It was along the shores of a lake near Enna, in the heart of the heart of Sicily, that Hades, the god of the Underworld, came upon a beautiful girl gathering wild flowers, fell madly in love (or lust, you might say), and spirited her away to his kingdom below ground, where she was to rule as his Queen. There was just one problem, the young girl, Persephone, was the beloved daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest and of grain. Demeter, in despair, covered her face in grief, turned away from the world, and sent a blight on the land, killing the crops and the fruits of the fields, leaving the earth barren. In the end, as you well know, Persephone was returned to her mother by order of Zeus, the king of the gods no less, but only for six months each year. And for those six months, Demeter smiles, crops flourish, apples and olives ripen in the orchards, grass grows in the meadows, and humankind gathers the largesse and bounty that ensues.
Art historians say this lushly draped limestone sculpture from the 5th c. BCE could be Demeter, or possibly Persephone; it was found at Morgantina, a Greek site near Enna, and recently returned to Sicily, its rightful home, from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It is now the pride (one of many) of the Museo Archeologico in Aidone, also near Enna.
It's a very old tale, probably one of the oldest of Greek myths, and it may have its origins much farther to the East, but it’s deeply compelling right down to this day as an explanation for the way the world works.
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Easter, as the great celebration of resurrection, comes straight out of that antique mythology, and so, in a way, does Passover, from which Easter derives so much. The Greek and Italian words for Easter, Pascha and Pasqua, come from Hebrew Pesach for Passover, and Passover in Italian is Pasqua ebraica—showing that what goes around truly does come around, again and again.
Why did the Greek myth take place on Italian soil (well, okay, Sicilian soil, but today Sicily is undeniably part of the Republic of Italy)? It’s another piece of the web that connects so many parts of the Mediterranean world. It happened because for many centuries, Sicily and Southern Italy in general all the way up to modern Napoli, were indeed part of Great Greece, Magna Graecia, as the Romans called it. Another part of the web that connects Greece and Italy is in the form of food, and specifically in the savory pies that are such an important feature of the cuisine in both places (and indeed stretching all around the Eastern Mediterranean). Greek food authority Diane Kochilas has written extensively about the huge variety of pies in her native Greece, most especially in her tome The Glorious Foods of Greece—vegetable pies, fish pies, meat pies, cheese pies, spinach pies (spanakopita, the last, is familiar in thousands of Greek diners across America); while in Italy pies are. . . well, you have heard of pizza? Not to mention the torte and scalcione and focaccie that dominate bakeries throughout the south, the Mezzogiorno, where focaccia can mean a double-crusted savory pie, filled with ricotta or fish or vegetables, as often as it can the more familiar flat-bread focaccia, quickly baked on the floor of a wood-burning oven.
And that brings us to the pies of Easter, and specifically the great pizza rustica of Napoli, which, according to Neapolitan culinary writer Jeanne Caròla Francesconi in La Cucina napoletana (1992), is made with ricotta and lots of bits of all the various salumi (salami, copacolla, prosciutto, sopressata, mortadella, sometimes salsiccie or cooked sausages, etc.) and cheeses (provolone, pecorino, caciocavallo, scamorza, mozzarella, et al.) of Neapolitan traditions. Some cooks add just one salumi and just one cheese, some a few more, while others add the whole gamut. It all gets wrapped in a batter of ricotta and plenty of eggs, then lots of freshly ground black pepper and a good handful of freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley. A touch of sugar in the pie crust makes a fine contrast with all those savory bits.
Like almost every other deeply rooted tradition in Italian kitchens, this schema can vary not just from one part of town to another, but from one household to another; whole families have been rent asunder, so they say, by disputes over what belongs in a pizza rustica.
Ricotta—factory made but genuino.
Some things, however, are indisputable—the ricotta, for instance, which must be genuine ricotta, made from the whey left over from cheese making and not from soured or clabbered milk, and the ricotta must be well-drained in order not to have an unseemly liquid collect at the bottom of the pie. Just so, the mozzarella: it must not be prestigious mozzarella di bufala, which is delicious but much too liquid for this pie. Instead use cow’s milk mozzarella, mozzarella di latte di vaca, properly called fior di latte—although it appears almost everyone, in Italy and elsewhere, has forgotten that distinction.
