Nan's Way: The Only Way to Make Easter Pies

Pizza chena i i

hide captionEaster is a time to indulge and celebrate after the sacrifices of Lent. At Susan Russo's house, her grandmother's pies — including a savory pizza chena — always steal the show.

Susan Russo for NPR
Pizza chena

Easter is a time to indulge and celebrate after the sacrifices of Lent. At Susan Russo's house, her grandmother's pies — including a savory pizza chena — always steal the show.

Susan Russo for NPR

About the Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.

Anybody acquainted with Italian women knows that they often deem their recipe the "right" way to make something. My grandmother, Nan, is no exception.

I recently learned that Nan was about my age (let's say mid 30s) when she set out to distinguish her cooking from that of her older sisters.

"Nan was the first person in the family to use pineapple in her Easter ricotta pie," my mother told me last year, "and boy, were her sisters jealous."

According to my mom, Nan grudgingly ate her sisters' ricotta pies every Easter but thought they were "too dark" from "that awful citron" they used instead of fresh citrus zest. (Citron is a thick, lemony peel that is candied and used in baking.)

Determined to make a more cheerful-looking pie, Nan did what no youngest sister in an Italian family of six children should ever do: She showed up at her elder sister's house one Easter Sunday, proudly carrying her own newfangled ricotta pie with pineapple. It was as yellow as an Easter chick.

There were mumblings in Italian and raised eyebrows among the women. When dessert time came, all the men agreed: Nan's pie was the best — beautiful and delicious. Her sisters conceded victory.

Well, that's the way Nan would tell it anyway. That ricotta pie was so good that more than 65 years later, my mother still makes it every Easter.

For Italians, Easter means both religious and culinary celebration. Since it is preceded by Lent, a time for fasting, Easter Sunday is a day to rejoice and to indulge, especially in sweets.

During Easter time, bakeries in both Italy and Italian-American neighborhoods offer a dazzling array of sweet and savory pies. There are regional variations among recipes in both countries, but some of the most popular Easter pies, which my family treasures, include ricotta pie, rice pie and pizza chena.

Ricotta pie (torta di ricotta) is an Italian cheesecake traditionally associated with Easter. Savory versions include meats, cheeses and herbs, while sweet pies are flavored with citron, citrus zest, nuts and/or chocolate.

Ricotta pie is sometimes confused with pastiera Napoletana, a more time-intensive grain and ricotta cheese pie that is made by soaking whole wheat kernels for up to three days. Since these kernels are difficult to find in the U.S., farro or barley is often substituted.

Many years ago my mother made traditional pastiera Napoletana, soaking the grains for 72 hours, only to have everyone complain that it was too mushy and not as good as her "regular" ricotta pie. That was the last time we ever had pastiera Napoletana.

Rice pie (torta di riso) has always been my personal favorite. Most sweet rice pies are made from eggs, rice (usually Arborio), ricotta cheese and citrus (most popularly, lemon).

As it bakes, the starchy rice sinks to the bottom of the pie while a thick layer of velvety, lemon-laced custard forms on top. All of this creamy goodness is encased in a sweet, flaky pie crust.

Though rice pie traditionally graces the dessert table on Easter Sunday, the best time to eat it is Monday morning. After being refrigerated overnight, it is pleasantly chilled and tastes like a cross between rich ricotta pie and silky lemon panna cotta, an Italian cooked cream.

The pie that really stole the show every Easter, though, was my grandmother's savory pizza chena. Pizza chena, a Neapolitan dialect term meaning "full pie," is a massive, two-crusted savory pie filled with Italian meats, cheeses and eggs. Though it can be made with a lattice-top pastry crust, my family prefers a dense, chewy bread dough crust.

Pizza chena, mispronounced by some Italian-Americans as "pizza gaina," seems like an appropriate name to my family since we always joke that when you eat it you "gain-a" lot of weight.

Nan made her pie with salami, hot sausage, mozzarella, fresh basket cheese (a semi-soft cheese used primarily for binding ingredients together) and hard-boiled eggs, preferences passed down to her from her Campanian mother-in-law. Apparently, Nan's mother-in-law (known as "Big Nana," because of her tall stature), admired Nan's spirit and took her under her culinary wing, sharing family recipes with her.

When looking for recipes for pizza chena, you'll find that many use the term interchangeably with pizza rustica, meaning "rustic pie." Both are traditional Easter savory meat and cheese pies that can be made with either a pastry or bread dough crust. Whatever you call it, all I know is that my grandmother's "pizza gaina" was the piece de resistance of every Easter Sunday feast at our house.

Unfortunately, Nan won't be able to read this article or even comprehend what my mom is talking about when she tells her all about it. That's because she is 99 years old and lives in the Alzheimer's unit of a nursing home in Rhode Island.

I believe, however, that somewhere deep in her soul, she'll know that this Easter many women will read about her cooking and will have her original recipe for ricotta pie with pineapple. Her older sisters could never say that.

