Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Spanikopita: Greek Spinach and Cheese Cassarole

I recently made a tray of this for a friend, and promised them a recipe.  Technically, what I make is spanikotiropita (it has more cheese than you are used to).  You can use this same recipe to make spanikopita (mostly spinach, with just a bit of cheese) or tiropita (no spinach, more cheese) as well, just change the ratios.  If you're planning on this being a "main course" I think this is the best ratio.  If it's a side, use more spinach and less cheese.  If it's an appetizer, use more cheese.

So, here's a recipe (which won a prize at my cousin's Greek church in 1995, but I made them pull it from the cookbook when I found out they used the funds to proselytize instead of for proper charity)

To make one 9x12 tray, you will need:

  • 9x12 lasagne pan (or whatever size you have)
  • 1 box DEFROSTED #4 or #7 phyllo dough.  Most large grocers have this in the freezer section, near the pie crusts.  "Country style" (#10) is ok, but will not be as crispy.  Let the dough defrost overnight on the counter.  Usually, a box has two "tubes" in it.  We will use only one in this recipe.  I usually double it to make 2 trays at a time, and freeze one.  It freezes/defrosts very well, and it doesn't take much longer to make 2 trays than one.  If you freeze a tray, remember to slice it first, so you can get individual pieces out of the freezer one at a time)
  • 1 pound cheese.  This should be a combination of feta and cream cheese.  The exact ratio depends on the feta.  The sharper you want it, the less cream cheese you should use.  Proportion to your taste.  When I make it for myself, I use all feta, and try to get the sharpest, briniest, goatiest feta I can find, but that's sort of an acquired taste.   Most non-Mediterranean folk seem to like it about half and half.
  • 1 lb frozen cut spinach.  you can use fresh spinach, but frozen is cheaper and better. If it's fresh, cook it first.
  • 1 onion (optional)
  • 1 cup walnuts (optional)
  • white wine (optional)
  • garlic.  you will need way more than you think, but the amount depends on the freshness and variety.  If you use minced garlic from a jar, you will need maybe 3 tablespoons.  If fresh pressed, about 6-12 cloves.
  • other spices.  I usually use black pepper, oregano, basil, with some bits of mint, thyme, and marjoram but it depends on the season and what I have on hand.  Garlic mustard is excellent. Personally, I like to add dittany of crete, which tastes like a cross between oregano and marjoram and is also excellent for love spells, spirit evocation, time travel, and journeying in the Other Places, but it's kind of hard to find.  (I got my recent supply in a flea market in Lavrion, the oldest mining town in Europe, en route back to Athens from the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion.)  Whatever you have that you think will be delicious is fine.  Unless your feta is very weak, you don't need extra salt.
  • 1 stick of butter or 1/2 cup of olive oil, or a mixture of the two
  • 2 eggs
  • cheese cloth (you can use paper towels if you don't have cheesecloth) and a colander
  • a dish towel
  • an apron or a shirt you don't care about.  this can get messy.
To prepare:
  • defrost the phyllo on the counter overnight.
  • do not open the phyllo until instructed to do so.  it dries out quickly.
  • put the cream cheese on the counter to warm up.
  • roughly chop the walnuts and soak them in the wine until they are slimy, but not mushy
  • preheat the oven to 350'F
  • wash your hands
  • melt the butter in a small bowl.  it needs to be fully liquid, not just soft.
  • Defrost the spinach in the microwave until it is steaming (use a plate!  the boxes leak!) and let it cool.  it cools faster if you spread it out.
  • Dice and sauté the onions in generous butter or olive oil until translucent, and beginning to caramelize.  This takes longer than you think it will.
  • Strain the spinach.  This is the KEY step.  Get ALL the water out.  Layer cheesecloth in the colander, and push.  Squish it through the cheesecloth as hard as you can.  You want it as dry as it can be.  SQUEEEEEZE!!!  The goal is to get it into a small fist-size ball that is almost completely dry.  The spinach water is good in soup, or you can boil pasta in it.  You can also feed it to a garden.  Don't waste it.
  • Check the walnuts; they should be sufficiently slimy by now.
  • In a bowl, mix the cheeses, spices, onions, eggs and drained walnuts.
  • Butter the pan
  • Make sure your hands are totally dry, and then unroll the phyllo dough
  • Place one sheet of phyllo in the pan.  It's bigger than the pan.  That's ok.  just let it slop over the sides.  It's ok if it rips some, just overlap it a little wherever it tore.
  • Dip your hands in the butter, and smear them on the phyllo.  I like to paint magic symbols with butter on the dough, but you do you.  
  • Place another sheet, butter it.  You MUST butter between EVERY layer.  Don't be lazy.
  • Use 10 sheets, total, for the bottom.
  • Smoosh in a layer of the spinach/cheese goo, about 2/3 of an inch thick.
  • lay and butter 5 more layers of dough.  It's ok if your hands still have cheese/spinach goo.  No one will see the inside layers.
  • Add another layer of spinach/cheese goo
  • Lay another 5 more layers of phyllo, buttering between each.
  • Add a final layer of spinach/cheese
  • Trim off all the extra phyllo dough
  • Add 3 layers of phyllo, buttering between each layer.
  • Wash and dry your hands.
  • Butter your hands
  • Carefully, layer 2 more layers of phyllo, making sure they are pretty and smooth and unripped.
  • Wash and dry your hands.  Take a moment to appreciate how soft the butter made your skin.
  • Trim the phyllo carefully, and make it all nice and pretty.  
  • When I make this at Christmas time, I sometimes make a tree out of spinach on the top.  After it bakes, you can give it a tiny red pepper star on top.
  • Bake at about 350 degrees for about half an hour, or until the top is golden and crispy.
  • Do you have some extra cheese goo?  Mix it into scrambled eggs for breakfast tomorrow.  Very delicious!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Ask the Witch: Finding Lost Objects

