Italian Easter Pie or Pizza Rustica

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Easter Pie or Pizza Rustica

I remember that exciting time when Easter pies lined the glass counters of Italian bakeries in New York. These savory pies — also known as Pizza Rustica — showed up just before Easter. They’re an elaborate, rich celebration of cured meats at the end of Lent.

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Easter Pie or Pizza Rustica

The pie is over-full with chunks of salami, mortadella, cappacollo, ham…that’s my version. You can mix up the meats to include pepperoni or soppressata, or prosciutto.

Pie chopped ingredients

Chopped cappacollo, salami, ham, mortadella, & mozzarella

They meats are mixed with ricotta, eggs, parmigiano, and — in my version — provolone for a little sharpness. 

Pie ricotta mix

Meats mixed with cheeses

The whole pie is baked in a flaky crust and served in slices for an appetizer — or part of your Easter lunch or dinner.

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The pie keeps well, refrigerated, for a few days. You can sneak irresistible tasty slivers for as long as a week.

Don’t worry if it looks involved — it’s not hard! It’s authentic — one of those rustic culinary traditions that Italians look forward to every year (including me). Once you taste it, you’ll make it one your traditions, too. Let me know how it goes. : )

Buona Pasqua!

Easter Pie or Pizza Rustica

For the Pastry:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

pinch salt

7 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup cold dry white wine

For the Filling:

2 cups ricotta

3 eggs, plus 1 more egg for egg wash

1/2 lb. mozzarella, diced

¼ lb. mortadella, thick sliced, cut into small dice

¼ lb. capacollo, thick sliced, cut into small dice

¼ lb. salami, thick sliced, cut into small dice

1/4 lb. ham, thick sliced, cut into dice

1 cup grated Parmigiano or Pecorino

1/4 lb. diced pecorino or provolone cheese

salt & pepper to taste 

1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F

Put the flour and salt in a food processor. Pulse to combine. Cut the butter into cubes and add to flour. Pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Add the chilled wine. Process until a ball of dough forms — about 15-20 seconds. If ball isn’t forming, add a tablespoon or more wine.

Take dough out of the processor and divide into two pieces—about 2/3 and 1/3. Flatten each into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 30 minutes, or as long as overnight. 

In a large mixing bowl mix together the ricotta with the grated cheese. Stir in the mozzarella, mortadella, capacollo, salami, ham, and diced cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste. In a small bowl, beat together the 3 eggs. Season eggs with salt. Stir into ricotta mixture, and combine well. 

Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Roll out the larger piece of dough to fit a the pan, with dough coming about half-way up the sides of the pan. “Dock” the dough by poking a fork all around the dough. Fill with the ricotta filling. Roll out the smaller piece of dough and place on top. Crimp the edges to seal it together with sides of the bottom pice of dough. . Cut about 4-5 steam slits in a circle around the center into the top dough.

Beat the last egg with a teaspoon o f water. Brush lightly on the dough.

Bake for about 1 hour until the crust colors to golden. Let pizza rustica sit for about 15 minutes before unsealing the sides of the springform pan. Let cool for another 30 minutes-1 hour before cutting into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature. The pie keeps, refrigerated, for a few days.

 

Easy Cream Puffs with Ice Cream

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puffs ready to fill

It’s funny how the most complicated recipes become so uncomplicated after you do them a few times.

I used to be intimidated by cream puffs. You start on the stove? Then mix in your mixer? You have to pipe the batter? And they have to bake properly so they puff up and remain almost empty inside?

Yes. All true. But it all happens very easily.

Here’s my recipe for the batter they call pate a choux. You can make cream puffs or eclairs — depending on the shape that you pipe.

And here’s a tip. No need for piping on the puffs. You can use 2 teaspoons to make a small (and doesn’t need to be perfect) round of batter on your baking sheet.

After they come out of the oven. Poke each one with a toothpick to allow steam to release. If you don’t do that, the steam may stay inside and might make the inside too wet.

Cut them in half side-wise. Dollop some vanilla ice cream, and put the top on. Of course, you can fill them with pastry cream instead. But if we’re keeping this easy, ice cream does the trick! You can also dust them with powdered sugar, or not (optional)…

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…but do drizzle some chocolate sauce on top of each serving.

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Cream Puffs w Ice Cream & Chocolate Sauce

1 cup water

8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick)

pinch salt

1 cup flour

4 eggs

1 pint vanilla ice cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Heat the water, butter and salt in a medium saucepan until bubbling. Take off heat and add the flour. Whisk to combine till incorporated. Put back on the heat and whisk until mixture dries a bit and pulls easily from the sides of the pan.

