Sunday, August 30, 2009
There's a certain magical romance to high school friendships. You spend all of your time together, unpacking the events of your day and planning for the future. You have loud conversations while waiting on lines and buses, wanting to be overheard because you're sure that everyone else must be entranced by your wit and vitality (only later do you realize how wrong you are). And you become part of another family.
A huge amount of my personal development happened with my high school best friend. And, as a lovely bonus, a huge amount of my culinary development happened with my best friend's mother. Let me take you back: the early 1990s. While American food was a far cry from the previous decade, it was still a different landscape. Health food stores, without fail, were located in basements. Italian food meant red sauce. Ethnic food meant canned water chestnuts. Heck, we were still learning about cilantro.
In the midst of all this was my friend Amy's mom. She restocked her pantry with bulk order deliveries from Walnut Acres, because local stores didn't stock her California-developed tastes. Brunch featured a french toast bread pudding with fresh blueberries, maple syrup, and cubes of cream cheese that still haunts my dreams. Taco Night at my house meant an Old El Paso MSG-based spiced mix. At Amy's, it meant home-made Navajo fry bread. But best of all was the spanikopita.
I'd had spanikopita (also spelled spanakopita) before, but only in diners. These versions featured frozen spinach and musty dried dill, and were seldom homemade. The fresh version, straight from the oven, was a revelation. I ate so much that I'm surprised they invited me back.
High school was forever ago, and I've made this recipe dozens of times since. It was never written down, and I can't remember what I've changed along the way. But authentic or not, this version is wonderful. The fresh spinach is layered with tangy feta and creamy cottage cheese, with some onion or scallions for savor. But it's the fresh dill which makes this truly lovely. It's amazing fresh from the oven, with the crisp phyllo dough contrasting with the creamy filling. But truth be told, I might like leftovers almost as much. I've made this for myself on my birthday. Many times. It's just that good.
inspired by high school
2 cups cottage cheese
1 lb feta cheese
1 small bunch fresh dill, chopped (a scant 1/4 cup)
1/4 red or yellow onion, or 1/2 bunch scallion, finely chopped
salt and pepper
1 large bunch spinach, washed, dried, and roughly chopped
2 Tbsp some sort of cracked-grain hot cereal (farina, cream of rice, etc.)
1/2 package phyllo dough, thawed
olive oil, as needed (~ 1/3 cup)
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together the cottage and feta cheese, dill, and onion. Season to taste with salt and pepper (you want it somewhat strongly seasoned, since it'll be mixed with the spinach, but be careful as the feta will add a lot of salt). Mix in the egg. Add the spinach, by handfuls, until the mixture is somewhat well-distributed.
Grease a large casserole dish with olive oil. You can also use a sheet tray, if you prefer a thinner spanikopita, or whatever dish you so desire. Open the package of phyllo, making sure to keep any unused portion covered with a dishtowel so that it doesn't dry out. Lay down two sheets in the casserole dish, then drizzle with olive oil. Spread the oil out somewhat evenly over the sheet, using a pastry brush, wadded-up bit of waxed paper, or whatever you have. Repeat the process, until you have 8 sheets down. Lightly sprinkle the farina (or its equivalent) over the top sheet (this will absorb excess liquid given off by the spinach, and prevent it from sogging your bottom phyllo). Spread the spinach-cheese mixture over the top. Lay down another 8 sheets of phyllo on top, oiling between every two layers. Oil the top layer, and cut a few vents to allow the filling to bubble up. Bake until the top is lightly browned, and the filling is bubbling, ~45 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool 5 minutes, and serve.