This is the Easter pie beloved of Italian Americans called pizza gaina (GAY-na), an alternate pronounciation of pizza chiena, which itself apparently is a dialect term for pizza ripiena, or stuffed pizza. You’ll find a recipe for it at the bottom of this page.
But that’s just one of the savory pies in Italy at Easter. Another, just as delicious and probably just as old, comes from Liguria, called appropriately Torta Pasqualina. Fred Plotkin, in his delicious book, Recipes from Paradise (Little Brown, 1997), has a good description of this Easter pie with its traditional 33 layers of ingredients (some say 33 layers of filo-thin pastry) to honor the 33 years of the life of Christ—in the busy modern Ligurian kitchen there may be a good many fewer layers for Cook to cope with. This is basically a vegetable-and-cheese pie, with ingredients that vary from town to town, even from house to house, but always the seasonal vegetables of spring, especially early greens and Liguria’s much-loved borage, along with fresh young artichokes. Fred’s book has a nice, long, well-detailed description of how to put this Torta Pasqualina together. Because the fresh cheese called prescinseua is simply unavailable outside Liguria, he recommends using a really fine quality ricotta instead. Again, I have to emphasize, this is real ricotta, made with the whey from cheese production, and not what U.S. chefs cheerfully and unwittingly call ricotta when they add lemon juice to pasteurized milk to produce what they call “house-made ricotta.” Little do they know!
Free-hand Torta Pasqualina as made by me with mostly greens, very little ricotta, and no traditional hard-boiled eggs.
The torta pasqualina sounds quite remarkably like an ancient recipe dating back to the 3rdcentury BCE, when Cato the Elder wrote directions for something he called placenta, multiple layers of dough, each spread with a mixture of honey and cheese. If you’re interested, you can find the translation on the University of Chicago’s Penelope website (penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/cato/de_agricultura/e*.html).
Cato’s treats are also very similar to the little cheese tarts called kallitsoúnia, filled with sweetened myzithra (a curd cheese similar to ricotta), that Diana Farr Louis describes in her delightful book, Feasting & Fasting in Crete. “Traditionally they are eaten at the post-midnight meal after the mass on Easter Eve,” Diana write, adding “(well into Sunday by the time one sits down at the table.”
And now, for the
Pizza Rustica aka Pizza Gaina
It’s called Pizza Rustica but in fact there’s nothing rustic about it at all since it comes from Napoli, hands-down one of the most urban environments in the world. Traditionally, pizza rustica was made with bread dough, but nowadays it’s more often made with a lighter pasta frolla (short-crust pastry) that’s easier to roll into a thin sheet. But more than the pastry that encases it, what distinguishes a pizza or torta rustica is the elaborate filling, based on a rich assembly of ricotta and many eggs, beaten together and folded around a mix of chopped salumi and cheese. Italian Americans will recognize this as their beloved Pizza Gaina, another Easter tradition.
Pizza rustica is almost obligatory at Easter, especially for Pasquetta, Easter Monday, a national holiday when all who can do so rush out to the countryside, or at least to a nearby park or even a city apartment terrace, to dine out-of-doors. It reminds me of the Egyptian spring celebration, Shem el Nessim, which means literally sniffing the breezes, when on May 1st in the modern calendar, all Egyptians do the same—rush outdoors to sit along the banks of the Nile and have a picnic while they sniff the fresh and invigorating breezes of spring.
Back to the recipe: For the ricotta, try to find real ricotta, made from the whey leftover from cheese making. It has a superb flavor, especially if you can get sheep’s or goat’s milk ricotta. Otherwise, you will have to make do, as so many American cooks must, with “ricotta” made from acidified pasteurized milk that has been soured or clabbered with an acid vinegar or lemon juice. It is not real ricotta but it’s all we have for the moment.
