By the time you read this, we’ll be six weeks into the new reality. I figured if you wanted to read about how to cook dry beans or any other trendy dish, you could find it on the internet. Instead, I want to share a family recipe. During times of stress and uncertainty, many of us fall back on comfort food, some of which are family dishes passed through generations.
Marriage is a union of two people and an expansion of food traditions. And while rural north Louisiana and eastern Ohio are vastly different in culture, there’s a reason why my husband, Michael, and I never met a bakery we didn’t want to explore.
My mother and grandmother baked many good things and even my father was known for his own style of whole wheat flour biscuits.
Michael’s grandmothers both were excellent cooks. His mother’s mother was a professional baker at a downtown department store, back when such things existed.
On his father, Tony’s, side were Italian American home cooks. Sunday dinners were, when he was a child, multigenerational gatherings of seven-course meals orchestrated by Tony’s mother and grandmother. Often there was pizza. Green bell peppers figured into many dishes, which explains why today my husband always chooses that as a pizza topping.
Some dishes disappear over time, but one that remains is not the expected red sauce simmering on the back burner, but the humble savory hand pie. For his family, it’s known as spinach pie.
The sturdy, toothsome pastry is closer to biscuit dough than pie crust. It’s filled with a lot of spinach and few very thinly sliced onions bound with eggs and tangy Romano cheese.
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It’s most similar to the Cornish pasty, a turnover holding ground beef, potatoes and rutabagas that were carried into the mines of England, Wales and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Hearty, satisfying and portable, too. Though it does contain some fat, the crust doesn’t get your hands greasy, nor will it shatter into a thousand delicate layers. It could be carried to a job in the steel mill or tucked into your backpack. The pie will arrive at your destination intact, tasty at room temperature or fresh from the oven.
Variations of savory or sweet fillings encased by dough are found all over the United States and around the world. As the chef Vivian Howard recently pointed out in her PBS program, “Somewhere South,” hand pies are deeply American simply because they reflect so many cultural heritages that call America home.
Many families have “coming home” dishes that are prepared when the kids come home.
In my family, it was usually fried chicken, purple hull peas and cornbread. For Michael, there were spinach pies waiting when we returned to Ohio. We carefully packed them in the luggage for the trip back to wherever we happened to be living at the time. And when his parents came to visit, they always brought spinach pies — and sometimes, a version filled with potatoes.
I believe food and family recipes are meant to be shared. So, from my family to yours, please meet the spinach pie.
4 cups of flour, plus extra for rolling the dough
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 heaping tablespoons Crisco or other vegetable shortening
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup cold water
2 16-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained of all excess liquid
2 to 3 small to medium onions, very thinly sliced
4 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 1/2 cups grated Romano cheese (the kind in the green can is fine)
1 egg beaten, optional for baking
For pastry, mix baking powder, salt and flour in a large bowl. Cut in the shortening until it is well incorporated. Add eggs and 1 cup of water. Mix carefully until a shaggy dough is formed. Cover dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
For the filling, mix spinach, onions, eggs, salt, parsley and grated cheese in a bowl. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Pinch off pieces of dough slightly smaller than a tennis ball. On a well-floured surface with a well-floured rolling pin, roll out the dough into a circle about the size of a dessert plate. Be gentle with the dough. Too much rough handling and the dough will be tough.
Sometimes little pieces of dough like to stick to the rolling pin. If this happens, clean your rolling pin, otherwise the dried dough interferes with smooth rolling.
Add about 1/2 cup of filling to one side of the pastry, then fold the other side to cover.
Use a fork to seal the edges. Transfer to baking sheet.
Repeat until all the dough has been used. Brush lightly with egg wash if desired.
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Bake for 35 minutes, or until pastry is firm and sounds hollow when you tap it. Remove from oven and place on a rack to cool. May be eaten warm or at room temperature.
Refrigerate any leftovers. Makes approximately 8 pies.
Potato Pie: Instead of spinach, you can use very thinly sliced potatoes — any kind will do, russet, redskin or golden varieties. Line up the potato slices on the pastry and sprinkle with salt, black pepper and about 2 tablespoons of cheese.
Fruit Filling: If you have apples that look shriveled or pears that are getting too ripe, make a sweet pie. Saute the sliced fruit in butter (about 1/2 tablespoon per fruit) until it softens and some of the water is released from the fruit. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon flour per fruit. Sprinkle with cinnamon if desired. Remove from heat and let cool, then fill pastry.