Spanikopita, Maureen AboodMaybe it’s the cold weather hitting that makes me think even more about my Sitto, who grew up on a rugged farm in Nebraska a century ago.

This was serious pioneer life, a life she described to us often in captivating stories. She told us how they’d harvest every fall, and how exciting it was to make ice cream once a year for the harvest feast. She rode horse and buggy to town with her father now and then, and came home with penny candy. At night in winter, they kept a pail (which always froze) in the bedroom because there was no way to get to the outhouse. I realize now that my passion for all things Little House on the Prairie as a girl must have been directly related to Sitto’s stories.

Sittos recipe, Maureen Abood

Feta, Maureen AboodShe was just a teen when her parents, who were birthing a child every year or so, sent her to live with relatives in Indiana. They couldn’t afford to keep her, and she was old enough to work as a secretary in an office. Probably was much better for her, I’ve heard some say.

By the time she made it to Lansing, she was older, a widow now who hadn’t had any children, losses she accepted with grace. She spoke of her first husband fondly: “he taught me how to laugh!” she said merrily. It makes me sad to think she didn’t know how to laugh until he came along, and it also surprises me because her sense of humor was her trademark.

Clarified butter and recipe, Maureen Abood

Filling spanikopita, Maureen Abood

Pre baked spanikopita, Maureen AboodSitto Sarah married my Jiddo, a widower himself but with six grown children, some of them married too. From these stepchildren, Sitto gained bragging rights to upwards of 60 grand- and great-grandchildren. She once won a contest on a cruise, for having had the most grandchildren of all.

She gifted that big, wide world of Abood family with a Sitto-love we would not have otherwise known, since our blood Sitto, Nabeha, died way too young at forty-nine.

Spanikopita whole, Maureen Abood

Bake then cut, Maureen AboodI’m struck these days by our similarities, Sitto and me, and was especially so when I was out recently and ran into one of the good old neighbors from Wagon Wheel Lane. This was the first time I found myself in the beautiful position to say to someone: meet my stepson, Steven. I got all choked up with joy deep in my being when the words came out introducing him. Then the old friend, he jostled Steven on the arm and said: “you take good care of your ma.” We walked away, and my (can I say that?) towering, handsome young man squeezed his arm round me, tight.

Steven asked me not long ago, have you shared your Sitto’s spinach pie recipe on your blog yet? Why no, I haven’t. I think they’d love it, he said. And he would know. This pie is Steven’s specialty, and he works directly from a recipe written by my Sitto in a worn, beloved Greek cookbook off of his own Sitee’s shelf (that’s my mother-in-law, Dan’s mom, the one I’ve always called “Aunt Louise” for the longstanding affection between our families).

So I present: Sitto’s Spanakopita, which she would gladly allow us to call “Steven’s Spanakopita,” her way of putting her arms around us tight, a squeeze of one-big-family love.

Spanikopita top, Maureen Abood

Sitto’s Spanakopita

Your holiday brunch dish for a big gathering of family is here. Sitto’s recipe is ginormous, so I’ve cut it down a good bit and changed up her ratios some (a little more cheese plus cream cheese, a less spinach). You can double this recipe and use a sheet pan with the large-size phyllo dough (about 14”x18”) if you like. Make the spanakopita ahead and fully bake it, or leave it unbaked in the refrigerator for a day, and bake it when you’re ready. If you do bake it ahead, reheat it in the oven at 350°F. Sitto makes it clear with red ink: bake the pie before cutting it into squares! Makes 12 servings.

1 8 oz. box frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1/3 pound feta cheese, crumbled (buy a block and crumble it yourself)
1/2 pound small-curd cottage cheese
3 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
2 eggs, lightly whisked
4 scallions, finely chopped
1 teaspoons kosher salt
few grinds black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 cup clarified butter, melted
1 pound package frozen phyllo dough, 9”x14”, thawed to room temperature, unopened until just before using

Heat the oven to 350°F. Squeeze the spinach in the sink to remove as much liquid as possible.

In a large bowl, stir the feta cheese, cottage cheese, and cream cheese until well incorporated (it helps to stir the room-temp cream cheese in a small bowl first to loosen it and smooth it out).

Add the eggs and stir to combine. Stir in the scallions, spinach, salt, pepper, and dill.

Remove the phyllo from its wrapping and gently unfold it. Trim the long side by an inch so it will fit into a 13” x 9” x 2”-inch glass or metal (not dark) pan. Cover the phyllo stack with a damp kitchen towel to keep it from drying out.

Brush the bottom of the pan with a bit of the clarified butter. Lay one sheet of phyllo in the bottom of the pan and dab it with the butter. Lay another sheet over this one and butter it, repeating this with 8 more sheets (or half of the phyllo stack).

Spread the filling over the phyllo, and layer the remaining phyllo sheets on top, brushing butter over each layer, including the top layer.

Bake the pie for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. Cool for about 10 minutes.Use a sharp knife to cut the pie into squares, and serve warm.

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