This weekend’s back-to-back holiday celebrations of Passover and Easter summon up for me memories of family meals. First, my own mother in our Brooklyn home chopping, grinding, baking and braising to produce a multi-course Seder dinner (as described in my last column on matzo ball soup).
Then much later, my Italian mother-in-law, resurrecting traditional Easter specialties in her tiny Bronx kitchen. Both celebrations, of course, harken back to pagan festivals marking the rebirth and deliverance of springtime and so symbolized with seeds, eggs, lamb and greens.
In addition to tortellini for the fragrant Italian-style chicken brodo—flavoring the simmering broth was a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind—there would be at every place setting a sort of glazed, candy-confetti sprinkled sweet yeast bun enfolding a colored Easter egg, which was usually taken home and eaten the following morning. The bun along with the panettone-like dove shaped sweet bread, Colombo di Pasqua, were the breads of the season.
Having emigrated from Abruzzo, my mother-in-law generally prepared the traditional Easter abbacchio lamb, cut in chunks right through bones and baked with eggs and lemon juice in the style of Greek avgolemono sauce. It is just one of the many Greek influences on the cuisine of Italy’s Adriatic regions, including Puglia and Abruzzo. Potato croquettes would also for sure be served, as would a sublime vegetable mélange of asparagus, new fava beans and sliced artichoke hearts braised together in olive oil with some slivered new onions or shallots and flecks of parsley.
In the offing would be the Pastiera, the classic Italian holiday cheese pie made with grains of farro, the whole-wheat seeds also being a symbol of renewal. The dessert, along with final sips of slightly chilled bracingly strong red wine, assured that all indeed had a Buona Pasqua!
This rose-water scented Easter cheese tart, with its nicely nutty grains of whole-wheat farro, is a favorite of Sicilians and is popular in many other parts of southern Italy, with a few minor variations. Some bakers add jewel-like bits of candied fruits, others prefer orange water to rose water, but all seem to agree this holiday riff on typical Italian cheese cake is in itself a cause for celebration. Years ago, I found a model recipe in a little known but excellent Italian cookbook, Festa by Helen Barolini, and I adapted that recipe to suit my limitations as a baker. Most of all, I bought two high- quality frozen unbaked 10-inch pie shells, one for the pan, the other to be cut in strips to form the lattice topping.
If you are more ambititous, prepare a short pastry pie shell to fit a deep 10-inch pie pan, plus strips for lattice work. Add some grated lemon rind to your usual pastry dough.
Ingredients for the Filling
- third-of-a-pound Whole-wheat farro (polished whole-wheat grains)
- 6 Eggs
- half Tbsp Grated orange rind
- half Tbsp Grated lemon rind
- 2 tsp Rose,water
- two-and-a-half cups Granulated sugar
- 2 pounds Ricotta
- one-and-a-half Tbsp Lightly roasted pignoli nuts or blanched, roasted and slivered almonds
- 1 Egg white stirred into 1 Tbsp water
- Farro should be soaked in cold water for 8 to 10 hours. Change water 2 or 3 times. Drain the grain, then, boil in a potful of water for 1 hour. When tender pour into a sieve to drain thoroughly and allow to cool.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Fit pie crust into pan.
- Combine eggs, rinds, rose water and sugar with ricotta cheese and beat gently but thoroughly until smooth. Fold in the farro and nuts and turn into pie shell, topping it with lattice strips. Brush the egg-and-water mixture gently across strips.
- Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 1 hour and 30 minutes or until top is nicely browned. If pie is made a day ahead, it should be stored in the refrigerator, then brought to room temperature before serving. But that is a compromise. Texture and flavor will be better if pie is baked early in the morning and held at room temperature in a cool spot until serving in the mid-afternoon or evening.
Yield: About 8 portions