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Medieval in LA: Sweet Spinach Tart

sweetened spinach tart for medieval feast

My daughter’s middle school social studies class has been preparing for this all month: today was the Medieval Feast. Lords, ladies, jesters, knights–and she chose to be the master chef. Others brought bags of apples and peas.

We baked a big Tart of Spinnage (courtesy of The English Huswife, 1615, by Gervase Markham) with adaptations. 1615–that’s Shakespeare and Elizabeth I, the early modern era, not the medieval. Still, some of the recipes were probably conserved, and some of the styles of flavoring as well. The fact that sugar is added to this one is reminiscent of Elizabeth I’s infamous sweet tooth, but it also makes the normally savory spinach a dish more in keeping with the earlier recipe collections so favored by Renaissance Faire participants.

Medieval recipes from the 1300s and 1400s indicate heavy use of cinnamon, ginger, mustard, pepper, galingale, and grains of paradise for the aristocratic classes, at least for their feast dishes. Fruits were routinely added to both meat and fish “Parma” tarts–those tarts, full of eggs, were probably much like today’s quiches.

But the recipe my daughter’s teacher e-mailed me had no eggs. The binder, an interesting choice, was “cast cream” or sour cream. Sour cream bakes up well in cheesecakes–labaneh, a Middle Eastern/Near Eastern version, is a lot thicker and bakes up even more nicely. I’ve made mini-cheesecakes from nothing but labaneh, sugar and lemon rind stirred together and baked in cookie crusts, and they came out beautifully. So I wasn’t too worried about the tart filling firming up enough.

The original recipe also contained no spices other than sugar (maybe I mean “flavorings” rather than “spices”), pepper and salt. Spinach, sour cream, sugar, pepper, salt…bland? Odd? Would the signature combination of vegetable and sweet get lost in the mix? No knowing. But for a medieval version, especially for a classroom tasting, we were going to have to do something slightly different, more purposeful.

A spinach tart with sugar? It was going to be a gustatory challenge for the class and its guests, a flavor combination we no longer encounter very much. Might as well make it interesting, and preferably good.

Which is why I adapted it to a sweetened tart of greens like Swiss chard. Versions of this are still served today in Nice (tourte de blettes or Swiss chard tart) and parts of Italy (torta di verdura or tart of greens) as a dessert. The filling often contains raisins and pine nuts as well as Parmesan cheese, and the pastry is often sweet and dusted with confectioner’s sugar before serving.  If it were awful, surely people like David Lebovitz wouldn’t be putting versions of it on their blogs. Novelty value can take you only so far. And his version contains a layer of apples on top of the chard…

The last thing I thought about was the learning experience for my daughter, the nascent (though not Re-nascent) master chef. The recipe her teacher sent home indicated “pastry shells”. As though you could go to the store and buy them.

No baking powder or soda allowed in the medieval era. No food processor. So my daughter cut up the butter and cut it into the flour with a pastry blender–once she realized the blades weren’t actually sharp–and then mashed it together with her hands, which was a lot more efficient. She made the spinach filling we decided on–very close to the assigned recipe, but with a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a grating of lemon peel. In place of raisins, she put the extra bits of apple in the filling.

patting out the filling

She fit the pastry to the pan, pricked it out, filled it, and topped the spinach with a layer of finely sliced Granny Smith apples–most apples were probably tarter in those days than they are now.

slicing apples for the spinach tart

Dame Felidae demonstrates her knife skills

Then she placed the top layer of dough onto the tart, pinched it shut, slashed it in her own design and “endored” or gilded it with egg yolk/water glaze. We baked it in a (horrors! modern!) oven and thawed the “spinnage” out in the microwave before squeezing it, but other than that I think we were pretty much in the spirit.

ready to bake

So she came home with nothing left. All but one student had tried the tart and several asked for the nonexistent seconds. And Dame Felidae (who, you might now realize, is crazy about cats…) has decreed that she wants to do it again.

Medieval-to-Early Modern Tart of Spinnage, with Tourte de Blettes or Torta di Verdura embellishments

Filling:

  • 2 lb loose-frozen spinach
  • 1 c. labaneh or sour cream
  • 1 T sugar
  • good pinch of cinnamon, grinding of nutmeg
  • good grating of lemon peel
  • 2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and sliced in very thin wedges, plus whatever scraps are left over
  • handful of raisins soaked in brandy or water, optional
  • handful of pine nuts or chopped walnuts, also optional

Pastry:

  • 3 c. flour
  • 1 3/4 stick butter in 1/2-inch cubes or chunks
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/3-1/2 c. cold water
  • 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 T water for gilding (medieval term, “endoring”)

Make the pastry dough by cutting the butter into the flour-and-salt mixture with two knives, a pastry cutter, a food processor, or just your hands squishing and squeezing, until the  lumps of butter are down to the size of peas and the rest of the mixture is the texture of coarse cornmeal. Toss in a very little bit of water at a time, just until the dough holds together. Pat it into a round and refrigerate about half an hour.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Thaw the spinach in the microwave (about 5 minutes per pound on a big plate) and squeeze out as much water as possible–a cheesecloth or piece of kitchen muslin would be handy for wringing it all out at once, or just squeeze a handful at a time, starting slowly so you compact the spinach into a ball rather than lose a lot down the sink. You want it as dry as possible. Place each finished handful in a mixing bowl as you go. Then add the sour cream or, preferably, labaneh, the sugar, the spices and lemon peel and blend with your hands to break up the squeezed spinach fully. If you want to go the full tourte de blettes route, add soaked raisins and some pine nuts or chopped walnuts at this point. We didn’t, but might do it next time. Add any little scraps of apple flesh to the filling.

When you’re ready to roll out the dough, preheat the oven to 375 F. Divide the dough into halves, flour them and roll out between sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper to fit a fairly large shallow casserole or pan (can be a lasagna pan, as we used), about 12 inches across and maybe 2 inches deep.

Lay one piece of rolled-out dough in the bottom of the pan and press it in, spreading it evenly and pinching it to go up the sides about an inch or a little more. Pat the spinach filling evenly into the pan and spread it to the corners–it won’t be really thick, but maybe 1/2-1 inch thick. Lay the apple slices neatly on top to cover the surface. Then take the other sheet of dough and lay it onto the tart. Fold the side edges of the base over the top of the upper crust and pinch them together to seal. Flute the edge if you’re feeling fancy. Then cut vents in the top sheet of dough in a nice pattern, mix the egg yolk with the spoonful of water, dip a clean paper napkin, a plastic baggie, or just your fingers in the egg wash and “endore” or gild the top of the pastry all over with it. Some recipes say to sprinkle sugar on top but we didn’t. Bake about 40 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown and you can start to smell the pie. Let cool completely before refrigerating, if you’re going to serve it later. A sheet of parchment paper over the top, followed by tin foil, will keep the crust from getting soggy in the fridge, but cooling first is your best weapon.

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