Below I offer an authentic recipe from the kitchen files of a true Quarterican Jew—My mother is half Greek, half Puerto Rican while my father is half Russian and half Austrian. She was raised Greek Orthodox; he’s Jewish. I spent a million Tuesdays and Sundays in Hebrew school, had a bat mitzvah and can still read Hebrew. Jews I know can never quite leave this bit alone. Routinely, there is this unbridled need to announce the following, “It always goes by the mother.” They are speaking of my Jewishness. It’s their way of asserting that regardless of how many afternoons I was forced to wear tights and dress shoes to the synagogue, temple, or shul, I am not, technically, a Jew. Why do so many Jews feel the need to tell me this? Do they think I’ve never heard it? I think the next time someone points this out I will behave as if my whole identity is being yanked from me, as if my entire childhood was a lie. It wasn’t lived the “right” way. I’ll fall to my knees and get all breathy, asking questions as if I’m a cast member on Scandal. I’ll ask for a drink.
I was raised celebrating both Passover and Greek Easter, from Matzo to Peeps. From the Seder table with a Haggadah reciting the narrative of the Exodus to taking a midnight mass stroll with my mother, candle in hand. I was never confused. Judaism encourages questions, so if I ever doubted in anything, I simply asked. “This sounds a little fishy, Rabbi.” I didn’t mean the gefilte fish, but the legends. I loved that I was encouraged to ask questions, not to follow and believe just because I was told to do so. My parents provided a landscape of cultural experiences, and now, as a mother to Jewish children I’m able to showcase the tapestries in my home by way of traditions, both Greek and Jewish.
Today begins with Spinach Pie, Spanakopita. Abigail wrapped a Susan B. Anthony coin in aluminum foil and hid it within prior to baking. Whomever receives the slice with the coin is said to get extra good luck in this coming year. There is no talk of Christ on these holidays in our home. It’s talk of tradition, of our ancestors. I tell stories about my mom’s dad, my popoo, Euripides, from Greece, who married Pelar from Puerto Rico, who is still alive in Florida, making her own Spanikopita, spending today with my mother, just as I spend today with mine, hardly a Greek Tragedy.
As for the actual recipe, I continue to tweak it. I made one last night, and it was “too dry.” The filling wasn’t juicy or wet enough. I had let the spinach stand in cheese cloth to drain out all the liquid, so that might be it, but I believe it needed more cream or sour cream or Greek yogurt. The flavors are authentic and bright, but you’ll have to fuss with your consistency (depends how wet your spinach is, determines how many eggs to add, how much cream, etc.). Here’s the good news: it will taste delicious no matter what.
STEPHANIE’S SPECTACULAR SPANAKOPITA
1 c. finely chopped onions
5 finely chopped scallions, including green tops
1 Tbl. finely chopped garlic
3 Tbl. olive oil
2 ½ lbs. fresh spinach, washed and finely chopped (3 bags)
¼ c. fresh dill leaves (2 tbl. if using dry)
1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
3 Tbl. coarsely chopped flat leaf parsley
3 Tbl. chopped fresh mint (optional, but makes it all the more special)
1/3 c. thick buttermilk or light cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 eggs, lightly beaten
12oz. feta cheese, drained and crumbled (or more to taste)
½ lb. (2 sticks) butter, melted for brushing
16 sheets filo pastry (sold in freezer section of market), thawed
Optional: 3Tbl. sour cream, and some grated Locatelli cheese between some of the layers.
1. Sauté onions, scallions, and garlic until soft, not brown. Stir in spinach, cover, and cook for 2-3 minutes or until completely wilted. Add the dill, parsley, and mint. Continue to cook uncovered for another 6-8 minutes or until the liquid has evaporated. Drain in cheesecloth over strainer. Discard excess liquid. Transfer spinach mixture to bowl and stir in the buttermilk. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cool to room temperature and stir in the eggs and cheese, sour cream if using.
2. Lightly paint the bottom and sides of a 12×7-inch baking dish with melted butter. Line the dish with a sheet of filo, pressing the edges firmly into the corners and up the sides. Spoon over some melted butter then repeat, adding another sheet of filo on top. Continue until you have 6 layers. Spread spinach mixture evenly over filo layers. Lay a sheet of filo on top and paint with softened, or melted, butter, and continue layering with remaining sheets. Paint top with butter. Lightly score through top three sheets into diamond cuts, squares, or slices. Bake in pre-heated 300 degree oven for 55-60 minutes, or until filo is crisp and golden.
A note on handling filo dough: once defrosted, cover in a slightly damp towel, as this prevents the filo from drying out. Work quickly once you begin the layering process.
Makes one pie. Alternatively, you can make spinach triangles, to serve as appetizers, by cutting filo into 4-inch strips, then with melted butter between each layer, layer 3 of the filo strips on top of one another. Then spoon a small portion of the spinach mixture at one end of the “filo runway” then fold, turning one corner up, until you form a closed triangle, brushing outside with butter. Bake until triangles are crisp. They can be frozen this way, at the ready for company.