A friend recently asked me for a spell to find a lost object, and so that sort of magic has been on my mind.  Then, this morning, I couldn't find my keys.  They were super-duper lost.  My roommate (who is usually a VERY good finder) and I looked for them for at least 20 minutes before work this morning before we gave up and took an uber to school.   He looked for at least another hour this afternoon, and then, when I finally got home (which was itself an adventure) I messaged my boyfriend and gave him the third degree... "Ok, so you felt them in my pocket when I was standing where?"  "Then where were we?"  "WHEN exactly did I stop wearing those pants?"

I looked everywhere.  I took the couch apart.  I stripped my bed and shook the blankets.  Remade the bed.  I crawled under the bed and looked there.  This was really upsetting, not just in the usual logistical way, but because I have a small pen knife key that I inherited from my father, that he got from his father, and it's important to me.

Last Friday, I bought a St. Anthony candle, because I thought I'd probably need it at some point.  So, I lit the candle, said a prayer, promised him fame and donations in his honor, and sat down to eat some dinner, to give St. Anthony some time to work.  After dinner, I went back to the bedroom to look, and there were my keys, just sitting on the bed, glinting at me.  UPDATE:  The candle seems to have gone out sometime within an hour of when I found my keys (I didn't notice for a while, so I can't be sure when)  I will save it for the next time I loose something.

As I mentioned above, most people's "go to" for this is Saint Anthony.  Saint Anthony of Padua (Italy) was a Franciscan monk who lived near the turn of the 13th century.  He is usually pictured holding the baby Jesus and holding lilies (as in the picture at right).  He is closely associated with Elegua, the Old Man of the Crossroads.  His reputation as a "finder" is quite ubiquitous.  Tell any Catholic that you have lost something, and they will tell you to pray to Saint Anthony.  While there are many different ways of doing that, one of the most common is to place a photo of the object (if available) under his novena candle (which you can find in any grocery's "Hispanic" aisle) and pray "Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please look around.  _____ has been lost and has to be found!" three times, and then describe the object and ask Saint Anthony for his help in finding it.  Promise that, when the item is found, you will donate some money to help feed the poor, and "magnify his fame" by telling people that he helped you find your lost object (a facebook post works fine for this, or even a blog post like this one!!).  DO NOT donate the money until you have found the object.   Saint Anthony can also be petitioned to find larger/more important lost things (like people), in much the same way.  When this is the case, the usual "Thank You" offering is "Saint Anthony's Bread" which are loaves of wheat bread, specially blessed, and distributed to the poor after a mass.

In my experience, this magic can manifest in a few different ways, but is, in my experience, both effective and quick.  I like to wait at least an hour after invoking St Anthony before looking around again.  If the item was lost in my home, I nearly always find it on this pass.  Sometimes, I get a call from someone telling me they've found my item very shortly after calling Saint Anthony.  If all else fails, I ask Saint Anthony, before going to bed, to send me a dream showing me where the item is, and that almost always works.

A Brazillian friend tells me that, there, they ask St Longinus: "São Longuinho ,São Longuinho ,ache o objeto X ,e eu dou 3 pulinhos "  "St Longinus, St Longinus, find the object X, and I give three little hops". When you find the object, jump 3 times .

