Monday, April 10, 2017

Liguria and its Easter Culinary Tradition

Living in Italy as I do for so many months of the year, I marvel at the seasonal dishes that are part of traditions that go back for centuries. Families get together for holidays over meals that in some form or another have been prepared since time immemorial. They may have religious symbolism, but even those origins can be traced to a pagan tradition. And you can be certain that every town throughout Italy has its own variation of any particular culinary tradition.

The torta pasqualina, prepared in Liguria, is one you see at this time in every bakery window of that region of Italy. The ingredients include swiss chard, eggs, cheese, a type of yogurt known as prescinseua, marjoram, and artichokes. Although the torta pasqualina is steeped in the Christian traditions of Easter, it really goes much further back to pagan rites of spring which celebrated the rebirth of life after the death of winter. A powerful symbol of rebirth undoubtedly is the hardboiled egg in the torta which is 'dropped' raw on the vegetable / cheese mixture in an indentation made with a spoon and then covered with the pastry. The egg then becomes hardboiled with the steam of the other ingredients when it's baked.

Just to get you in the mood of our fall Ligurian tour, I'm posting this recipe, just in time for your Easter celebrations. And I invite you to take a look at our fall offering to Liguria: it's a splendid time to be on this coast. Picture yourself walking along the ancient Roman paths and later relaxing in a cooking class, learning to make the ancient, traditional cuisine of this unique area of Italy.

One of my very favorite food blogs is by Emiko Davies. Look here and you'll see why:

I would suggest, as she does, that if you're short on time, frozen puff pastry will work fine as a substitute for your dough.

Here is a recipe adapted from Emiko's blog for this torta:

Torta Pasqualina (Ligurian Easter pie)

For pastry:
500 grams bakers or bread flour (a strong flour gives elasticity to this very thin dough)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
310 ml (1 ¼ cups) water (or as needed)

For the filling:
½ medium brown onion, chopped finely
1 kg silverbeet (chard), central veins removed and leaves blanched
handful of fresh marjoram leaves
350 gr (1 ½ cups) ricotta
8 eggs
120 gr (about 1 cup) grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

For the pastry:
Place the flour, salt and oil in a bowl and add water, little by little until you have a dough that is neither dry nor sticky. You may need to add a bit more water, you may not need it all, so I suggest doing this by hand or at least adding the water bit by bit so you can see how the dough behaves.
Once it comes together into a dough, knead it on a lightly floured surface about 5-10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic (it should bounce back when poked). Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for at least 1 hour (you can also prepare this the night before and leave it overnight in the fridge).

For the filling:
Cook the silverbeet (chard) until tender, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from the water, drain, let cool slightly then chop finely. Squeeze again to remove as much water as possible.
In a large pan, saute the onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil until soft and translucent. Add the spinach and toss to combine with the onion, cooking a further 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add the fresh marjoram leaves and set aside to cool. When cool, combine 2 beaten eggs and a third of the Parmesan with the chard mixture and set aside until needed.
In a bowl, combine the ricotta, 2 eggs, a third of the Parmesan, and season with salt and pepper. Beat until well combined. Set aside in the fridge until needed.

To assemble the pie:
Brush olive oil lightly over a cake tin with a removable base (about 23-25cm diameter is fine but larger sizes work too). Cut the dough into 4 equal portions. Roll one out at a time, keeping the others well covered with a tea towel or plastic wrap. On a large, lightly floured surface, roll the first ball of dough until very thin. You may even need to pick it up and stretch it between your hands, gently – you should be able to see your fingers through the other side.
Lay the dough gently over the cake tin to cover the sides and base. Let the excess dough hang over the edge. Brush the dough lightly with olive oil. Roll out a second ball of dough as before and lay over the first layer of dough the same way. Brush with olive oil, pushing out any air bubbles with the brush as you do so.
Fill the pie base with the chard mixture, smoothing over the top with the back of a spoon. Next, layer over the ricotta mixture, smoothing over the top with the back of a spoon. Then, with the help of a spoon, make four round indents over the surface of the ricotta to fit 4 egg yolks. Crack the eggs, placing them in the indents in the ricotta . Sprinkle over the rest of the Parmesan.
Roll out the third ball of dough as before. Gently lay it over the top of the pie and brush lightly with olive oil. Roll out the last ball of dough and lay it over the top. Trim the dough overhang, leaving about an inch (2 ½ cm) from the edge of the top of the pie, and roll the trim down until it reaches the top of the pie. Brush the top with olive oil and then bake for about 50 minutes at 180°C.

Serve warm or even cold – this also makes a great portable picnic dish!

And now that you're on a Ligurian wave length, take a look at our Liguria page:  Although this trip is about Liguria, we start out in Florence and, so, you get to see a bit of this Renaissance jewel before we leave by private transport to the coast of Liguria. Our welcoming hosts in Liguria are Emanuela Raggio and Anna Merulla of Beautiful Liguria. If you're at all interested, please write me as soon as possible.

May your Easter be a peaceful gathering of beloved friends, family, and heavenly food that nourishes your soul as much as your body.