I like to think of it as being efficient. I’m the gal with a bag slung over shoulder, laptop case dangling on wrist, gripping three grocery bags in one hand while the other hand is balancing a full cup of lava-hot coffee and simultaneously turning key in lock, shoving my knee into the ajar door, flinging it open (one-legged), and bolting inside before it slams shut. Efficient, right? Lazy would be another description. Too lazy to be bothered with making two trips from the car, thus avoiding the high probability of flipping cup and contents and the resulting 2nd degree scorching as I watch my airborne laptop hit the pavement. Today however, my early morning episode of “Beat the Clock” was successful.
Efficiency, as defined in the dictionary in my brain doesn’t necessarily mean the best, most effective, or even fastest way to do something well. It’s more like how many layers I can cram into one action and still end up with the result I was aiming for. Well, close to aiming for, kinda… If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, this should not surprise you. Why do I bring this up? The other day I baked what I think is the culinary equivalent of efficiency. Or maybe it was just the most efficient delivery system of ‘HOLY CRAP THAT’S GOOD’ food, ever. A teeny bit overstatement perhaps, but MAN this package of tasty wrapped in pastry was good, quite effectively delivered a remarkable number of favorite food groups in one slice, feeds an army and keeps belly full and happy for a very long time. Surely food efficiency defined.
I discovered Torta Pasqualina about 20 years ago when I was working as a temp for a family of HVAC contractors. The job was just a job, something to pay the bills while trying to find the next step in my somewhat winding career path. But the people, and more importantly, the people watching was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in an office setting. Everyone was related, I mean everyone. If you weren’t in some degree born into the family you were married into it. Which made for pretty interesting overheard conversation, especially if you were the only unrelated one in the office. The good news was despite my lack of genetic or marital affiliation, I was still treated like family. Even better, I was fed like family too. This clan was old-school Italian with a fully equipped kitchen in the back of the building, and a fully equipped mama cooking in it daily. Since I was (between the hours of 9-5) family, I had a hot lunch every day. And if I remembered to bring some empty containers with me, I went home with dinner too, a bona-fide member on the family meal plan! Which brings me back to the torta.
While I only worked there for a few months, those months fell over Easter, one of the BEST holidays to be Italian. As the holiday grew closer I started to hear about this thing called ‘Torta Pasqualina’. I asked what that meant and was told it was Easter pie. Pie? I LOVE pie! I still had no idea what was in it, but knew based upon all the hubbub surrounding its arrival, I wanted it badly. A few days later I got my chance. A “test torta” was brought in for lunch and I was invited to sample. The “pie” was made in a springform so taller than I had imagined, filled with layers of good stuff inside, and weighing what seemed about 10 pounds. I’m not kidding, I was asked to carry it in from the car. The crust was made up of layers of olive-oil based pastry dough and inside was a base of sautéed chard and buttery onions, followed by a layer of ricotta mixed with ample parmesan and a few beaten eggs. Then, imbedded in the layer of cheese, perfectly hard-cooked golden egg yolks, followed by a bit more parmesan and topped by another few layers of pastry. A fully encased meal in one efficient package. My ample slice kept me full for lunch and dinner, and the leftovers became breakfast the next day. In other words, Torta Pasqualina was good hot, warm, or even cold!
I considered making one myself that year, but when I looked at the recipe mama gave me, it seemed WAY too complicated. So it became just another fond food memory. That is, until I saw a recipe a few weeks ago. Now a bit older (ok, more than a bit), and definitely culinarily wiser, I figured why not! If every family that ever made one had their own variation, I could too, and still cram in every ounce of the goodness of the original. So here is it – my version of Torta Pasqualina. Based upon the reaction of the eager mouths I served, it was efficient, and delicious!
