As religious holidays go, Easter catches the short end of the stick as far as holiday-specific foods. Sure, there are chocolate bunnies and Peeps, and of course Easter eggs, but eating an egg that has been hidden in the shrubbery and possibly even in the cat box by dirty-fingered children is not particularly appetizing.
But get a couple of Italians to discussing the glories of Easter food, and that’s a different conversation altogether, because Italians have Easter pie. In different parts of Italy, Easter pie means many different things. Some of them are sweet, and some of them are savory, but they’re all very much anticipated as a means to break the long Lenten fast.
Sicilians are particularly fond of sweet Easter pies. Some Sicilian Easter pies might look suspiciously like cheesecake to an American who is not familiar with Easter pie, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to folks who remember the television show “The Golden Girls” and their love of cheesecake. It should be noted that two of the four Golden Girls (Dorothy and Sophia) were of Sicilian extraction.
Made from loads of ricotta cheese, preferably homemade, a Sicilian Easter pie is basically an Italian-style cheesecake with a crust. The crust can be a sweet pastry or phyllo dough or even puff pastry, but the filling is always ricotta-centric.
Sicilians are no stranger to ricotta desserts during the rest of the year either. Cannolis are heavenly, and then there’s cassata, which is in a class by itself.
According to Clifford Wright, the reigning English-speaking expert on Italian culinary culture, “the cassata was early on a springtime cake traditionally made as an Easter specialty by the monastery nuns or for Purim by Sicilian Jews. Cassata was so delicious and seductive that as late as 1574 the diocese of Mazara del Vallo had to prohibit its making at the monastery during the Holy Week because the nuns preferred to bake and eat it than pray.” Which is perfectly understandable. Fresh ricotta is just that good.
But Easter pie is not always a dessert. Sometimes they’re savory. And depending on the region of Italy you’re talking about, there are endless variations. A Torte Pasqualina sometimes has 33 layers of dough in the crust, one for each year of Christ’s life, and sometimes there’s a little cross made from strips of dough on top of the Easter pie. A recipe follows for a variation called Pizza Giana (Giana means “God is gracious” in Italian) which has a firm crust and is chock full of Italian cold cuts and cheeses.
But however you do it, sweet or savory, homemade ricotta or storebought, an Easter pie is a great way to ‘break Lent’ – even if you don’t observe a Lenten fast. Dorothy and Sophia would be proud.
Sicilian Sweet Ricotta Pie
For the dough:
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
2 cups all-purpose flour
8 tbsp. unsalted butter (1 stick), chilled and diced into small pieces
1/3 cup sugar
A pinch of salt
Zest of 1/2 lemon
A few tablespoons of cold water
For the filling:
3 pounds ricotta, drained well if store bought
3/4 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
Make the pie crust:
Lightly butter a 9″ springform pan and set aside. Put all ingredients (eggs, flour, butter, sugar, salt) except the water into the bowl of a food processor or large bowl. If using a food processor, pulse the ingredients until a ball forms. If too dry, add the water tablespoon by tablespoon until the dough comes together. If mixing by hand, mix all ingredients with your hands until the dough comes together. Add water tablespoon by tablespoon if too dry until the dough comes together. Knead until smooth – about 30 seconds or so. Gather the dough into a ball. Flatten and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
Prepare the filling:
Preheat the oven to 375°F. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a circle that will fit in the prepared pan. Keep the dough as thin as possible. Roll around the rolling pin and unwrap into the prepared pan. Cut off any excess dough around the top. Prick the bottom of the dough with a fork and chill until ready to fill. In a large bowl, beat together the ricotta and sugar until smooth. Add in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each egg. Add in the vanilla and cinnamon. Stir in the mini chocolate chips. Pour the filling into the chilled shell. Bake the pie for about 45 minutes or until set in the middle. Cool, dust with cinnamon and serve.
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
Makes about 2 cups
2 quarts whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Line a large sieve with a layer of heavy-duty (fine-mesh) cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl. Slowly bring milk, cream, and salt to a rolling boil in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Add lemon juice, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture curdles, about 2 minutes. Pour the mixture into the lined sieve and let it drain 1 hour. After discarding the liquid, chill the ricotta, covered; it will keep in the refrigerator 2 days.
3/4 cup powdered sugar, plus extra for garnish
3 large eggs
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp. orange zest
1 (15-ounce) container whole milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup cooked short-grained rice
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
6 sheets fresh phyllo sheets or frozen, thawed
3/4 stick (3 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
Blend 3/4 cup of powdered sugar, eggs, vanilla, orange zest and ricotta in a food processor until smooth. Stir in the rice and pine nuts. Set the ricotta mixture aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly butter a 9-inch glass pie dish. Lay 1 phyllo sheet over the bottom and up the sides of the dish, allowing the phyllo to hang over the sides. Brush the phyllo with the melted butter. Top with a second sheet of phyllo dough, laying it in the opposite direction as the first phyllo sheet. Continue layering the remaining sheets of phyllo sheets, alternating after each layer and buttering each sheet. Spoon the ricotta mixture into the dish. Fold the overhanging phyllo dough over the top of the filling to enclose it completely. Brush completely with melted butter. Bake the pie until the phyllo is golden brown and the filling is set, about 35 minutes. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool completely. Sift powdered sugar over the pie and serve.