Transfer mixture to the bowl of a mixer using the paddle attachment. Add the eggs one at a time until each is fully incorporated. Mix until you have a smooth batter, but don’t overmix. Place batter into a piping bag with a small tip with a round hole (or use a ziplock bag and cut a small hole in the corner). Work with half of the batter at a time. (Or instead of piping, use 2 teaspoons to spoon batter onto baking pan.) 

On a parchment-lined sheet pan, pipe small balls about an inch and a half big. (Batter should fill 2 sheet pans.) Bake until golden about 20 minutes. Let puffs cool and poke each one gently with a toothpick to allow steam to escape.

Cut each puff in half. Add about 2-3 tablespoons of ice cream to bottom half. Cover with top half. Serve 2-3 to each person. Drizzle chocolate sauce. 

Chocolate Sauce:

3/4 cup chocolate chips (preferably bitter or semi-sweet)

1/2 teaspoon espresso powder

1/2 cup heavy cream

Melt the chocolate, cream, and instant espresso in a small heavy saucepan until combined and smooth. Drizzle sauce lightly over filled cream puffs.

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Quick Yummy Meat Sauce for Pasta

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This is the kind of recipe I do without thinking. It has been so much  part of my whole life that I can probably spin a few other plates at the same time and not worry about how this sauce will come out.

And you don’t have to worry either because it is so easy. And so right on. And so dependable, reliable, and quick, too.

Nothing is more comforting than some pasta with a saucy meat sauce. Usually made with ground beef — or maybe a mixture of ground beef, pork and/or veal — this one uses ground beef with chunks of sausage. It’s pretty amazing how much that sausage spikes the chart with flavor. You’re not even sure what that umami is — but it’s the sausage, accompanied by all the usual wonderfully flavorful suspects. 

This sauce cooks in 30 minutes. Not like the many-hour ragu’s where the meat needs to braise to break down into tenderness. Here we have ground beef and chunky sausage pieces— meat that cooks fast.

The tomatoes? I use canned crushed tomatoes and I love a lot of different brands. Crushed are a little more thick than puree…which Italians call “passata.” Add a little tomato paste, if you like, for a thicker consistency.

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And the aromatics? Onion, diced. Garlic cloves, peeled and crushed.

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Choose your favorite pasta for this. But Italians will invariably go for the cut pasta for a sauce like this, rather than long straws of spaghetti or linguine. Yes, there is some logic to which pasta goes with which sauce. Logic, and then the perfect answer for any pasta choice: “this is the pasta shape I really like the most.”

Today I’m using a ziti shape. But I’m getting my ziti from these long-strand ziti’s that you break into the lengths you desire. Just some added fun to pasta cooking.

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You can find these long-strand pastas in some Italian specialty food stores — or — dare I say — occasionally at TJ MAXX or Home Goods, which is where I got mine. Imported from Italy, they are so blissfully authentic.

Cook this. You’ll be so happy. 🙂

Quick Tasty Meat Sauce for Pasta

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, small dice

2 garlic cloves, peeled & smashed

1/2 lb. ground beef

2 Italian sausages, meat removed from casings

1/3 cup dry white wine

1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes

salt & pepper to taste

12-16 ounces of your favorite pasta

grated parmigiano for individual servings

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and garlic. Cook on medium heat until onion softens, about 3-4 minutes. Add the meats. Brown meat, breaking up into smaller pieces, with some larger chunks (making for a rustic mixture of meat pieces). When the meat is not longer pink, add the wine. Let it sizzle and mostly evaporate. Add the can of tomatoes. Season with salt & pepper. Stir to combine. Simmer for 20 minutes, cover askew.

Place a pasta pot of water on the heat. When boiling, salt water. Add pasta. Cook until al dente (not to soft, but tender to the bite). When done, drain. Add to a large serving bowl. Spoon some sauce and gently coat. Remember that Italians like some sauce with their pasta — not some pasta with their sauce. So don’t “drown” the pasta in sauce. You can add extra sauce on top of individual servings. And dust with some grated parmigiano.

Make Mine Short-Order

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I’m always looking for quick recipes. Sometimes I start a quick recipe and then realize — hey, this ain’t as quick as I thought. But I plod on — usually so absorbed and fascinated by each step that it doesn’t matter how quick it is. 

I like to cook my meals because — I like to cook. But also, because I like to know what’s IN THEM. I love choosing each ingredient — knowing how I’m treating that ingredient, and leaving myself no mysteries. The mystery is usually a magic not entirely my own. Just the sheer alchemy of cooking. Molecules, ions, nuclei shuffling together in heat ….wow, a little bit of stardust in the food.

Which brings me (and how could it not) to the joy of watching a fast order cook at work. Talk about magic. Talk about seeing every ingredient go right into the recipe. Talk about deftness of hand aerobatics. Talk about concentration, follow-thru, and thoroughness.