Torta Pasqualina (adapted from many Nonna and non-Nonna sources, including Food52 and Epicurious)
Makes One 10 or 12″ springform-sized torta, which can feed a small army or large family (and a friend)
Recipe Notes: When I started to research this recipe, I discovered that some of the more traditional versions called for using 31 layers of pastry, one for each year of Jesus’ life. I also found many that stated this interesting fact, and then said, “but I only make 4 layers”. See…efficiency. I took it a step further. I decided since I was already making pie dough for my weekly bake for clients, I may as well make some more and use that. And it worked out very well. You could also use bought all-butter puff pastry, or phyllo. It’s a great recipe to make any time of the year, and the perfect bring-along for picnics since it feeds a ton and can be eaten hot, room temperature, or even cold.
- 2 recipes pate brisee, or two all-butter pie crusts (**you could also use puff pastry or phyllo dough. If you use phyllo, use about 4 sheets on bottom and top, brushing each layer with olive oil before placing the next on top.)
- 500 grams or a pound of baby spinach/kale/chard mix (3-4 bags – you can get these in the salad section of the market, or just use spinach or chard.)
- A generous 1/2 cup caramelized onions (about a cup to cup and a half raw chopped onions, cooked in olive oil over medium low heat until they are golden.)
- 1/3 cup golden raisins
- 2-3 TBSP toasted pine nuts
- 8 eggs
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk ricotta
- Salt & pepper
- A pinch of nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp dried marjoram
Preheat oven to 350ºF.
Prepare the greens layer:
Steam the greens with a tablespoon or two of water, good pinch of salt, a few grinds black pepper and the marjoram in a covered pan until tender – about 5 minutes. Drain off the water, let cool slightly, then put the greens on several layers of paper towels, roll up and squeeze to remove as much water as possible (too much liquid will create a soggy base). Finely chop the greens, add to a bowl with the 1/2 cup caramelized onions. Mix well, taste and adjust salt and pepper. Add in the raisins, pine nuts, and a third of the parmesan and set aside to cool completely.
Prepare the ricotta layer:
In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, 2 beaten eggs, a third of the Parmesan, pinch nutmeg, and season with salt and pepper. Beat until combined. Set aside in the fridge until needed.
Spray or brush the inside of the springform with olive oil. Roll out one sheet of dough so it is large enough to line the springform bottom and sides with a little more than an inch overhang.
Fill the pie base with the greens mixture, smoothing over the top with the back of a spoon. Next, layer over the ricotta mixture and smooth into an even layer. Using the back of a spoon, make 6 round indents over the surface of the ricotta that are big enough to fit an egg yolk in each. Crack an egg over a bowl to separate the white, leaving yolk. Carefully place the yolk in one of the indents in the ricotta. Repeat until all of the divots are filled. Whisk the whites together with a fork and pour just enough of the whites to make an even layer that just covers the ricotta. Sprinkle over the rest of the Parmesan.
Roll out the top crust so it is about an inch larger than the top of the pan. Gently lay it over the top of the pie. Trim any overhanging bottom dough so it is about the size of the top, then roll the bottom and top dough together so you have a 1/2″ rolled crust around the inside of the pan. Using your left thumb (or right thumb if you are left-handed), tuck it between the edge of pan and rolled crust. Using your other hand, gently pinch the rolled crust around your thumb to make a scalloped edge and seal the crust around the pie. If you have leftover trimmings, roll out and make leaves, branches, whatever makes you happy. Think of it as edible playdough. Use a little of the leftover egg white to paste the decorations to the top of the crust.
Brush the top with olive oil and sprinkle with a tiny bit of salt (I like to use flake salt like Maldon for this), and place the pan on a parchment-lined backing sheet. This will make it easier to move in and out of oven and catch anything if torta bottom seeps a little (it might, mine did, but I just kept baking.)
Bake for about an hour to 1 1/2 hours or until the top is a nice golden brown. Remove the pie from the oven and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes before removing the tin and cutting into it. If once you remove the sides of the pan the sides bow out a little don’t worry – they will firm up as it cools. I made this the evening before I served it, so it was room temperature when cut into and all the flavors had a chance to get to know each other a bit. Delizioso! :-)
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