“This is so very similar to Peeta de Espinaca, made by my Nauna and my mother (and now me) especially at Passover, but whenever the spirit moves.” – Jackie
“My mother used to fry the mixture and then bake it. She called it sfungato de spinaca. That’s exactly what I’m making for dinner!” – Diane
These two women, like me, are Ottoman Sephardim, and one thing’s clear: we all equate what I call spinach cuajado with Passover and Shabbat (Diane left her comment on a Friday and in that context), but not exclusively; unlike recipes that are set aside strictly for specific holidays, cuajado is so fundamental, we make it “whenever the spirit moves.” So, that’s the Sephardic experience with cuajado. Or peeta (pita). Or was it sfungato?
Who’s right about that name? Depends who you ask.
Sfungato is a modern Greek word meaning ‘sponge-like’ (the Greek word for sponge is ‘sfoungari’), that in an earlier form was used to describe a kind of omelet a very long time ago. If you’ve ever cooked an omelet in a generous amount of olive oil – as opposed to a pat of butter – then you know it immediately puffs up like a mutant blowfish, sure enough acquiring a very spongy shape and texture. Egg dishes and bread dishes both have been given sponge names for millennia, apparently beginning with the ancient Greeks, then spreading around the Mediterranean basin and beyond. Medieval Arab cooks, including those of al-Andalus, applied the same word (isfunj or isfunjiyya) to all kinds of ‘bread’ dishes, many based on flour and egg (cake!) – as opposed to flour & water or flour & oil (bread) – and having everything to do with sponge cake. Remember, pandespanya - the Ladino name for sponge cake – literally translates as ‘bread of Spain’. (Oh, to eat bread like that every day!) So sfungato implies both a spongy dish and one made with eggs, and perhaps with bread, too, as they sometimes are, and the word has its roots right there in Greece.
Cuajado, I’ve explained before, is Spanish & Ladino for having curds; a word implying both coagulation and rennet itself – cuajo – which is what make cheese curd, or coagulate, in the first place. (As an aside, a well made cuajado should be light and spongy, too.) This name also indicates a specific ingredient – you can’t make a proper cuajado without curd cheese – and texture, in this case coagulated, i.e. stuck together. Cuajado is not a casserole, which it is sometimes mistakenly called. In a casserole, you can pick the baked ingredients apart. Several years ago I began describing cuajado as a savory pudding, which description seems to have stuck. Pardon the pun.
In each instance, the name indicates what goes into the recipe and how it’s supposed to turn out.
Now – about that pita de espinaca. Pita, in Greece, isn’t just the round, Middle Eastern flat bread you’re no doubt thinking of. It means pie, as in spanakopita – spinach pie. Also as in pizza – same word, different accent, and we all know the ancient Romans learned a thing or two from the ancient Greeks. But what makes a pie a pie? Dough. Greek spinach pie is baked in filo dough. Pizza is dough with stuff on top of it. Cuajado/sfungato has no outer dough. So to call the dish ‘pita’ is a little inaccurate in the Greek sense, although in Spanish, too, the dish would be considered a pastel, which can mean a cake or pie, though not necessarily one made with a crust so much as something that holds itself together. Lop that last letter off ‘pastel’ and you’ve got paste.
If I go in long-winded circles with these words, I’m just following their very non-linear lead.
So back to my original impressions about those comments. Jackie’s family incorporated the Greek word ‘pita’ into their Ladino. ‘Spanakopita’ in her family became ‘pita de espinaca’. Does she make her pita de spinaka Greek style, too, with a crust of some sort? She probably would have mentioned it (and perhaps she will). Diane would have, too, though she did explain that her mother first fried the ingredients before baking them, and that is in fact how classic Greek style spinach pie filling is prepared. Two women from I don’t know where, but clearly a Greek influence was at least slightly more pronounced in their family kitchens than in mine.
No doubt our three families lived in three different areas. Could there be some Romaniote (Greek Jewish) background in Diane’s or Jackie’s families, too? This happened more in the north than elsewhere. Or it could just be that wherever they lived, they were in closer contact with a more dominant Greek culture in general.
Some interesting ways to consider subtle differences in the foods we hold in common, and what those may reveal!