Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Slovenian Dinner Week 50: Spinach Cheese Pie for Christmas

Menu for Christmas Eve
Zeljanica (Spinach Cheese Pie)
Green Salad
Christmas Cookies and Eggnog

Menu for Christmas Day
Klobase with Red Pepper and Onion
Pecan-Crusted Salmon
Zeljanica (Spinach Cheese Pie)
Green Salad
Potica Three Ways
Shortbread Three Ways
. . . And Many Other Goodies!

The last Tuesday of 2012 fell on December 25th.  That meant that Christmas would be the grand finale of my year of Slovenian cooking.

It seemed like a fitting way to bring my culinary adventure to a close.

Just one problem:  All all-Slovenian Christmas dinner would have violated too many family traditions. I didn't even consider it.

Instead, I decided that Monday night, Christmas Eve, would be the official Slovenian dinner.  It was be small. Just my husband and me, our older son (a vegetarian), his girlfriend, and our younger son. They had all flown in for the holidays. For Christmas dinner, we would be joined by my mother, my brother, and another young friend.

I needed to come up with a vegetarian entree that would do double duty.  The main dish on the first night. And with enough left over for Christmas dinner, where it would share the spotlight with two other entrees:  pecan-crusted salmon (my husband's Jacques Pépin specialty) and Slovenian klobase made by San Francisco's Jelenich Brothers.

The dish had to be festive, simple, and meat-free. Something in the Slovenian spirit.

I thought immediately of filo dough.  I'd had good luck making meat pita and cheese-filled burek.  But I hadn't yet tried a Yuguslav-style spinach cheese pie.

Full disclosure: Spinach cheese pie is more closely associated with the cuisine of Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. But in recent years, it has become popular in Slovenia.  I even found a recipe on the Slovenian cooking site Kulinarika.

Americans tend to be most  familiar with the Greek version, spanakopita.  I'm no expert, but the Yugoslav approach seems to be a moister dish, with more dairy products in the filling and an added measure of cream or yogurt poured over the top before baking.

"Ah, that's zeljanica,"  said my younger son, the journalist.  "It means green pie."

He said it like this: zel-yan-eet-tsa.

That's what they call it in Kosovo, where he now lives and works.  It goes by a few other names in different parts of the Balkans.

Whatever you call it, this is a forgiving dish, with many variations.  I stuck pretty closely to the version I found in The Yugoslav Cookbook.  At least that was my intention.  I took a few liberties, planned and unplanned.  But it all worked out in the end.

Zeljanica (Spinach Cheese Pie)

1-1/2 pounds feta or other salty cheese, crumbled
16 ounces kajmak (clabbered cream) or labne* (a rich, strained Middle Eastern yogurt)
4 eggs, separated
9 ounces fresh spinach, finely chopped
3/4 c. milk
3/4 c. cream
salt and pepper to taste

olive oil and melted butter, mixed

1 package filo dough

* Note: Kajmak is hard to find in the United States, although you can try to make your own.  I had better luck locating some labne.  Greek yogurt, cottage cheese or sour cream, alone or in combination, would also work.

For the filling: Combine feta cheese, kajmak (or substitute), chopped spinach, and milk. Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add beaten egg yolks and mix well.  Fold in beaten egg whites last.

Oil two square or rectangular baking pans.  Add 3-4 sheets of filo, brushing each with some of the oil-butter mixture.  Now you begin to alternate layers of filling with a few sheets of filo. You can keep it simple, with just a couple of layerings, or aim for more. Just be sure to end with 3-4 layers of filo on top.

Before putting the dishes in the oven, pour a little cream over the top.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until firm and brown.  Let cool slightly before cutting into squares to serve.

With the zeljanica in the oven, I pondered my missteps and considered a few lingering questions.

Should I have pre-cooked the spinach?  I had used it raw, as some recipes directed.  It is certainly easier that way.  But the recipe I had chosen as my guide, I suddenly realized, called for cooked spinach. Oh well.

Another problem:  I had mixed the cream into the filling, right along with the milk, instead of holding it out for the final step.  So I had to pour a little more cream on top.  Perhaps my filling would end up too liquid.

The verdict?

Those two zeljanica tasted as good as they looked.  Brown and crispy on top, delectable and moist inside.  A little more of a pudding texture than Greek spanakopita.  Rich and tangy, with all that feta.  Just the right amount of spinach.

A success, all of it.  The zeljanica, which reheated beautifully.  The three varieties of potica I served the next day, at our Christmas Day dinner.  The rest of the dinner.  And the company, of course.

My year of Slovenian cooking had been a success, too.

I felt sad to see it coming to an end.

What next, I wondered?

Stay tuned!

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