There is an old Italian saying, "Natale con I tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuol," which means "Christmas at home with your family, Easter with whomever you please." Regardless of with whom you are spending your Easter holiday, if you are celebrating in an Italian household, you will no doubt be partaking in a glorious feast.
Easter, perhaps the holiest of holy days celebrated by Christians, marks the end of the Lenten season, which is a time of fasting and abstinence. While Easter dinner is made up of a main course such as lamb, ham or turkey (and don't forget the first course of pasta), many Italians make it a weekend long celebration filled with breads, pies, omelettes and sweet desserts. It is a time of year that is rich in both taste and tradition, and a time of year that I particularly look forward to.
In our household, the festivities start on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. After going to Church and collecting some palm, we prepare a nice Sunday dinner, followed up by home-made cannoli for dessert. Be sure to check out this fantastic palm weaving article and tutorial by Anthony Parente. Each night of the week is then filled with either dying Easter eggs, or making different Easter pies. For as long as I could remember, Easter pies were always a big tradition in my family. There were always two served: Easter Ham Pie, also known as Pizza Rustica or Pizza Chena (pronounced Pizza Gaina), and Easter Rice Pie. The ham pie is similar to a quiche, filled with egg, cheeses and various Italian meats (ham, pepperoni, salami). The rice pie is more of a cheesecake texture with rice and is sweet-tasting, often with a hint of lemon or orange flavoring. I still remember Easter dinner at my Grandmother's. Each of my Aunt's Easter pies and breads were represented on the table. All had similar ingredients, but each was unique in taste and texture, and all of them were out of this world. Now my Mom, on the other hand, is the family matriarch of cheesecakes. To this day, everyone practically salivates as their eyes light up when she starts do distribute her countless aluminum foil-wrapped dishes of her cherished cheesecake. Another traditional Italian dish that my Uncle Angelo makes is Fritatta, an omelette made with fillings such as potatoes, sausage and asparagus. This is usually served as a breakfast on either Saturday on Sunday.
Easter bread is also a very popular item, which is usually available starting about a week or so prior to Easter. It is a sweet bread, sometimes with a hint of anise flavor. It is woven into a circular or elongated loaf, nesting actual colored Easter eggs. It often has a sweet sugary glaze and is topped with mini sprinkles. It goes perfect with a nice cup of coffee or espresso.
I'm sure you now understand why I made sure to have my 6-month cholesterol check taken two weeks ago!!! Since I am trying to be more health-conscience these days, I have started using egg subtitutes (such as Egg Beaters) in my ham and rice pie. The taste and texture is just as good as using real eggs.
PIZZA RUSTICA (Easter Ham Pie)
Fills two 9-inch unbaked pie shells or one 9x13-inch baking pan
2 lbs. Ricotta cheese, drained
8-oz shredded mozzarella cheese
6 eggs, beaten
1/4 c. grated parmesan cheese
2 c. ham, diced
1/4 lb. slicing pepperoni, chopped
1/4 c. chopped parsley
1 small can sliced or chopped olives (optional)
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
Preheat oven to 375º. Mix Ricotta, mozzarella, eggs and parmesan cheese in a bowl. Stir in ham, pepperoni, parsley, olives, salt and pepper. Spoon into pie shells, bake 50-60 minutes until center is set and crust is golden brown. Cool slightly before serving. Serve hot or cold.
CRUST FOR 9x13” PAN
3 c. flour
3 tbsp. sugar
1/2 c. shortening
1/8 c. milk plus 1 tbspn milk
Mix the flour and sugar together. Make a well in the center, add 3 of the eggs, shortening and milk, mixing together until dough is easy to handle. Divide in half; roll out one portion and fit into 9x13 inch baking pan. Cover other half until later.
Spread filling into crust. Roll out remaining dough and fit on top of mixture. Seal edges; cut slit in top. Brush tops with a mixture of 1 well-beaten egg and 1 tablespoon of milk (makes crust shiny). Bake for 50-60 minutes in preheated 350 degree oven until crust is golden brown. Cool slightly before serving.
EASTER ITALIAN RICE PIE
(recipe courtesy of cooks.com)
1 c. cooked rice
8 eggs, beaten light
2 lbs. Ricotta cheese
1 c. sugar
Juice of and zest of one lemon
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
2 (10-12 inch) unbaked pie shells
Preheat oven to 350º. In a bowl, mix rice, beaten eggs, Ricotta, sugar, lemon juice/zest and cinnamon. Add vanilla. Fill pie shells with rice mixture. Bake until firm for 1 hour. Let pie stay in oven for at least 1 hour after it's done. Enjoy!
MASCARPONE CHEESE CANNOLI
Making cannoli shells from scratch can be a long and tedious project, so I prefer to use the pre-made boxed shells. For best results, do not fill shells until ready to serve, otherwise the shells will become soft and mushy.
2 c. marscapone cheese
1/3 c. confectioner's sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
Mix mascarpone cheese, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Stir in mini chips. Pipe or spoon filling into shells when ready to serve. Dust with confectioner's sugar.