In my family, we were nothing if not traditional. No matter what problems there were, if there was holiday on the horizon, the baking pans were pulled and our pantry was stocked with extra flour, sugar, and baking powder. My mother would scour the weekly store circular to see if butter, eggs or oil was on sale. I was usually the designated "runner", because no matter how much planning and orchestration there was, we seemed to always run out of something!
Italian baking, especially at Easter, is full of symbolism. (It is also filled with calories and sugar and fat, but for purposes of this post, we will focus on the symbolism!)
My favorite pie, and the first one I learned to make, is called the Easter wheat pie. It is also known as a "grain pie", and in my home, was called "la pastiera di grana".
The cooked wheat (or grain) is symbolic of the resurgence of the earth coming to life in the spring, and along with the resurgence, hope for the rest of the year. It is more or less a cheescake with the addition of the wheat, and strongly flavored with orange and lemon. Along with vanilla, a flavoring called fior d'arancio or orange flower water, is used. Sometimes a sweet liqueur is added. My preference would be creme de cacao. For as many families baking this pie, that is how many variations there are of it. My grandmother, mother and aunt would whip these up from a long-ago recipe that was verbally told to them while they were learning. When I first was being inducted into the family baking, I asked my mother about a written recipe. Her response to me was, "What you put, you find." OK, Ma, I guess the recipe was left on the boat. Oh well. But I soon got used to it, and if I see a recipe anywhere that sounds close, I will try it, but I always go back to my roots and add or delete accordingly. So much for the belief that baking is an exact science!
Next we have the meat pie, also known as pizza chiena (full pie) or pizza rustica (rustic pie).
The symbolism here is that during the 40 days of Lent, you were supposed to abstain from rich, fatty foods. So when Lent is over, you can make up for those lean 40 days with one slice of the pie. The best way I can describe it is - like a quiche on steroids. Real men eat this pie, let me tell you. It is diced ham, salami, provolone, mozzarella, dried sausage blended in a ricotta base with lots of eggs. Not what the doctor ordered. But once a year, a sliver should't hurt.
After church on Easter Sunday, I would look forward to a breakfast consisting of an eggy, fragrant braided bread called casatelli.
I was always in charge of the colored Easter eggs. The eggs are boiled and dyed, then nestled in the braided dough and baked. The eggs are not edible when the finished product is out of the oven. But with a cup of coffee or glass of oj, it always hit the spot for me while I was going through my Easter basket.
Now, we couldn't just slice into our Easter baked goods. We wrapped them and carried them to our church to be blessed. We didn't take all of them, because in the good old days my mother and aunt would make pies by the dozen as gifts for family, friends, the doctor, even the postman. But one of each brought to church would do.
I am afraid that this type of baking is becoming lost as the younger generation doesn't really "eat this way". Good for them. But I know when I just smell these pies in the oven, I am 8 years old and back to my roots. And I have hope for the rest of the year.
Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Happy Spring! xo,
Here they are. Please bear in mind that these are from my head, which seems to be on straight today :). I realize that certain ingredients might be hard to find in your neck of the woods. If you have a Whole Foods close by, they carry the grain (or wheat berries). Don't buy bulgar wheat, which is used to make a delicious middle eastern salad called tabbouleh. I have also used in the past a wheat product in a can (yes, it was not too bad) from a company called Asti. I believe they are based in Illinois. The orange flower water might be found at either kingarthurflour or penzeys Both have great online stores and feature products from all over the world. King Arthur might have the wheat berries as well.
The Internet is full of recipes for these pies. Some are almost exactly like mine, some take it over the top a little bit, and that I leave to readers' discretion.
Easter Grain Pie
3/4 cup wheat berries, soaked over night in the fridge with water to cover with large pieces of orange and lemon peel, then boiled til the kernels pop open (15 minutes or so). Test to see if they are soft. Set aside while making the rest of the filling. Grease and flour a 10-or 12- inch spring form pan. You may be able to make a smaller pie as well but we never know for sure.