A third option for finding magic is what we like to call, in my circle "retroactive enchantment".  This basically involves choosing an odd location in your home (for some reason, for a while, mine was in the cheese drawer in the fridge) and then remembering that, whenever you can't find something, it's probably there.  Sit down and be really, really sure it's there.  Every time you loose something, that's where it ends up being, remember?

A friend tells me about a custom she learned from her Egyptian-Jewish parents:  When an object is lost, they turn a glass upside down, and name aloud the object that needs to be found.  Leave the glass upside down until the object is found.

Monday, December 14, 2015


The Byrd's "Turn, Turn, Turn"

While I don't have "seasonal affective disorder", my personality and mood are very strongly effected by the seasons.  My friends have a saying: "Sara's only unseelie in the winter," and there's a lot of truth in that.  I've written before about the wheel of the year in regards to holidays, but I want to talk about it more broadly, as the underlying "tidal" current of my magical practice.  I think many of us, as magicians, think and talk about the phases of the moon, and the locations of the planets, and the precession of the constellations as powerful forces that influence the magical "circumstances", but we too often ignore the turning of the seasons, the slow, inexorable cycle of growth, death, and rebirth that forms the backdrop of our lives.  I think there are a lot of reasons for that.  Partly, seasonal observation has become very closely associated, in strongly negative ways, with certain kinds of aggressively commodified Wicca.  More importantly, though, seasonal variation is a VERY local phenomenon; not just can I not have a meaningful conversation about it with friends in Brazil, I also experience the seasons very differently that my friends in "similar" climates, like western Europe.  So, in this post, I'm going to write about seasonal change in general, which I think is of use to anyone, no matter where they live, but I'm going to focus on the seasons I know, the MidAtlantic region, and BosWash megalopolis, roughly coextent with USDA ecoregion 221.  And so, before I can talk about my seasons, I have to talk about my (and 45 million other people's) homeland.  

My homeland is a place where land and sea embrace.  On the east, tidal estuaries, like the Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake Bay lie fallow and swampy, fading into rolling hills and broadleaf forest as you move west.  River valleys wind through irregular plains.  Deep, dark, black fertile soil blanket granite and limestone.  Here, Oak is the king of our forests, but hickory, maple, chestnut, and elm are also common.    Rabbit, deer, crow, raccoon, hawk, squirrel, fox, opossum, turkey, grouse; these are the larger animals I think of when I think of home, but bear and bobcat also make their appearances.  As you move closer to the sea, Pine rules twisted barrens, interspersed with birch and cedar.  On the coast, where I live now, nature sometimes feel far away, but there are places you can glimpse what it used to be.  Tall grasses anchor poor and sandy soil, gulls circle overhead, and cranes fish by the water.   And, then, of course, there is the city's own resilient ecosystem; pigeon, rat, morning glory and dandelion.

The weather here can be extreme, wet, hot summers, bitterly cold winters.  It is less harsh in the protected river valleys, where I usually make my home, and less pleasant here on the coast.  However, this year, all bets are off.  Today is December the 14th, and it's currently more than 60 degrees here in CT, and has been for at least a week.  It's not predicted to dip below 50 anytime between now and Christmas.  That's almost 20 degrees warmer than average, and 10 degrees warmer than the previous record.  It's a little creepy, and I'm finding it deeply unsettling.  

I have expressed this opinion to others, who seem to think that I'm nuts.  They ask if I love the cold.  I do not.  Although I do hate extreme heat more than extreme cold, I am often sick when it is cold out.  Some years, bronchitis settles into my lungs in November and doesn't leave until March.  I do not love winter.  And yet, I find this pseudo-spring unnatural.  Flowers are beginning to blossom.  Mist lies heavy on the land each morning, and birds sing long into the evening; the nights are too long to be so warm, and yet they are.  

In our region, winter's first cold breezes typically begin to blow in late October, and it is highly unusual to have not had first frost by Thanksgiving.  And yet, here we are, a week before the Longest Night, and it has yet to freeze.  Foxglove, and apple, and winter wheat; so many plants require vernalization.  Bulbs cannot flower if they don't freeze first.  And I worry in the other direction as well.  Flowers that should hold back for months are beginning to open.  When it freezes, those buds will die, and many plants cannot produce a second budding.  Mosquitoes and other biting insects thrive on this sort of winter; bloodsuckers will swarm in June.  On a drive through the county on Saturday, I heard frogs, who should be well past croaking by now.  Bear is confused about whether it is time to hibernate, and so am I.  I am scared of this weather, it seems ominous to me, and I don't understand why no one else is troubled by it.