I have countless recipes that I learned from the women of my family. Though today I mostly use websites and online documents to store my recipes, for years I cooked out of my mother’s recipe boxes, where recipe cards were squished in like sardines, and the recipes came in a variety of difficult-to-decipher scrawls. There was my mother’s handwriting, a loopy, tight cursive, and my grandmother’s a disciplined clear print, plus my aunt’s rounded letters, and some cards written by my Aunt Byrna, or a first cousin once removed. The cards were splattered with stains, and decorated with little pictures of ovens, strawberries, geese, or pies.
Flipping through those recipe cards brings back a tidal wave of memories. Each recipe is strongly associated with the woman whose handwriting is on the card. And there are even more recipes that I know by heart now, taught to me by one of these women. On days when I feel the loss of my mother, my grandmothers, or my aunt, I reach for my mixing bowls to make a recipe that they taught me. For the time that I spend in the kitchen, mixing, sauteeing, baking or kneading, I am keeping their memories alive, nourishing myself and my family with the legacy of food and love these women entrusted me with.
With my mother, it can be hard to choose which recipe to make to conjure up the best memories. But when I’m really yearning for the comfort I found in her kitchen I consistently end up making spanikopita, a dish she was known for making, and one of the first recipes I learned by heart. Crucially, my mom adapted a recipe from a cookbook so that it took significantly less effort than was originally prescribed, and these days I can whip up this wholesome dish in under 30 minutes (not counting baking time). If you find phyllo dough intimidating, or spanikopita sounds too labor intensive for you, this is your solution.
2 10 oz boxes of frozen spinach or 1 large bag of frozen spinach, defrosted if possible (if not no worries)
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons fresh basil, chopped or 1 Tablespoon dried basil
salt and pepper
8-10 oz ricotta or small curd cottage cheese
1 lb feta, crumbled
1 box phyllo dough, defrosted
¼ cup melted butter or olive oil
2 Tablespoons sesame seeds or parmesan cheese (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375F and grease a 9x13 pan.
Defrost the spinach. If it's not totally defrosted, run it under warm water until it's no longer one big brick and you can break it up into reasonably small bunches. Drain. Meanwhile, chop the onion and mince the garlic. If you have time to sautee them with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and the basil, do that. If you don't have time, just toss the onions, garlic, salt, pepper, and basil in a big bowl. Add the spinach once it's reasonably drained (if it's still a little frozen that's fine). Add in the ricotta and feta and mix thoroughly. Add the eggs and mix again.
Take the phyllo dough out of the fridge and unroll it on top of a kitchen towel next to your greased pan. Do not worry if any sheet has broken or torn―no one will ever know or care. Using a pastry brush, grease the bottom of the pan with the melted butter or olive oil. Then put down 2 sheets of phyllo dough, and then brush those with olive oil. (If sheets have broken, just reassemble them as best you can―no one will be able to see them.) Put down two more sheets of dough, brush, and continue like that until you have 8 pieces of phyllo dough (4 batches of 2). Pour half of the spinach and cheese mixture on top of the phyllo dough and spread it evenly using a knife or a spatula. Then resume the 2 sheets of phyllo dough, brush with oil/butter routine until you've put down another 8 sheets of phyllo dough. Pour in the remaining spinach and cheese mixture. Again, put down 2 sheets of phyllo dough, brush, repeat until you've used up the phyllo dough. If the sheets are bigger than your pan some phyllo dough will be hanging over the edges of the pan, so just tuck them back into the pan. Brush the top with plenty of oil or butter, and sprinkle with either sesame seeds or parmesan.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the top is golden brown. This is best served warm with a green salad and some roasted potatoes.