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Okay, let’s talk about it. Growing up in NY, and being of an everyday-food persuasion, I have, for a long time, found myself in diners. I have trouble trumping diners with high-fancy restaurant fare (excuse that word over there). I just love diners. 

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In the old days, diners were everywhere in NYC. You either went around the corner. Or you decided to walk five blocks to another, because you liked the decor better. Or because you were meeting a friend who lived five blocks away. Or — who knows, maybe you needed a walk. Because there wasn’t much difference in the food from diner to diner. They ALL knew how to make that menu shine and it always shined. My faves: scrambled eggs soft, with home fries, and whole wheat toast. Diners in NYC include tea or coffee in the price of the breakfast (I’ve learned that’s not true everywhere).

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Or get a grilled cheese with tomato (with maybe bacon?)

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Or venture further for a club sandwich, a meat loaf dinner, some Greek specialties like: spanakopita, or shish kebabs. Most diners in NYC are run by Greeks. There are Lobster Tails (the seafood, not the pastry) and Fettuccine Alfredo and NY Strip Steak on the menu, too. Okay— I probably wouldn’t order those things… I like the traditional diner fare. But people do order those dishes. I’ve seen them go by on the way to another table. Riveting.

Wandering around NYC streets, you sometimes get hungry while you’re neighborhoods away from home….you can always be saved by a diner. Looking to kill 20 minutes before your appointment? Siddle up to the counter and have a hot tea and a toasted English muffin. Or maybe a corn muffin (you don’t see corn muffins in the South…cornbread, yes, but not the muffin). I used to LOVE the diner corn muffin. They’d cut it in half, toast it on the griddle and serve with butter on the side. Groan. Yum.

But my favorite part is getting the seat at the counter just behind the short-order cook. It’s the kind of show that could entertain me for days. 

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Here’s where you will find some differences from diner to diner. Not in the competence of the cook or the menu, but in how the cook arranges things. What side of the grill is the bacon? How often does he scrape off the excess oil? Are the eggs all broken into a gallon-sized pitcher, ready for use? Or does he crack them as he uses them? Have the home fries just arrived to the griddle or have they been there for hours? (And hours.) Does he wear a baseball cap, a do-rag (du-rag?), a hairnet, or just hat-less, loose and free?

Doesn’t matter. The show must go on. The pressure of orders coming in fast keep the action of the story moving. WITHOUT a hitch.

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It’s even more fun when he’s cooking YOUR order. Watch closely — you’ll almost feel like you’re cooking it yourself. You can see every second and every morsel and every technique going into your plateful. Then it’s delivered. Live. In front of you on the counter, steam wafting, aromas poking your nose. Your fork poised, your diminutive diner napkin on your lap, your taste buds rushing forward, ready for sensations.

Time to EAT!

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(Dessert? No other place has so many choices.)

How They Make Parmigiano in Parma

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parmigiano reggiano

On my recent trip to Parma, Italy — with a wonderful group of food enthusiast travelers — we got to see up close and first-hand how true parmigiano reggiano is made.

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my group at the parmigiano reggiano factory

Parmesan is not parmigiano reggiano. Only the cheese made in the region of Emilia, in Parma, from very special cows, and stamped parmigiano reggiano is the real thing.

We witnessed the new milk, delivered that morning, swirling in huge heated copper vats.

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After rennet is added, just a couple of hours later, the workmen pull a 200-lb. ball of cheese from the whey.

They cut that huge wad of goodness in two. And each of those halves (100 lbs. each) becomes a wheel of parmigiano.

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At first it sits in a plastic form, with a band surrounding it to imprint (like brail) the name parmigiano reggiano, and the number representing this particular facility/manufacturer.

Then it goes into a curved form, gets submerged in brined water for some days. And then left to dry and age for no less than 12 months.

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parmigiano reggiano

At the end of the tour, we tasted the 12-month, 24-month, and 30-month cheese. Of course, we bought some to bring home. Prices from this manufacturer were so modest. After all, we were right there– right there where they made the cheese. In the beautiful countryside of Parma.

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Parma Countryside

Our guide had just recently gained access to this facility. So our tour felt super-exclusive. If you are ever in the area do look up Stefania Bertaccini. She knows all about Parma’s wonderful products, can guide you on tours, and host/teach fabulous cooking classes.

Secret Charming Fountain: Amalfi

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Secret Charming Fountain in Amalfi

Did you say it’s time to go to the Amalfi Coast? Hang on, let me get my hat!

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Amalfi Coast

 

There is NOTHING like the Amalfi Coast. Beautiful towns balancing on dramatic cliffs, food from the sea, abundance of lemons, bougainvillea spilling everywhere, and the welcoming, warm citizens of Campania. NOTHING like it.

The jewel, and title town of the Coast, is Amalfi.