Giana means “God is gracious” in Italian.
For the Crust:
2 ½ cups flour
1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper (yes, 1 tablespoon)
¼ cup vegetable shortening
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup or less warm water
1 egg and one tbsp. milk for egg wash
For the Filling:
1 pound whole milk ricotta
½ pound pepperoni, cut into small cubes (don’t use pre-sliced)
¼ pound double Abbruzese, cut into small cubes
½ pound sopressata, cut into small cubes
1/8 pound Genoa salami, cut into small cubes
¼ pound fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes
¼ cup freshly grated Romano cheese
½ tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 pound fresh cheese (such as formaggio, queso fresco, or other similar fresh uncultured cheese)
½ pound thinly sliced prosciutto
In a large bowl, mix flour and black pepper together with a fork. Cut in shortening and mix to pea sized crumbs. Make a well in the center and add beaten eggs and half the water. Mix by hand and keep adding water until a dough forms. (I should note that the traditional crust for this sort of savory pie is a stiff hard crust, not a flaky crust so the next step is contrary to the usual way to make a pie crust but is needed for the crust to be stiff). Knead the dough on the counter for 5-7 minutes, wrap in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400°F. While dough is resting, in a large bowl, mix all filling ingredients except fresh cheese and prosciutto. Break fresh cheese apart with your hands and gently work it into mixture without over mixing. Set mixture aside. Take 2/3 of the dough and roll out to fit your dish or pan, having it cover the bottom and sides, spilling over the top. Lay half the sliced prosciutto on the bottom right over the dough, then cover with the filling. Lay the second half of the prosciutto over the filling.
Roll out the other 1/3 portion of the dough and cover the top of the pie, trimming excess. Crimp the edges together tight using a fork to press the two edges together. For the traditional Easter pie, take the excess dough, roll out and cut two dough strips and form a cross on the top of the pie. (Or any other decoration you feel that fits your needs). Make egg wash with the egg and milk and brush all over pie top including the cross and the edges. Make four slits through pie top to let steam escapes. Place in the center of the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Lower heat to 350°F. and bake for 30 more minutes. Lower heat to 300°F. and bake for 30 more minutes. If not browned enough, bake for 10 more minutes. Cool to room temperature, chill for six hours and serve cold wedges.
A savory ricotta and spinach pie from Liguria.
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. olive oil (plus additional for brushing layers)
dash of salt
2 sheets puff pastry
1 -1/2 pound spinach or Swiss chard
3 tbsp. bread crumbs
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 pound full-fat ricotta cheese, drained
1 cup cubed ham
Egg wash for puff pastry:
1 large egg
If making the olive oil dough, put the flour on a clean surface into a mound, then add the salt, oil and enough water to make a smooth dough, about 1 cup. Knead for about 10 minutes until smooth, and divide the dough into 12 equal portions, and let rest for 1 hour, covered with a damp towel. If using puff pastry, allow the pastry to come to room temperature. While the dough is resting, begin to prepare the filling by cooking the spinach in a large pot. Drain, squeeze until very dry and chop, then season with salt and pepper. Add the crumbs to the spinach in a bowl, and add the ricotta, parmesan and cubed ham, and mix well. Beat two of the eggs, and fold into the spinach ricotta mixture.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. For the olive oil dough, roll out each ball dough thinly on a lightly floured surface, into an 11-12 inch circle. Brush a 10 inch baking dish, or spring-form pan with a little oil, and drape the first sheet of pastry over the pan, allowing an equal amount to overlap the rim. Brush pastry with oil, and continue to roll out another 5 layers, brushing oil between each layer. If using puff pastry, roll out the two layers until fairly thin, making them large enough to cover a 10 inch spring-form pan with a good overhang to cover the filling. Lay one layer over the other to cover the bottom and sids of the pan. Put the filling into the pan, smoothing it evenly. Make four hollows evenly spaced around the filling, and carefully crack the eggs into the hollows. For the olive oil dough version, roll out the remaining balls of dough, brushing with oil between each. Roll over the pie, and press the edges inward. Brush the top with oil, and prick the top carefully, being careful not top pierce the eggs. For the puff pastry version, fold the overhanging edges of pastry over the top of the pie, folding to fit. Beat the egg with a teaspoon of water and brush over the top of the puff pastry. Bake for about 60 minutes, or until the pie is golden brown. Serve warm, or at room temperature. Will last for up to five days refrigerated.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.