Modern Spinach Baked in the Medieval Ma’aminim Style
“When a people disappears, they say the last thing to be forgotten is its food. You might not teach your children your mother tongue, but the chances are you’ll still cook them your mother’s recipes.”Constantine Fraser, in Slightly Foxed, Issue 54, reviewing Salonika: A Family Cookbook
At the turn of the twentieth century about half the inhabitants of Salonika (now known as the Greek Thessaloniki on the North-eastern coast of that country) were Sephardic Jews. They’d been there a long time, having arrived after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and they still spoke Ladino, their Hebrew-inflected dialect of medieval Spanish.
Esin Eden and Nicholas Stavroulakis, the authors of Salonika: A Family Cookbook, were striving to preserve the last vestiges of the Ma’aminim culture, which gives a fascinating insight into the life of secrets and mystery that the Ma’aminim were forced to lead.
This recipe is one inspired by Ispanak Kayganasi, a kind of spinach baked with cheese. It’s a very simple recipe, and I’ve made it even easier by using more convenient quantities (standard package sizes) and by using my ‘from the kettle’ method for the initial blanching of the spinach. This method has the added advantage of reducing the washing up – no saucepan!
Admittedly I’ve added some nutmeg and walnuts, but that amendment adds just seconds to the preparation time.
To serve, you can cut it, like a cake, into slices.
Another version – spinach cakes
In Elizabeth Luard’s Still Life, she describes a trip to Bulgaria, a country neighbouring both Greece and Turkey, and gives a recipe for Bulgarian Kyufteta ot Spanak (spinach cakes) made from very similar ingredients: 500g spinach, beaten eggs, 25g hard cheese and salt, a little chilli and a couple of tablespoons of toasted breadcrumbs. She forms them into patties and fries them, and then serves them with a yoghurt and garlic sauce.
Luard points out that you can substitute the spinach for chard, spring greens, cabbage… or even cauliflower… and if cauliflower, why not broccoli? She also says that in her spinach cakes the breadcrumbs can be replaced with leftover mashed potato.
Recipe for Modern Spinach baked in the Medieval Ma’aminim style
- 500g/1 lb 2 oz spinach
- 200g/7 oz feta
- 2 eggs
- Indonesian long pepper, a few grinds.
- handful of roughly chopped walnuts (dry-fried ideally – to know why, follow this link)
- a few walnuts of butter
- Preheat the oven to 210°C.
- Boil a kettle.
- Meanwhile, take any stems off the spinach and put it in a large colander in the sink.
- Beat the eggs in the casserole you are going to bake the spinach cake in.
- Pour the boiling water all over the spinach (use a circling motion with the kettle to cover as much as possible). If you want to retain the bright green colour of the spinach you can refresh with cold water now if you like.
- Using a fork break the spinach up a little, and press out as much of the water as you can.
- Crumble the feta over the spinach, mix. Season with pepper and nutmeg, mix. The feta is quite salty so you probably don’t need salt – but taste, if you think you do, add.
- Pour the beaten egg over the spinach (still in the colander), mix in.
- Put the whole lot back into the casserole.
- Top with generous knobs of butter.
- Bake at the bottom of the oven for 30 minutes. Serve with the chopped nuts and a little extra butter melting enticingly on top.