Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter and the beginning of Holy Week for Christians everywhere. Holy Week is the final week of Lent. It commemorates the events of our Lord’s last week before His death.
It’s hard to believe that we’re already about to celebrate Easter! It is said that as we get older, time appears to pass much more quickly. I guess I can attest to that. Though I still have quite a way to go before I’m eligible for AARP discounts, there’s no denying that I am getting older – and time seems to be whizzing by me at warp speed!
The Easter season is one of my favorite times of the year. Yes, I enjoy the hustle and bustle (and the cookies!) of Christmas time. I love the carolers and the beautifully decorated houses, and even the inflatable lawn ornaments. I espcially love perpetuating my family traditions through cooking and baking, and learning about the cherished traditions of others. But the reality is, that Christmas has become a multi-billion dollar marketing bonanza controlled by the retailers, where bigger, brighter and grander is always better. They tell us what to want and how much of it we need to make our lives complete. Sorry, but I don’t need some corporate honcho in an ivory tower defining my wants and needs!
To me, Holy Week and Easter are about reflection, quiet joy and renewal. The promise of rebirth and hope. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Easter usually falls in the early Spring. To me, Spring is also about rebirth, renewal and hope. The best part of it is that no one is shoving any video iPod Nanos and XBox 360 Consoles down my throat!
One of the things that my family looks forward to each year as Easter approaches, is enjoying the many traditional Italian baked goods associated with the holiday. They’re not fancy. There’s no Swiss meringue, chocolate ganache, puff pastry towers or spun sugar decorations in the lot. Just simple, rustic goodness made by loving hands and warm hearts.
In my family, my Mom was always in charge of the Easter baking. Since she did such a great job, the rest of us didn’t interfere much, except when it came to taste-testing! Actually, that’s a big, fat lie. We were just all too lazy or busy doing our own thing and couldn’t be bothered with baking Easter pies. Then, a few years ago, my father got sick and everything changed. Mom didn’t have the drive to do it anymore. All of her energy was wrapped up in taking care of him. In an attempt to keep some normalcy in our lives, I sucked it up, stepped in and took charge of the Easter baking. Some recipes I kept the same and some I tweaked, because well, sometimes I can be a contrary, royal pain in the a$$!
This year, I was able to talk Mom into baking with me. It didn’t take too much conning…uh, I mean encouragement. After the French bread fiasco, I guess she was ready to get her hands back in some dough. We made two kinds of Pizza Grana, Easter Bread (easy, easy, easy – you will love it!), Zeppoli and the recipe I’m sharing with you today, Pizza Rustica. How about that? In one afternoon, I ended up with a week’s worth of post material! Anyway, I don’t want you to exhaust yourselves from reading about all of our exploits in one sitting, so I’ll be spreading it out over the course of the week. In addition to some great recipes, you’ll hear all about the good, the bad and the ugly of baking with Mom!
Pizza Rustica is a traditional Italian Easter pie with a ricotta base, which is then filled with a variety of dried meats and cheeses. The name literally means “rustic pie”. My Pizza Rustica is big, cheesy, creamy and gooey hunk of a pie stuffed to the gills with six, count ‘em, SIX different kinds of dried and fresh MEAT! Though many recipes for Pizza Rustica specify that the meat, cheese and other filling ingredients be layered, I like to make mine, Napolitano style, so I cut or chunk them up and add them to the ricotta filling. It makes it a lot easier to cut the pie into slices. I also like to mix a little sugar and lemon zest into my crust. Mom absolutely insists that you must add a pinch of freshly ground black pepper to the crust too. She’s been making this pie since before I was born. Who am I to argue?
(Look at all that meat!!!)
The original recipe calls for something called dry “basket cheese”. Basket cheese is a is very mild and lightly salted cheese made from cow’s milk. It get its name from the way it is formed – inside a basket. It can be difficult to find unless you live close to a large Italian community. In the cultural wasteland that is the Gulf Coast of Florida, I can rarely find it. You can easily substitute dry mozzarella. Also, I use a rich, dense homemade ricotta that I am actually able to get here. If you can find some, use it. If not, drain your ricotta for a while in some cheese cloth to get rid of any extra liquid. It makes for a richer filling. This is a pretty versatile recipe. If you don’t care for any of the meats or cheeses that I’ve used here, choose something else.
Pizza Rustica is best eaten when it is completely cooled. You can even eat it right out of the fridge. Although it is traditionally enjoyed at Easter time, it makes a great meal anytime.
I can’t wait to see what everyone else has come up with!
For the crust:
- 4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 4 eggs
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp fresh lemon zest
- 2 tbsp heavy cream
For the filling:
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 lb hot Italian sausage, casings removed
- 2 lbs whole milk ricotta
- 4 large egg yolks and 2 whole eggs, lightly beaten
- 8 ounces dry basket cheese or dry mozzarella cheese, diced into small cubes
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 6 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into small pieces
- 6 ounces thinly sliced mortadella, cut into small pieces
- 4 ounces thinly sliced sweet sopressatta, cut into small pieces
- 4 ounces thinly sliced hot sopressatta, cut into small pieces
- 6 ounces thinly sliced cappicola ham, cut into small pieces
1 egg white
- Position the rack on the bottom of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- To make the crust:Combine flour and butter in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the butter is broken down and the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the eggs, sugar, pepper and lemon zest. Process until the mixture turns into a smooth dough. Add 1 tbsp of the cream and pulse until incorporated. The dough should be smooth and soft, but not sticky. If it looks crumbly or dry, add a few more drops of cream. If is is sticky, add a tablespoon or two more flour. You kind of have to use your judgment here. What! Do I have to tell you everything?
- Remove dough onto a lightly floured surface and form into a large disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.
- To make the filling: Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and saute until golden brown, breaking the sausage into pieces, about 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and set aside to cool.
- Into a large bowl, stir together the eggs, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, mixing well. Add all of the meats and stir to combine. This step will definitely build up your biceps. You may have to use your hands for this, but hey, when else do you get a free pass to play with your food!
- To assemble the pie: Cut off 1/3 of the dough and set aside. Roll out the larger piece of dough on a lightly floured surface to a 16-17 inch round. Transfer the dough to a 10-inch springform pan. Gently press the dough to fit. Trim the dough overhang to 1 inch. Save the scraps for patching up holes.
- Spoon the filling into the dough-lined pan.
- Roll out the remaining piece of dough into a 12-inch round. Place the dough over the filling. Pinch the edges together to seal. Brush the egg white over the entire pastry top.
- Bake on the bottom oven shelf until the crust is golden brown, about 1-1 1/2 hours, until a toothpick comes out clean. Let pie cool for at least 1 hour. Release the pan sides and transfer the pie to a platter. When cooled, cut into huge wedges and serve.
- Go outside and run two miles wearing a weighted vest, to counteract the assault on your arteries.
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