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Nana Sasso’s Italian Easter Pie
My great-grandmother, Maria Assunta Famighlietti Sasso, says she never learned to cook, she simply did it. When she left Italy to join her father’s family in the United States, Nana was charged with the care of her four half-siblings, though she was still a child herself. Nana had no experience in the kitchen and no written recipes to guide her, so she prepared the family’s meals using what she did have: seasonal local ingredients, including produce from her own garden, and her memories of the flavors of her native Avellino.
One of Nana’s dishes, Italian Easter pie, became an important family tradition. Every year, Nana prepared this savory dish using whatever meats and cheeses were available. Thin slices of the pie were served the day before Easter, when Nana’s six children and twenty-four grandchildren dropped by for a relaxed visit. Each family was sent home with a wedge of pie to serve at its Easter meal, usually as an appetizer or side dish.
My mother delighted in this informal ritual. When she reached adulthood, she asked Nana for the recipe. “Take salametti, prosciutto, whatever cold cuts you can get,” Nana instructed, “and fresh cheese if you can find it. Use about a dozen eggs, so it’s not too soft, not too hard.” Give the crust “all the flour it will take.” Bake the pie “until it’s done."
My favorite part of the Easter pie tradition was standing next to my mother right before she put the pies in the oven. With a few expert strokes of her knife, she turned the pies into art, slicing a simple cross or an elegant lily into each crust. When the pies cooled, Mama cut one into wedges to share with friends. The other she served at our holiday brunch along with her mother’s Easter specialty, New York-style cheesecake. With our plates clean and the leftovers put away, we piled outside for the new Easter tradition my parents started together: flying kites.
Recipe: Savory Easter Pie (three variations)
The volume of eggs used in this recipe is not error or excess, but a celebration of spring, the season when fresh eggs were most abundant. Altering the proportions of the meats and cheeses is part of the tradition and fun of this pie. Year to year, it is never exactly the same.
The pie tastes best served cold or at room temperature, thinly sliced. It is traditionally coupled with a sweet cream cheese pie with a lattice crust. My mother serves it with cheesecake.
Nana Sasso's original recipe, as told to my mother (makes three pies):
For the crust:
1 cup warm water
all the flour it will take
about ½ cup melted lard or shortening (melt it with the hot water)
1 tsp. salt
3 to 4 tsp. baking powder.
For the filling:
1 ½ large ricottas
about 2 lbs. of different cold cuts, chopped
about 1 lb. of fresh cheese (round and white) if you can get it; otherwise more ricotta
less than a dozen eggs (just break them, don’t beat them): use enough to make mixture not too soft, not too hard
Mix. Slit the top crusts. Bake at 325 until done. Makes three 9-inch pies.
My mother's version, as told to me (makes two pies):
Use 2 glass pie plates!
For the crust:
2 large eggs
2/3 cup warm water
1/3 cup bacon drippings (melted with the water)
dash of salt as needed (depending on saltiness of the lard)
2 tsps. baking powder
3 or more cups of flour (sorry, I still use “as much as it will take”!)
Mix all ingredients. This will be a stretchy dough. Roll top and bottom crusts for 2 pies.
For the filling:
1 ½ to 2 large ricottas (more if the fresh cheese is not available)
At least 2 lbs. of Italian cold cuts and cheese. (prosciutto, cappocola; salami or salametti, pepperoni, mortadella, provolone, mozzarella. Varying the proportions of the choices is part of the joy of the pie each year: never exactly the same, in Nana’s tradition of cooking)
½ to 1 lb. of fresh cheese, also known as fresh farmer's cheese; this is a soft white, round cheese. If not available, use more ricotta or even some cream cheese cut in chunks.
Less than a dozen eggs
Chop the meats and cheeses (not finely) and mix with the ricotta. Break in the eggs, stirring only gently: the eggs will break but remain somewhat intact in the mixture.
Divide the ingredients into the pie shells. Join the top crust which should be slit: I use a cross and/or lily design. Bake at 325 for 40 to 60 minutes: until the pie is set and the crust no longer moist on the bottom. (I make different depths and diameters of pies, so have no time written down.)
Italian Cooking & Living version (makes two pies):
For the crust:
4 cups flour, plus extra
3 large eggs
1/3 cup bacon drippings mixed with 1 cup warm water (or substitute with olive oil)
2 teaspoons baking powder
For the filling:
1 1/4 pounds mixed Italian cold cuts (prosciutto, cappocola, mortadella, pepperoni, soppressata), roughly chopped
2 pounds ricotta
1 pound fresh farmer's cheese, cut into chunks (if unavailable, substitute ricotta or cream cheese)
1 1/4 pounds mixed cheeses (mozzarella, provolone), roughly chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 325°. Make the dough: Mound 4 cups of the flour on a work surface and make a well in the center. Add the eggs, bacon drippings mixture, a pinch of salt and baking powder to the well and use a fork to work the flour into the wet ingredients until a dough forms. Knead into a ball, adding more flour if necessary. Set aside to rest.
Combine the meats with the cheeses in a large bowl and mix. Add 8 of the eggs and stir gently. The eggs will break but will remain somewhat intact in the mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts and roll out to a 1/4-inch thickness two bottoms and tops for two 8-inch glass pie plates. Line the plates with the dough and divide the filling between the two. Top each with the remaining two pieces of dough and press edge to seal. Beat the remaining egg and brush both pies with it. Make 3 slits in the top of each pie and bake for 50 minutes or until the pie is set and the crust is browned. Makes two 8-inch pies.