My father gave me strict instructions: your goal should be to coddle the wafer-thin, almost transparent filo pastry. You’ll need an ample supply of melted butter and a few clean, damp kitchen towels stashed next to you to use as blankets for the temperamental filo pastry. Make sure your filling is ready and make sure you have wrung out all the water from the spinach with another towel, or two, or three. (There will be more water than you’d think vegetable-based. You’ll be using a lot of kitchen towels.) Work as fast as you can, but have no fear.
This is how my father, Constantine Tsioulcas, taught me to make spanakopitathe spinach pie he grew up eating in Alexandria, Egypt, the city where he was born and raised.
Handed down through generations from Greece to Egypt and back again, our family recipe calls for individually wrapped triangles showing off countless layers of crispy, puff pastry; no bricks of greenish sludge for us. The filling, on the other hand, is very simple: spinach, some good sharp feta cheese, a dash of freshly grated nutmeg, some lightly fried garlic, a little salt and some wholesome ground pepper, plus those fragile sheets of dough and that unholy amount of butter. That is it. (Technically, this dish should be called spanakotiropita – Spinach and cheesecake — but that’s a lot of syllables for Americans, as even my dad would begrudgingly admit.)
Papa guided me in laying down a large rectangular sheet of filo pastry, brushed with butter and quickly placed another sheet on top. “Hurry up, cover the rest of the filo dough with the towel,” he would say, reminding me that the dough would dry out and crack almost immediately if not covered again.
We cut the sheet into three long strips and brushed each ribbon of filo dough with melted butter before putting a little filling in a bottom corner of the dough. Then we would fold the cake over and over and over itself in tightly wrapped triangles, like soldiers ceremonially fold a flag.
Whenever Dad mixed up a batch of spanakopita filling, he would always tell me, “No eggs! It’s not a quiche.” But I could hear how he enjoyed the word Quiche even as he mocked his own earthbound weight. French was his third language; English, his fourth. He loved French; he called himself my Daddy, in the French way, not baba as we would in Greek or Arabic.
My mother, an American, had met him by chance in Athens. She was a tourist in her thirties. Barely past his teens, he was an aspiring painter who worked as a waiter to help his struggling family; they, like many minority communities in Egypt, had been expelled and recently settled in the capital of Greece, a place that was both theirs and not theirs.
My father’s skill with languages became his destiny: On the day he met my mother, Dad was the only waiter on duty who spoke English and so he was assigned to her table. He was immediately hooked and told her, “You may think I’m just a waiter, but I’m an artist.” Somehow—really, inexplicably—that pick-up line worked. She agreed to a quick coffee date before leaving town. Then they corresponded with postcards and letters. Not long after, my mother flew to Athens again, this time to marry him.
Immediately after their marriage, they separated for months; she returned to the US without him. During their courtship by mail, a military dictatorship had seized power in Greece, and he could not leave the country without permission—again at the mercy of larger political currents in a country he thought he could safely claim as his own. Finally, he managed to follow her back to icy, brittle Boston, where the cold, gray Atlantic was nothing like the glittering seashores he’d now twice abandoned.
Their original idea was to live in the US for a short time, wait out the junta that had descended on Greece just a few months before their wedding, and then move back to Athens. That didn’t happen. I was born an only child a few months before the colonels’ rule collapsed, and they decided to stay in this country for the time being. It was a temporary decision that would remain for the rest of his life.
Papa never became acquainted with most Greek-Americans, the community with which he theoretically had a lot in common. They just weren’t Egyptians like him: cosmopolitan, fluent and well-read in several languages, regal and more than a little snobbish. (“These are the people of goats and villages,” he said contemptuously.) He was an expatriate who longed to return to a house that no longer existed. He tried to hide his loneliness. While he waited for the paint on his canvases to dry, he took long walks alone along the rocky, monochromatic coastline, so unlike the Mediterranean blues of the Corniche of Alexandria.
