Test Kitchen Notes
For the majority of my life, I was not a fan of Spinach Madeline. Every Thanksgiving, I’d gobble up the turkey, inhale marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, and go back for seconds of my mom’s oyster dressing (what we called stuffing). But the siren song of the spicy green mixture—the dish that my mom and her four siblings annually fought for the privilege to make—eluded me.
Spinach Madeline has been a family holiday fixture for decades: it's present at Christmas, Easter, New Years, and, of course, Thanksgiving. My mom remembers sprinkling breadcrumbs over creamy green-filled trays as a little girl, graduating to preparing the entire dish solo by the time she was in middle school. It’s as ingrained in her New Orleans childhood as red beans and rice or shrimp po’boys.
But it wasn’t always a part of the menu. In fact, Spinach Madeline is a relatively young dish. The recipe was first printed in the 1950s in the Junior League of Baton Rouge’s community cookbook, River Road Cookbook. According to the group’s history, the recipe’s creator, Madeline Nevell Reymond, created the recipe by accident.
“She was a young and inexperienced cook when she decided to use up a jalapeño cheese roll that she had in her refrigerator by adding it to a spinach dish she was preparing for a ladies’ luncheon,” the league explains.
The recipe spread like wildfire throughout southern Louisiana, and someone in my family must have tasted, and then adopted, the creamy, spicy side. It’s no mystery why my Nana included Spinach Madeline on her menu. It’s affordable—with frozen spinach and, let’s face it, processed cheese—and easy to multiply. Our large family gatherings (at last count there were just under 50 of us) require at least two or three aluminum pans of the spicy side.
Another positive: It doesn’t take a culinary genius to prepare. Simply start with a butter-flour roux, onions, evaporated milk, and the liquid from the thawed, drained spinach. Once the mixture is smooth, add cubes of the spicy jalapeño cheese, before stirring in the cooked spinach. My mom swears Spinach Madeline gets better with time, and usually makes it a day or two in advance. She adds buttered breadcrumbs just before heating it up to serve.
We always eat the creamed spinach as a side, but my mom also suggested using it as a dip (à la spinach artichoke) or spread on toasty baguettes. Also, if you can't find jalapeño cheese, substitute with 4 ounces cubed Velveeta cheese and 2 minced jalapeños.
As a kid, Spinach Madeline was the combination of two things I despised: spinach and everything spicy. But my mom and her army of conspirators (my aunts and uncles) always made sure to include a small serving on my plate. It was polite to try everything the cooks had worked hard to make. Over years and years of tiny bites, I learned to accept, then love, my mom’s favorite holiday dish. In fact, this Thanksgiving, I'm hoping to make it for her, myself. —Katie Macdonald
- Serves 5 to 6
packages frozen chopped spinach
vegetable liquor (the liquid reserved from cooking the spinach)
salt to taste
jalapeño cheese, cubed
Red pepper to taste
Buttered breadcrumbs for topping
- Cook spinach according to directions on package. Drain and reserve liquor.
- Melt butter in saucepan over low heat. Add flour, stirring until blended and smooth, but not brown. Add onion, and cook until soft but not brown.
- Add liquid slowly, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Cook until smooth and thick; continue stirring. Add seasonings and cheese, which has been cut into small pieces. Stir until melted.
- Combine with cooked spinach. This may be served immediately or put into a casserole and topped with buttered breadcrumbs. The flavor is improved if the latter is done and kept in the refrigerator overnight. This may also be frozen.