I make pizza rustica as a double-crust pie because it’s easier but a lattice top is more traditional, if you wish. I’ve given a recipe for the lightly sweetened short-crust dough used in Italy, but quite frankly if you can find a high-quality frozen pastry dough, like the “plant-based pastry dough” made by Dufour (www.dufourpastrykitchens.com), I see no reason to make your own. I find Dufour pastry at Whole Foods and also in my local food co-op. Their “plant-based pastry dough” is made with just four ingredients: organic wheat flour, organic palm fruit oil, water, and sea salt. Their puff pastry is also excellent.
This makes at least 8 servings.
For the pasta frolla (short-crust pastry)
Makes enough for a double-crust 9-inch pie
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup cake (pastry) flour
Pinch of fine sea salt
2 tablespoons of sugar (optional)
6 ounces (1 ½ sticks) very cold unsalted butter
2 eggs (1 separated)
Grated zest of 1 organic lemon
3 to 4 tablespoons very cold white wine
Combine the flours, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and, with the motor running, drop the pieces of butter, a few at a time, into the feed tube. When the butter has been absorbed, add, one after the other, the whole egg, the white of the separated egg, and the lemon zest; then start adding the well-chilled wine, a tablespoon at a time. (You may not need all of the wine.) You can also do this in the bowl of an electric mixer, using the flat paddle attachment.
As soon as all the ingredients come together, gather them into a ball and knead very briefly, just two or three strokes, on a lightly floured board. Divide into two portions, one larger than the other, and shape each portion into a thick disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for an hour or so while you prepare the filling.
The yolk of the second egg will be beaten with a teaspoon or so of cold water and used to paint the top of the pie before it gets popped into the oven.
For the filling
2 cups (about 450 grams) well-drained ricotta (see note above)
About ¼ pound (115 grams) each of the following: prosciutto, cooked ham, Genoa salami, soppressata, provolone, each ingredient diced small
½ pound cow’s milk mozzarella or fior di latte
½ cup grated aged pecorino (aged sheep’s milk cheese)
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of dried red chili flakes (optional)
½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 egg yolk, if necessary
Turn the oven on to 375º. Remove the pasta frolla discs from the refrigerator so they’ll soften slightly before you roll them out.
Make the filling: Add the ricotta and eggs to a food processor and process briefly, just to combine the mixture and make it as smooth and creamy as possible. Turn out into a mixing bowl.
Add the diced meats and provolone and stir into the ricotta mixture. Drain the mozzarella on paper towels, then dice and stir into the mix, along with the grated pecorino, black pepper, and chili flakes if using. Add the parsley and stir the filling with a spatula to make sure everything is well distributed throughout.
Roll out the larger of the two pastry discs between two sheets of parchment paper to fit a 9-inch cake tin with a removable bottom. The dough should cover the bottom and come up the sides with an overhang of at least a half-inch all around.
Turn the filling into the pastry-lined tin.
Now roll out the second pastry disc into a layer that will fit over the top. Seal and securely crimp the edges all the way around.
Mix that yolk left over from making the pasta frolla (or separate another egg if you used store-bought dough), and mix it thoroughly with a teaspoon or so of cold water. Use a pastry brush to paint the top of the pie, including the crimped crust around the edge. Transfer to the oven and bake for 55 to 65 minutes, or until the top is crisp and deep golden-brown.
Remove and let rest for at least 30 minutes before serving. It’s also fine served at room temperature.
Variations: Don’t feel restricted to the salumi I’ve mentioned. Other types of hard-cured or dry-cured sausage will be good too. Or you could make it entirely (ovolacto)vegetarian (but not vegan) by omitting all of the salumi, but in that case increase the cheeses, in quantity and variety, to make up the difference. Some people add a few green vegetables to the filling, like spinach or broccoli rabe, first simmering and draining very well before adding.
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Just gorgeous, Nancy! Roundness and egginess seems to be a constant at Easter. Andalucia, as I'm sure you know, has a round Easter bread with whole eggs, shell and all, set round the rim. Not sure if it happens all over Spain, think it's just in the south. And English Simnel cake has marzipan balls set around the top, one for each disciple - is the story. Myths pop up like daffodils in spring, given a chance!
A wonderful read, full of all that I love, the history, magic and goodness of traditional recipes, in combination with great expertise, thank you!
Wonder-filled wishes this Spring to you, from the Med!