Nan's Italian Ricotta Pie with Pineapple

Nan's ricotta and pineapple pie i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Nan's ricotta and pineapple pie
Susan Russo for NPR

Creamy, dense, sweet ricotta pie is a hallmark of an Italian Easter Sunday feast. It's delicious at breakfast, lunch or for dessert. This recipe requires beginning at least a few hours in advance.

Makes two, 9-inch pies

For a 9-inch Double Crust:

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter (chilled)

3 large eggs

3 to 4 tablespoons ice water, or as much as needed

For the Filling:

6 large eggs

2 cups sugar

2 cups heavy cream

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 pounds ricotta cheese, drained (minimum of 2 hours or preferably overnight) ***

1 (20-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained (minimum of 2 hours or preferably overnight)

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, for dusting top of pies

For the crust, combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse several times to combine. Add the butter and pulse about 10 times until the dough becomes pebbly in texture. Add the eggs and pulse repeatedly until the dough begins to stick together. Slowly add the ice water by the tablespoonful, while using a few long pulses. Add more drops of ice water as necessary, until the dough holds together well. Invert the dough onto a floured work surface and divide in half. Form a ball out of each half and flatten into a disc; wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate while preparing the filling. (Dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days before continuing.)

If you don't have a processor, combine the dry ingredients in a bowl; add chunks of chilled butter, and using a pastry blender or two forks, chop the butter until it resembles little pebbles. At this point, add the eggs and ice water, and stir with a spoon until the dough begins to form. Using your hands and working the dough as little as possible, transfer it to a lightly floured surface. Knead until the dough holds together. Divide the dough into two equal balls and flatten into discs; wrap each disc in plastic and refrigerate while preparing the filling. (Dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days before continuing.)

To make the filling, add the eggs and sugar to a large bowl. Using a hand-mixer, beat until well combined. Add the heavy cream, vanilla extract and cornstarch, and beat on low until well combined. Add the drained ricotta, and beat on low for a few seconds until just combined. Then with a rubber spatula, fold in the drained pineapple. Place in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Coat two 9-inch pie plates with cooking spray. Turn one dough ball onto a lightly floured surface and roll into a 10-inch circle. Transfer the dough to the prepared pie plates and gently press into the bottom and sides. Flute the edges as desired. At this point, set the crusts in the freezer for about 10 to 15 minutes to get really chilled, which will make for a flakier crust.

Remove the chilled crusts from the freezer and pour the filling to about 1/4 of an inch below the top of the crust, as it will puff up slightly when baking. Dust the pie tops with the ground cinnamon, gently swirling it with the tip of a teaspoon so the spice doesn't clump.

Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 degrees and cook for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the filling puffs up, turns golden and is "set," meaning it should be firm, not jiggly when you gently move the pie plate from side to side. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Note: If you have some extra filling left over, you can pour it into a small baking dish or ramekins for a crustless version, and follow the same baking instructions. Leftover ricotta pie can be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.

*** Ricotta cheese, an Italian cheese used in both savory and sweet recipes, can be found in most supermarkets. However, I recommend purchasing it from an Italian deli or specialty market if possible. It tends to be more flavorful and less watery than supermarket brands. If you do buy it at a supermarket, then select a full-fat rather than low-fat variety. The low-fat versions are too watery and won't form a thick, dense filling.

Nan's Italian Easter Rice Pie

Nan's Italian rice pie i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Nan's Italian rice pie
Susan Russo for NPR

The best rice pies are made from starchy rice such as Arborio, an Italian rice used for risotto. Arborio's thick, chewy texture creates a firm, dense layer of cooked rice that contrasts beautifully with the creamy, soft custard on top. This recipe requires beginning at least a few hours in advance.

Makes one 10 1/2-inch pie

For the Crust:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 stick unsalted butter (chilled)

1 extra large egg or 2 small eggs

1 to 2 tablespoons ice water, or as much as needed

For the Filling:

1/2 cup uncooked Arborio rice

4 cups of water or whole milk

7 large eggs

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons lemon extract (or the zest and juice of 1 Meyer lemon)

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 pound ricotta cheese, drained (minimum of 2 hours or preferably overnight)

For the crust, combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse several times to combine. Add the butter and pulse about 10 times until the dough becomes pebbly in texture. Add the eggs and pulse repeatedly until the dough begins to stick together. Slowly add the ice water by the tablespoonful, while using a few long pulses. Add more drops of ice water as necessary, until the dough holds together well. Invert the dough onto a floured work surface. Form the dough into a ball, flatten into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate while preparing the filling. (Dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days before continuing.)

If you don't have a processor, then combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add chunks of chilled butter, and using a pastry blender or two forks, chop the butter until it resembles little pebbles. At this point, add the eggs and ice water, and stir with a spoon until the dough begins to form. Using your hands and working the dough as little as possible, transfer it to a lightly floured surface. Knead until the dough holds together. Form the dough into a ball, flatten into a disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate while preparing the filling. (Dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days before continuing.)

To make the filling, place the rice and water or whole milk in medium heavy-bottom saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook the rice, uncovered, stirring occasionally for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the rice is sticky. The rice should still be firm as it will finish cooking in the oven. Remove from heat and set aside.

