juice as possible, and discard juice.
Combine the spinach and onion. Just before filling the pastry, add cinnamon or allspice, pepper, and lemon juice. If using frozen spinach, add salt (fresh has already been salted to remove the juice). Taste and adjust seasoning.
To fill and bake the fatayar:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush two heavy baking sheets with canola oil.
Roll half of the dough out on a dry work surface to 1/8-inch thickness. Gently lift the dough from the edges to allow for contraction. Cut dough into 4-inch rounds. Cover with plastic wrap. Knead together the scraps, cover with plastic, and set aside.
Fill the rounds of dough by placing a heaping tablespoon of filling in the center of each round. Be careful not to let the filling touch the edges of the dough where it will be gathered together and closed. A good way to keep the filling in the center is to lower the spoon with the filling over the center of the dough (parallel to it) and use your fingers to slide the filling off the spoon and into the center of the dough circle. Place three nuts on top of the filling; this method works better than adding the nuts to the filling because it’s easier to be sure each fatayar has enough nuts.
Bring three sides of the dough together in the center over the filling and pinch into a triangle. Close the dough firmly.
Place the fatayar on the baking sheets and generously brush or spray the dough with olive oil. Bake in the middle of the oven for 18-20 minutes, or until golden brown. Set the oven on convection bake for the last 5 minutes of baking to encourage browning.
Repeat the process with the other half of the dough, then with the scraps that have been kneaded together and left to rest for a few minutes before rolling out.
Fatayar freezes well in a ziplock freezer bag and can be reheated from frozen, or simply thaw to room temperature and eat.
Serve fatayar warm or room temperature as an appetizer, or for a meal with a salad.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.