By Melissa Clark, The New York Times
Eggs may be the most universal symbol of springtime on Easter tables around the world, but, in Italy, dishes made with ricotta are also a menu mainstay.
Serving them is a custom that dates back hundreds of years to the traditional rules of fasting for Lent, when all animal products (including dairy and eggs) were forbidden. After 40 days of abstinence, the return of ricotta-filled Easter pies, pastries, cakes and breads to the table was in and of itself reason to rejoice.
Torta rustica (also called pizza rustica, pizza gaina, pizza di Pasqua, among other names) is a savory ricotta pie especially beloved in Southern Italy. There are dozens of versions: some with chopped ham and salami; some with roasted peppers, other vegetables or herbs mixed into the filling. The crust varies, too, and can be a sturdy short crust, a yeasted bread or pizza dough, or an elegant, buttery puff pastry, either homemade or store-bought.
These days, torta rustica is baked all year long, not just during Easter. Sophie Minchilli, a Roman friend of mine who is the author of “The Sweetness of Doing Nothing,” recently texted me a photo of a party at which six different kinds of torta rustica were served, all with different fillings and crusts, all divine looking.
“It’s the kind of easy, adaptable recipe that home cooks can put their own spin on,” Minchilli said.
During COVID lockdown in Italy, Minchilli whipped up torta rustica about once a week, using prepared puff pastry as the crust and tweaking the filling to accommodate what she had on hand. In springtime, she skips the meat entirely and adds grated hard cheese and plenty of greens like chard to the ricotta mixture.
In my version, I use greens and meat, choosing diced, mild pink ham over more pungent salami or prosciutto. Then I sauté baby spinach with a little garlic until the greens soften and wilt, releasing moisture that would otherwise interfere with the smoothness of the filling.
But instead of puff pastry, I chose a pasta frolla scented with lemon zest that I adapted from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ wonderful cookbook, “Cucina Del Sole.” There’s a little sugar in the crust, too, which provides a gently sweet contrast to the salty, savory filling.
Baked in a deep pan, it makes a generous, creamy pie that’s perfect for Easter or any festive meal.
Recipe: Torta Rustica With Ricotta and Spinach
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
Torta rustica (also called pizza rustica) is a rich, ricotta-stuffed pie that’s traditionally baked for Easter in Southern Italy. This version includes greens (either spinach or chard) for color and freshness. The ham is optional; feel free to leave it out, or substitute chopped olives or sun-dried tomatoes if you’re looking for a similar savory bite. The crust, adapted from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ 2007 cookbook, “Cucina del Sole,” is sturdy and slightly sweet, which makes a nice contrast to the salty filling.
For the dough:
- 2 1/2 cups (310 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
- 3/4 cup (170 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg white (save the yolk for the egg wash)
- Zest from 1 lemon
- 3 to 4 tablespoons iced dry white wine or ice water spiked with 1/2 teaspoon cider or white wine vinegar
For the filling:
- 3 cups (24 ounces) whole-milk ricotta
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- About 5 cups (5 ounces) baby spinach or chard, coarsely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea or table salt, plus more as needed
- 2 large eggs
- 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded fresh mozzarella
- 1 cup (4 ounces) grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan (pecorino is stronger, Parmesan is milder, or use a combination)
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces) ham, diced (optional)
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, plus more as needed
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Egg wash (1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon water)
1. Make the dough: In a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar and salt. Add butter and pulse until the mixture forms lima-bean-size pieces. Alternatively, mix together flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl, then add butter, working the pieces into the flour with your hands, squeezing and pinching them until the mixture looks like oatmeal.
2. Add egg, egg white and lemon zest, and pulse after each addition. If working by hand, whisk together egg, egg white and lemon zest in a separate bowl, then mix into the butter mixture. Slowly add iced wine, 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse or mix by hand until the dough just comes together. You may not need all the liquid. The dough should be moist, but not wet.
3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and gather and press it into a ball. Divide into 2 portions, one slightly larger than the other, and shape into disks. Wrap the disks tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 5 days.
4. When ready to bake, heat oven to 375 degrees.
5. Make the filling: If your ricotta seems watery, put it in a sieve and let it drain while you cook the spinach.
6. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Stir in garlic and a large pinch of salt, and continue to cook until spinach is very dry, about 2 minutes longer. Transfer to a large bowl to cool. If any liquid accumulates as the spinach sits, pour it out of the bowl (you don’t want it to water down the ricotta).
7. In a food processor, purée drained ricotta and eggs until just combined and smooth. Add to the bowl with the spinach and fold in mozzarella, pecorino, ham (if using), parsley, black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt, red-pepper flakes and nutmeg. Set aside when rolling out dough (or chill for up to 4 hours).
8. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger pastry dough disk to a 14-inch circle, about 1/8-inch thick. Fit dough into a 9-inch springform pan, pressing the dough up the sides of the pan. Scrape filling into crust and spread evenly. Roll out second pastry disk to a 12-inch circle, about 1/8-inch thick. Cut 1/2-inch-wide strips and weave into a lattice on top of the filling. Seal, trim and crimp the edges. Brush the top of the torta with the egg wash.
9. Place torta on sheet pan and bake until crust is crisp and brown, and filling is firm, 50 to 60 minutes. Cool on a rack for at least 45 minutes before serving.
(Recipe from Sophie Minchilli and Nancy Harmon Jenkins; Adapted by Melissa Clark.)
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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