Recipe for an Italian Easter: Egg, spinach and ricotta pie
This magnificent Ligurian dish is a pastry tomb of eggs amid spinach, herbs and ricotta, embodying the spirit of Easter in Italy
One Easter, when I was 11 years old, I carefully stained both marzipan and my hands in orange, green and red, shaping my own oranges, apples and pears, with cloves providing a stalk for each. I then gave a box of them to my auntie. Two years later, while looking in her drawers for something, I found the box, unopened, and my face burned with embarrassment. The marzipan fruits in the window of one of our local patisseries in Gela, in Sicily, also appear to have been there some time. Years I'd guess, judging by the almost waxy hue of the carefully moulded and painted peaches, prickly pears, figs and cherries. It crossed my mind that they might actually be wax - a Sicilian version of the sushi replicas you see in Japanese restaurant windows, but I am assured they are real. These frutta martorana shaped from pasta reale (a type of marzipan) are traditionally made in Sicily for All Souls Day in November, when the dead bring them to the children who have prayed for their souls. Nowadays you find them all year round. Even when ageing, they are exquisite things, a riot of colour and dexterity, and they almost seem real. Inside the out-of-time shop, behind the glass cabinet doors and between the pictures and statues of the Madonna, there are also marzipan artichokes, prawns and snails. They appear younger. In fact, that first visit in May, I imagine they are from the previous autumn. There are also lambs fashioned from marzipan, covered with a fleece of white icing, their faces painted. Quite beautiful things really - a sweet sacrifice for Easter, the sort my partner Vincenzo was given every year as a child. At the front of the shop, inside the altar-like counter, are half a dozen varieties of plump soft almond biscuits, so we buy a trayful - also a lamb and a coral-coloured prawn. Italy's year is punctured with festivities and saint days - each one with its own dish, bun, bread or biscuit. Patisseries and bakery windows remind us almost as effectively - and certainly more deliciously - than a calendar. Easter is the most sacred and celebrated, both in religious ritual and at the table, the food seeming even richer after the austerity of lent, maybe. Each region has an Easter dish, specialty pies and the usual daily breads, but enriched, containing or encasing eggs - the ultimate symbol of hope, renewal and fertility; new life contained in a delicate shell. Rather like Christmas, the traditions we string together are always slightly different. Some years I've felt the need to expatriate the Easters of my childhood, others times I've tried too hard to be Italian. The best times are when I settle in the middle, knowing we make our own traditions and that they are always evolving: an enriched bread from Rome, a pie from somewhere else, my son with Creme Egg in one hand and lamb in the other. I am going back to the UK this year, so will take back edible pieces of Italy: salami, cheese and colomba. Like its cousin panettone, colomba is made from dough enriched with eggs, butter and candied fruit - an augury of plenty topped with pearl sugar and almonds then baked into the shape of a colomba, which means dove. Mine possibly won't look so peaceful after a plane and two trains, but will be enjoyed nonetheless. It is the festive breads and pies plumped with eggs and cheese I enjoy best, so I always make one for Easter breakfast, or the picnic on Easter Monday. I particularly appreciate the Ligurian torta pasqualina: greens, herbs and ricotta encased in olive oil dough rolled so thin it is rather like filo pastry. Traditionally there were 33 layers, one for each year of Jesus's life. The version I have adopted is not traditional and rather more pragmatic in its use of Marcella Hazan's pastry with ricotta (instead of eggs), which makes for a pleasing and flaky crust. For the filling you can use wilted beet greens, chard or spinach, which you mix with ricotta and parmesan and then season boldly. This filling then cradles more eggs. "Behold", the Sicilian food writer Pino Correnti writes, about cutting into a dish and his joy at discovering an egg at its heart, the yolk shining as hopefully as the sun. Cutting this pie makes me feel much the same. Ricotta, spinach and egg easter tart - torta pasqualina Serves 6-8 160g cold butter, diced 250g plain flour 200g ricotta Salt and black pepper 600g spinach or chard 300g ricotta 6 eggs plus extra for brushing 80g parmesan, grated A pinch of nutmeg 1 Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the ricotta and a pinch of salt, mix and bring together into a soft ball. Turn the pastry on to a floured work surface and knead until smooth. Cover with clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes. 2 Pick the over the spinach, discarding any tough or discoloured leaves, then wash and lift into a pan - there will be residual water from the washing. Put the pan over a low-medium heat and cover for a few minutes to wilt the spinach. Tip into a colander and drain for 10 minutes. 3 Once the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze out the water then chop roughly. Mix with ricotta, 2 lightly beaten eggs, salt, pepper, parmesan and a pinch of nutmeg. 4 Butter and flour a 26cm round tin, preheat your oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5 and put a flat baking tray in to get hot. Cut the dough into two uneven pieces, one twice the size of the other. On a floured work surface roll the larger piece into a circle large enough to fill the tin, come up the sides and overhang. Lift the dough into the tin and press it into the corners. Add your filling, making four deep indents in the mixture, into which break the eggs. 5 Roll the smaller piece into a disc the size of the tin and lift on to the filling. Using wet fingertips, press the dough to make a firm seal and then lift and fold any excess dough into the centre. Prick or slash the centre of the tart. Paint with beaten eggs or milk, put on the hot baking tray, and slide into the oven for 50 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool a little before turning out. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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