The description of Torta di Pasqualina in Anna del Conte’s Gastronomy of Italy makes me desire greatly to find a close Ligurian friend – one who wouldn’t mind my stopping by while she crafts her Torta – all 33 layers of hand-formed dough that it requires – and beg of her to teach me how to make this laborious Easter treat in the Ligurian way. The Easter pie is a speciality of Liguria, the area known as the Italian Riviera bordering as it does the French Riviera; the same region we owe our thanks to for pesto and the Cinque Terre, among other things. Anna del Conte’s friend worked her handmade dough to a phyllo-like consistency by rolling each of the 20 individual balls she had formed around one hand and then passing it to the other hand at what del Conte calls “fantastic speed”. Each individual layer was then placed into the pie dish one-by-one, and each was brushed with olive oil. Before sealing the next layer over, air was blown between the layers using a straw. For all you mathematicians out there, that’s ten layers on the bottom – place, brush with oil, place, fill with air, seal, repeat – and ten layers on the top of the pie. Traditionally there are 33 layers of ultra-thin dough formed, the 33 layers representing the 33 years of Christ’s life. I’m not sure why del Conte’s friend was slacking on those last 13 layers, but I suppose we could forgive her just this once.
Despite my yearning to learn how to move dough at a fantastic speed from hand to hand such that it forms a paper-thin dough, and despite my overwhelming desire to fill layers of olive-oil brushed dough with air from a straw before sealing and repeating, I chose to cheat in the construction of my Torta, and instead moved with fantastic speed to my freezer, where I conveniently found some puff pastry dough. I was then filled with great joy as I found a recipe for Torta di Pasqualina in my copy of Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian, for even though it calls for a mere 6 layers of thinly-stretched dough, the author so kindly condones the Puff Pastry Cheat Method, and I was only too happy to oblige.
- 2 sheets puff pastry (one package of Pepperidge Farm frozen puff pastry contains two sheets)
- 4 1/2 pounds Swiss Chard, approximately 5 bunches, well-rinsed, and stems removed
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
- 1/4 cup fresh ricotta
- 2 tablespoons light cream
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 5 large eggs
- 2 1/2 tablespoons sweet cream butter - divided into (5) 1/2 tablespoon pieces to be placed - gently, people - atop the egg yolks
- 1 egg yolk and 1 tablespoon milk for the egg wash
- Remove the puff pastry from the freezer and allow to thaw, separated from one another, on the counter for 40 minutes.
- Chop the well-rinsed and stemmed swiss chard into 1- to 2-inch pieces.
- In a large stockpot, bring salted water to a boil and blanch the swiss chard for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender. Drain the blanched chard in a colander with small holes - I will elaborate in a moment - and rinse with cold water. Squeeze excess water from the chard. The recipe as written in the Saveur book calls for a two-step process with the chard: first, blanch the washed and stemmed chard, rinse with cold water, and squeeze out the excess water. Second, chop the chard into bite-sized pieces. I decided to combine steps, but if you have only a large-holed colander, you may lose that chard you worked so hard to wash and stem, so use your own discretion.
- Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the blanched chard and saute for 3 minutes. Add the crushed red pepper and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine, and cook for one minute more. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before combining with the cheeses and cream.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the Pecorino-Romano, fresh ricotta, cream, and oregano with the cooked chard mixture. Stir to distribute all ingredients evenly.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry dough to twelve inches diameter. You can trim the corners after assembly if you like, and make a bunny, or tulip, or smiling daisy on the top of the pie with the puff pastry scraps. Or not.
- Place one sheet of puff pastry dough into a buttered pie dish for the base of the torta. Fill with the chard and cheese mixture. Using a spoon, make five indentations into the filling to house the egg yolks. The egg whites will run over the top of the filling, this is part of the joy of this pie, but I have to say, do find yourself an egg yolk when it's done, won't you? The egg yolks are, in my opinion, a greater part of the joy of this pie than even the egg whites. Carefully place 1/2 tablespoon of butter over each of the egg yolks being careful not to break the yolks. Salt and pepper to taste.
- Get ye your straw out. Place the second rolled-out piece of puff pastry over the top of the filling and seal all but one small spot for that there straw of yours. Blow air into the torta, and quickly seal up the dough. Or skip the straw thing all together. I tried this technique sans straw and let's just pretend that I didn't have a lovely natural-looking set of flour whiskers and small cat nose when I was done. And let's also make believe that the air I filled the pie with distributed itself to more than just one quarter of the pie, ok? Great. Thank you. In any case, you are not required to blow air through a straw nor to make yourself resemble a flour-faced Cat Woman to complete your very own scrumptious Torta di Pasqualina. You may skip this entirely and simply seal the dough well, crimping the edges, and move on.
- Mix the egg yolk and tablespoon of milk together for the egg wash and brush over the top of the pie. You may also use olive oil instead of the egg wash if you so desire.
- Bake on the middle rack until the pastry is golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes. If the edges are browning too quickly, cover them with aluminum foil to prevent them from burning.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes prior to serving. The Torta di Pasqualina may be served warm or at room temperature, and if you were unable to discern from the ingredients list, it is incredibly rich and filling. Therefore, I estimate that it serves 10 to 12 people, and if you are serving it at your Easter festa, it may serve more as you likely have more than one side dish on offer.
- I feel compelled to inform you, the Torta is incredibly delicious. Incredibly. I wish I had the ambition to make this more than once per year, but I'm not certain that I do. With that said, I am filled with glee and anticipation each spring looking forward to the first daffodils, honey bees in flight, and Torta di Pasqualina. Now I just need to find me that Ligurian BFF to make a second pie per annum.
Dinner tonight: Grilled Sweet Italian Sausage with Rigatoni and Artichoke Hearts. Estimated cost for four: $8.50, or $4.25 for two . I am preparing this as though I am making it for four so that I may take pictures of it to post, and also so that JR gets a serving for lunch – lucky JR with chicken leftovers, pizza leftovers, and now, sausage and rigatoni leftovers this week. The sausage was $3.59/pound. I had intended to purchase one pound, but the portion I received was a little over a pound, and so it cost $3.91. Barilla pasta is nearly always on sale at some regional grocery store for $1 per box, and so the rigatoni cost $1.00. The artichoke hearts are Whole Foods store brand and cost $2.39 for the jar. I will use one medium shallot for 25-cents, and about a quarter-cup of olive oil for 45-cents in the saute portion of the meal. I will top each dish with a sprinkling of grated Pecorino-Romano cheese – it is less expensive than my beloved Parmigiano-Reggiano, but still gives a similar effect, and one tablespoon each is approximately one-quarter ounce. At $7.99/pound, that’s an additional 25-cents for two, but 50-cents for four.