Amalfi street

Amalfi

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Amalfi

It’s a small town, lusciously sprawling down a long, lovely main street, which leads from the beach, past the cathedral, to the teetering white-washed inviting architecture. Every step of the way you find beauty, culture, restaurants, coffee bars, and shops.

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Amalfi

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Amalfi

view from Amalfi Cathedral

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Keep walking deep into the town, toward the end of the main street — till you think: “well, I guess that was the last shop” — that’s when you’ll find the secret charming fountain. It’s originally meant to represent a nativity scene, but over the years, there seems to have been many added figures. Hills & cliffs, with tableaux of shepherds, and sweethearts, craftspeople, working people, and beautiful maidens.

It’s also a drinking fountain open to the public for free refreshment. Take a sip. Hang out and make friends with all the little people (and sheep), read the stories they tell & take home an extraordinary experience.

And then (why not?) stop into a cafe for some prosciutto & melon. (Soooo good!)

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prosciutto & melon in Amalfi

Fresh Fava Bean w Pasta Recipe

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fresh fava beans

I think my first encounter with fava beans was in the 70’s when I went to school in Rome. I was surrounded by Italians — many in love with cooking (but, of course). So I was not only encouraged to eat fava, but to cook them, too. It’s a process I would bring home with me to NYC… and one that I would encounter in quantity while working the prep kitchen at Mario Batali’s Lupa restaurant. There, we were asked to prepare the fava beans with love. And we did.

Favas are not the kind of vegetable you bring home and just sauté, or boil, or roast. There’s a time-intensive, work-intensive ritual before the cooking starts. Don’t be scared away. It’s well worth it!

Favas generally appear in the spring and fall. But with our global transfer of foods, there are places you might be able to buy them all the time. I find them often at international groceries and/or Middle Eastern grocery stores. Italians are not the only culture in love with fava beans.

Here’s a recipe for fava cooked with leeks and pancetta and tossed with pasta. Do (really do) try it. It’s homey, and easy, and full of flavor. And quick!

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pasta w fava beans

First. How to prepare the favas. They grow in thick pods — like peas pods after a workout. Get a lot. I usually half-fill or almost-fill a clear vegetable bag. After shucking the beans you’ll throw away the pods.

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pile of fava pods

Tear open the pods, and pull out the beans inside.

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luscious fava in the pod

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beans out of the pods

But you’re not done with prep yet. First get a medium saucepan of water boiling. Add little salt. Toss in the fava beans and boil for about 1-2 minutes. You’re not really cooking them here, just trying to loosen the shells.

Drain the beans and run them under cool water. Now pinch one end of the shell and push out the deeper green-colored bean inside.

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peeling fava shells

You can throw out the shells. But keep those precious green jewels!

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peeled, blanched fava

NOW start your recipe. Sauté some minced leek (I use 1 leek, just the white part, rinsed well), with about 1/4 lb. diced pancetta in a little olive oil.

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saute leek and pancetta

When the leek has softened and the pancetta cooks through, add the favas. Sauté 3-4 minutes. Then add a splash of dry white wine or dry vermouth. Let that evaporate.

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add vermouth

Then simmer for 4-5 minutes more until the favas are tender to the bite. Season with salt.

Meanwhile, boil a favorite cut pasta in salted boiling water— about 1/2 lb. When almost al dente drain and add to the sauté pan.

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add the pasta

Cook stirring for a few minutes more. Add some pasta water if too dry. Add a few drizzles of olive oil. Season with some more salt if needed.

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pasta w fava beans

Add some torn basil leaves if you’ve got ’em. Mmmmmm! Enjoy.

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pasta w fava beans

Fresh Fava Bean w Pasta Recipe

2 lbs. fava beans in pods

1 leek, trimmed of green, rinsed, & diced

1/4 lb. diced pancetta

olive oil for sautéing plus extra

1/4 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth

1/2 lb. favorite cut pasta

salt to taste

Open the pods and take out the fava beans. Discard pods. Bring a medium saucepan, half full with water, to a boil. Salt water. Drop in fava beans, boil for 1-2 minutes. Drain and rinse in cool water. Pinch the end of each bean shell and push out the bright green beans in side. Discard shells.

Put a pot of pasta water on to boil.

Add a couple of drizzles of olive oil to a medium sauté pan, heat till hot. Add diced leek and pancetta. Sauté for 1- 2 minutes. Add fava beans, sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add wine or vermouth. Simmer until mostly evaporated, 2-3 minutes more. Cook a couple of minutes more until fava are tender to the bite.

Meanwhile, add salt to boiling water and boil pasta. When almost al dente, drain and add pasta to sauté pan. Stir to coat. Sauté adding some pasta water if too dry, adding some olive oil to coast, adjust seasoning (salt), add some torn fresh basil if you have some.

Serve with grated parmigiano (optional).