†dan peirazeihe said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Dad died of a heart attack in his sleep right after I turned 14. He was just 41. My mother, who had always struggled with her mental health, fell apart after his death, largely withdrawn into her own world.
After Daddy’s death I had very little to remember him of, but I had some of his recipes in my memory and in my fingers. Years later, when I got married, I gave our spanakopita recipe to the caterers so it could be served as part of our wedding meal. It was one of many memories of my father that I stitched in the day, in an almost secret language of family love.
I left out the garlic when I gave them our recipe, figuring that wedding guests would probably prefer not to sweat out any stickiness or stench on what was predicted to be a hot and balmy June night. The caterers told me they were a little concerned about working with filo dough, an ingredient they hadn’t mastered yet; this was before phyllo dough became such an hors d’oeuvres cliché.
No problem, I told them; you just needed a little confidence, a few tricks and some extra butter on hand, just in case. I taught them how to baby the dough. I’ve carefully written detailed instructions on how to fold each little spinach-and-cheese package into a precise triangle, ideally sized to go around – individual pita breads that, when baked, would become flaky, bronzed and crushingly crisp, thanks to those generous lashings. of melted butter. On our wedding day, the spanakopita was beautiful, although I missed the garlic. I heard guests applaud the dish to the caterers.
A few months later I saw what appeared to be our spanakopita recipe published in Gourmet magazine. Every element was there, in the proportions I had passed on: filo dough, butter, spinach, feta, a dash of nutmeg, salt, pepper. No garlic. Really, way too much butter, but you’d have enough extra in case you run into a phyllo emergency. And there were my exact instructions to fold the spanakopita into a nice little package, neatly wrapped, just like a flag. Papa’s recipe was now in the world, but broke from its roots, just like me, just like my father had been.
You can still find that spanakopita recipe onlineaccompanied by a beautifully shot and totally enticing shot of those bronzed, flaky triangles, one cut open to reveal the savory spinach-and-cheese filling inside.
Who knows what happened. Maybe someone gave it to the magazine or sold it, or maybe someone from the caterer team worked there too. Maybe someone made it for a friend or for a party, and the recipe got to someone else, as beloved recipes do. I will never know.
Online, the recipe has received dozens of rave reviews, although many chefs have written that they have added eggs or lemon juice or dill or parsley or onions or almost any number of other ingredients that are delicious and culturally appropriate but cloud the purity and lightness of this particular one. , basic spanakopita which, quite emphatically, is not a quiche.
Others mention that they have added all kinds of heresies, such as: panagia mou, cheddar cheese or raisins. raisins! Papa often sputtered, when Americans were just discovering Mediterranean food, “What is it with these foreigners and raisins in every dish to make it exotic?”
He liked to mix several languages in one sentence, expecting me to follow it like a true Alexandrian. When he gave to me, his American-born daughter, his opinion of such “foreigners,” he sometimes used Greek: franki. Sometimes he said instead: ifrang — Arabic, and almost the same word: literally, “Franken”, whose innate westernity made them a complete mystery. In either language he could have used a much more prosaic and generic word for ‘foreigner’, but he loved the medieval overtones and high drama of his choice of words, reenacting an old East-West battle in our crouched small kitchen. . And to him, Greek and Arabic were twins, though one of them was a playmate he’d had to leave behind at the abrupt end of his own childhood.
then peirazi† His Alexandria disappeared decades ago and my father has been gone a long time too, much longer than I knew him alive. The recipe I received as a rare and precious inheritance is just one of millions left online. Anyone walking across it can’t hear Papa complaining about the Franks and their raisins. A cook like that wouldn’t necessarily care either. People will do what they want.
My only wish is that people who try the recipe like to brush the butter on the dough, keep folding the filo dough up and down. I hope when they bite into one piece, they enjoy those crushingly crunchy layers of filo dough and the simple interplay of spinach and feta. Papa’s spanakopita will never mean the same to them as it does to me, but it will still be delicious.
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