Add the eggs and sugar to a large bowl. Using a hand-mixer, beat until well combined. Add the lemon extract (or zest and juice) and vanilla, and beat on low for about 10 seconds. Add the drained ricotta, and beat on low for a few seconds until just combined. Stir in the cooked rice. Mix with a rubber spatula until well combined, making sure there are no clumps of rice. Place in the refrigerator.

Place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Coat a 10 1/2-inch pie plate with cooking spray. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and roll into an 11 1/2-inch circle. Transfer the dough to the prepared pie plate, gently pressing it into the bottom and sides. No fluted crust is necessary. At this point, set the crust in the freezer for about 10 to 15 minutes to get it really chilled, which will make for a flakier crust.

Remove the chilled crust from the freezer and pour the filling to about 1/4 of an inch below the top of the crust, as it will puff up slightly when baking.

Bake for 1 hour or until the filling puffs up, turns golden, and is "set," meaning it should be firm, not jiggly when you gently move the pie plate. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Note: If you have some extra filling left over, you can pour it into a small baking dish or ramekins for a crustless version, and follow the same baking instructions. Leftover rice pie can be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.

Pizza Chena

Whole pizza chena i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Whole pizza chena
Susan Russo for NPR
Sliced pizza chena i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Sliced pizza chena
Susan Russo for NPR

Though traditionally associated with Easter, pizza chena can be enjoyed any time of the year. Given its versatility of ingredients and large size, it makes a great party dish that can be made ahead of time then served at room temperature. This recipe requires beginning at least a few hours in advance.

Makes 10 to 14 servings

For the Dough:

Makes approximately 2 pounds

2 cups of warm water

1 packet active dry yeast (1/4 ounce)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon salt

5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons olive oil

For the Filling:

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/2 pound fresh, hot Italian sausage (in casing)

1/2 pound capocollo (a cured Italian cold cut with spices), thinly sliced

1/3 pound Genoa salami, thinly sliced

1/3 pound pepperoni, thinly sliced

1 pound fresh basket cheese ***

1/2 pound mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced

1 dozen eggs (8 will be beaten, 4 will be hard boiled)

1/3 cup minced fresh flat leaf parsley

15 to20 cranks freshly ground black pepper

1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water for egg wash

In a large bowl, dissolve in 2 cups of warm water, yeast, sugar and salt. Using a spoon, gently blend. Add 5 cups of all-purpose flour and 2 tablespoons of olive oil to start. Blend with a spoon just until the dough starts to form, then using your hands, transfer dough to a floured surface.

Knead well, adding flour if it's too sticky, until the dough becomes springy and smooth. It should take a good 5 to10 minutes of vigorous kneading. It will be soft and silky when done.

Place the dough ball in a large, clean bowl coated with olive oil and rub some olive oil on top of the dough. Cover with a clean, dry dishtowel and let rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in size (at least 2 hours).

Meanwhile, fill a large heavy-bottom saucepan halfway with water. Bring to a light, rolling boil, and place 4 room-temperature eggs in the water. Maintaining a light, rolling boil, cook them for 18 to 20 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the eggs, place in a colander, and run under cool water. Tap the eggs against the counter top to crack the shells. Remove the shells, and rinse the boiled eggs under cool water. Slice thinly and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Remove the sausage from its casing and add to the pan. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, or until browned and crispy. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Place oven rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Brush the inside surface of a 10-inch-by-3-inch spring form pan with olive oil.

Once the dough is risen, punch it down to release air bubbles. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface, divide in half, and roll one half into a 12-inch round. Transfer the dough to the spring form pan. Using your hands, fit the dough snugly in the pan, gently stretching it to hang 1 inch over the edge.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the 8 eggs, parsley and black pepper.

Fill the inside of the dough with alternating layers of sliced meats, cheeses and sliced hard-boiled eggs. After 5 to6 layers, pour half of the egg mixture over the filling, allowing it to seep down. Continue layering the meats and cheeses, then pour the remainder of the egg mixture evenly over the top. You should have enough for 10 to12 layers.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the second half of the dough to a 12-inch round. Place the dough over the filling, and using a sharp knife, trim excess dough until it just meets the rim of the pan. Using your fingertips, pinch the edges of the dough together, and gently roll the bottom layer over the top layer, creating a seal. Then pinch the dough between your thumb and index finger creating a slightly fluted edge all around. Brush the top of pie with the egg wash.

Bake pie for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool 20 to 25 minutes. Release the spring and transfer the pie to a serving plate. Cut into wedges and enjoy at room temperature.

Leftover pizza chena can be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for 5 to 7 days. Individual slices also can be wrapped tightly in aluminum foil and placed in a heavy-duty freezer bag or plastic container and frozen for up to 2 months.

*** Fresh basket cheese is a semi-soft cheese that is used primarily for binding ingredients together. It can be found at Italian markets and cheese shops. If you can't find it, then substitute one (15-ounce) container of ricotta cheese (drained) and whisk it with 2 large eggs.

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