In keeping with my not-quite-there-yet attitude toward the holidays this year, there is one food that I’ve been craving since my little outburst of decorating two weekends ago. As it happens, it’s a holiday food, yes — but the wrong holiday.
This savory pie filled with spinach, ricotta and parmesan and seasoned with nutmeg is not traditionally a Christmas food. It’s an Easter food, which is why the Italian name for it, Torta Pasqualina, means “Easter Pie”. When I was growing up, we did have it for Easter, but I loved it so much that my mother could be persuaded to make it at other times of the year, and now that I’m a grown-up, I can make it for myself at Christmastime if I want to.
The catch is that it had been so long since I’d watched Mom make it that I pretty much forgot how, and would you believe that scouring through every single Italian cookbook I have, including the supposed bible of Italian cooking, did not turn up a recipe quite like what I was looking for? Oh, there were plenty of pies made with ricotta and greens, but either the dough was wrong (puff pastry? I don’t think so. Sweet pastafrolla? Even worse!) or the filling wasn’t right (prosciutto is definitely out and chard is nice but not what I was looking for here).
In the end, I had to do a lot of remixing, combining of elements, and filling in my own blanks to come up with a recipe closer to what I remembered. It’s not quite 100% there, and I will probably have to consult with Mom to figure out where the ratios were a little off, but it’s really darn close.
If you’ve never had this pie, imagine something a little like Greek spanikopita, except milder and eggier and denser. At least for me, it’s an incredibly comforting flavor, plus it’s green! Green is Christmassy, right? It’s also better cold than fresh out of the oven and will keep for days in the fridge, which makes it an excellent option if you want to make it ahead and devote most of your holiday cooking energy to fussy rolled-out cookies or wassail or what have you.
Torta Pasqualina, or Italian Spinach and Ricotta Pie
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, cut into 32 pieces
4 tablespoons non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon water
2 12-ounce bags frozen spinach
1 16-ounce container part-skim ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 teaspoons each salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
4 large eggs, beaten
Place the butter and shortening in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to chill thoroughly.
Place dry ingredients in the food processor bowl and pulse several times to combine. Add the butter and shortening and pulse again until sandy, 12-15 times. Beat the water into the eggs and add to the processor, and process until the dough starts to form a ball around the blade. Divide the dough into two pieces, one comprising two-thirds of the dough. Form each piece into a flat disk, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Defrost the spinach in the microwave, then squeeze bone-dry in a colander or a dish towel. Place in a large bowl and stir in the cheeses, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Taste the filling and correct the seasonings as necessary; it should be slightly over-seasoned since it will be eaten cold. Stir in the eggs. Set aside.
Set the rack at the lower-middle position and heat oven to 350F.
Roll the larger piece of dough into a circle large enough to line a 9-inch springform pan. Tuck the pastry into the pan, letting the excess hang over the sides. Spread the filling onto the pastry, leveling and smoothing the top. Roll out the second piece of dough and set over the filling. Trim the excess, tuck the edges under, and crimp. Cut an X in the center and pull back the corners to leave a vent for the filling as it cooks.
Bake the pie for 60-70 minutes, until the pastry is golden-brown and the filling that peeks through the opening in the crust looks dry and set. Cool completely before eating, and refrigerate any leftovers.
I used salted butter because I’m hoarding the unsalted for holiday cookie baking, but if you only have unsalted around, add 1 teaspoon salt to the dry ingredients.
Using lower-fat ricotta is not only fine but even preferable here, since the full-fat kind can make this unpleasantly rich in combination with the eggy pastry.
Many versions of this pie crack additional whole eggs into the filling, which bake to a hard-boiled consistency and make for a pretty presentation when the pie is cut open. If you want to try this, use a big soup spoon to create 4-5 evenly-spaced deep indentations in the filling once you’ve spread it inside the pastry, and carefully crack an egg into each well. Cover the pie with the second layer of pastry and proceed as instructed.