3 pounds ricotta cheese, well drained
12 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar (to start, might need more)
1 T. vanilla
pinch (it is strong) orange flower water - can use orange extract but I wouldn't *
juice and zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
1 jigger any cordial, I use creme de cacao but Grand Marnier is good, can be optional
pinch of salt
1 tsp. cinnamon (optional but good)
1/4 tsp. ground cloves (optional but good)
1/2 pint heavy whipping cream (no need to whip)
1/4 - 1/2 cup finely chopped citron ( can used candied orange peel if citron not available)
(*) can also use rose water. You can also sprinkle mini chocolate chips which have been dusted with flour on the bottom of the crust before you pour the filling
I start by beating the egg yolks with sugar til thick. Then add ricotta, the flavorings, juice, zest, cream. Blend til smooth and taste. It may need more sugar, more vanilla, more zest whatever you think. Then fold in the cooked, well drained and cooled wheat and citron or candied orange peel. Lastly beat egg whites till stiff and fold them in. Pour into crust and cut strips from dough to lay across, using two strips to form an X, repeat 3 or 4 times across the top. Bake 350 for about an hour, if top browning too quickly, cover edges with aluminum foil. The crust should be a light golden brown not too dark. Test with a toothpick, it should not be wet. Cool overnight, this tastes better the next day. Sprinkle with powdered sugar when ready to serve.
For the sweet crust (pasta frolla), I use a recipe I found on the Internet that was close to my memory of it. I also make two batches of this recipe since pie crust and I don't always see eye to eye. This dough keeps well and if you have a lot left over you won't be sorry. Can be frozen.
Single batch of crust
1 1/3 cups a-p flour, 1/2 cup sugar, 2/3 cup unsalted butter at room temp, 1 whole egg plus 1 yolk, grated zest of half a lemon
Mix flour and sugar. Cream butter and eggs using a pastry blender (old-fashioned ,yes, I know but recipe is older than dirt!). Mix in zest. Don't over work dough. Let it rest about an hour. Roll it out working as quickly as you can. This dough should not be allowed to turn a dark brown or it will be too crumbly. Watch it very carefully.
Pizza Rustica (Easter Meat Pie)
Use whatever pie crust you would use to make a double crust 9-inch savory pie. I use frozen deep-dish pie shells. I use about 1/4 lb diced of each of the following: prosciutto (can use ham), Genoa salami, soppressata, pepperoni (optional), mortadella (optional), mozzarella, mild provolone. For the ricotta base, I use about 2 cups (guesstimate, may need more) ricotta mixed with 4 beaten eggs, handful grated Parmesan cheese, pinch of black pepper, about 1 T. finely minced parsley, and a teeny pinch ground nutmeg (trust me, but it has to be a teeny pinch).
If it looks too meaty don't use all the meats, not creamy enough add more ricotta or an additional egg. I never add any salt to this filling. Fill crust and top with second crust, brush with an egg wash and make several small slits or dock with fork. Bake til crust is golden brown, 350 oven, 50 min. or so (depends on your oven). Test with toothpick, should not be wet.
Easter Sweet Bread (casatelli)
3 cups flour (you won't use it all), 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tsp. salt, 1 pkg active dry yeast, 2/3 cup milk, 2 eggs, 1/4 cup finely diced citron (or candied orange peel), 4 or 5 hard boiled eggs, (colored is nice) sweet glaze, colored sprinkles
Start with 1 cup flour mix with sugar, salt and yeast. Heat the milk and butter until warm but butter should not be completely melted. Gradually add this wet mix to flour mix, stirring constantly. Add the eggs and add about 1/2 cup flour. Mix well. Add remaining flour a little at a time til dough forms You should have a nice dough without using all the flour. Knead til smooth, then knead in citron or candied peel. Put dough in greased bowl, cover with damp towel and let rise til doubled, about 1 hour. Cut in two, roll out into long ropes (I never really measured these but they are long!) , twist ropes together like a braid and seal ends together. You may want to break off a piece of dough to roll into smaller ropes that you would put on top of each egg like a "cross". Totally optional. Place eggs in between as evenly spaced as possible. Put on greased baking sheet and let rise again for about 45 minutes. Bake in a 350 oven 50-55 minutes, about 15 minutes before done, brush with a glaze made with an egg and 1 tsp sugar blended in a cup of water. Top with colored candy sprinkles. Return to oven til golden. When cool, wrap with plastic wrap.
Good luck and enjoy! xo
Joining The Tablescaper for Seasonal Sundays, Yvonne at Stone Gable for Weekly Menu and Bunny Jean for the Bunny Hop, and Michael Lee for Foodie Friday.
Edited to add Wow Us Wednesdays at Kim's Savvy Southern Style, Favorite Things Thursday at Katherine's Corner and WOW at Ivy & Elephants. Also invited to join Diane Balch at Simple Living for Foodie Friday.