Ricotta and ham Easter pie is a mainstay of the Italian American Kitchen. Back in the day, Catholics and many other Christians observed a meatless Lent in the weeks preceding Easter. One of the worst offenses you could make was to ignore this church law against all fleshly foods. What is the origin of that law? I do not know. Some say it was an attempt to give more work to fishermen. That reason seems a bit implausible. There is another notion that says that abstinence from meat was abstinence from blood flesh. This reason seems a bit more reasonable. Bloody flesh would recall Jesus on the cross. Then, too, avoidance of any blood animal would descend directly from Jewish tradition. In any event, meat was forbidden.
The ban on meat ended only with the feast of Easter. The feast when everything exploded in flowers and green and freshness. Wildly red tulips clashed with the dazzling yellow of the daffodils. It was the day when you wore new clothes purchased just for that day. Boys had a new suit. Girls had new dresses. Women wore new hats: hats decorated in pastel flowers. There were Easter baskets that you searched for as soon as you woke in the morning. You were in your new navy blue suit, your hair slicked back with Jaris. Your sister’s dress puffed out like a mushroom cap and her hair was curled by a Tonette. Your father took the picture of you and your basket as you stood outside the house on Easter morning. Many were the families that even had 16mm or 8mm cameras to record you and your basket and your new outfit. What became of those old family movies? The colors were bleached and somewhat undefined. Did you convert those films to VCR? These days, even VCR’s have passed away. So, without a VCR and surely with no projector, where have those images gone?
But new clothes and new hats and Easter baskets with chocolate eggs were not the only delights of the day. There were the Easter pies. For several days before Easter the pies were in process. In my family there were four distinct kinds, all of which were founded on ricotta cheese. Two were sweet and two were savory. The most basic and perhaps the favorite, was a simple ricotta cheese pie. The sweet and creamy ricotta teased the palate with hints of orange and lemon. The next version was the same ricotta but this time with the addition of sweet cooked rice. Then there were the savory versions. The savory versions added distinct flavors and textures: greens, ham, eggs. The basic savory pie was created by the addition of cooked and drained spinach to an unsweetened ricotta. The more complex version, and the most engaging, included ham and hard boiled eggs. While the sweet versions served as heavenly desserts, the savory pies would do well as a hearty lunch or even a dinner.
Of course, the Easter pies were not alone as kitchen specialties. There were also the sweet Easter breads: wonderfully bronzed fabrications in many shapes and always studded with colored eggs. The breads came in many shapes: doves, baskets, rings. But the breads are a story of their own that are treated on a different page on this site. Let me return to the pies.
When I was sixteen, Easter baskets had become the stuff of childhood. But at sixteen I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Italy. The trip was sponsored by the Latin department of my school. Back in the 60’s the all-inclusive cost was $350 and it was a trip on a new jet airplane flown by the German carrier, Lufthansa.
I prepared for this odyssey for months. I bought a copy of “Italian Made Simple” and taught myself the language. I sat hour after hour hunched over every guide book and map of Rome and Florence. I knew every street and alleyway. I would be the first to return to Italy in one hundred years. The thrill of the anticipation was only superseded by marvels I discovered. The trip took place over Easter break. One day, after a visit to Pompeii, the excursion took us to Sorrento for dinner. What we had that evening I don’t recall. But, as we were leaving the restaurant, I saw in a glass case, a ricotta pie. I stopped dead still before it. One of the restaurant staff noticed my reaction. “Ma, cos’è?” he asked. (What’s wrong?)I said something like, “This is the ricotta and rice pie that we have every Easter. It’s just like home.”
On hearing my response, he nodded and dashed behind the case that held the pie. He called together his fellows at hand, withdrew the pie, sliced it down and with great ebullience offered me a very large piece. As I bit into the slice, there was a wonderful groan of delight from the chorus of waiters that encircled me. I was the hero of ancient classic theater: Ulysses returned home, Aeneas founding Rome.
In Italy, there is a great respect for tradition, especially for the traditions of food. These days, among Italian Americans, I fear that many traditions are disappearing. The current generation of Italian Americans, while considering themselves knowledgeable about food, are not always interested in the work that traditional foods demand.
The one thing that I found on almost every recipe, American or Italian, was that the pasta frolla, the crust, should be handled as little as possible. The use of a food processor versus blending by hand was almost 50/50. Many recipes called for starting with the food processor to blend the butter, flour and sugar and then finishing with the eggs by hand. One important to watch for is the texture of the dough just after adding the butter and eggs when turning it out of the Cuisinart. The dough may very well be somewhat dry and crumbly. This will depend on the water content of the butter and the size of the eggs. If it is crumbly be extremely careful about adding water. I usually just wet my hands and that little amount is sufficient to make the dough pliable. Kneed it quickly, wrap it in plastic and let it in the refrigerator for at least an hour or, better, overnight.
For the cheese filling it is also essential to use a really good ricotta and fresh pastured eggs. The very best ricotta is "ricotta impastata. I can find this wonderful variety of ricotta at my local provider, "Carlino's." Grocery store brand ricottas tend to be very watery. If you have to use them, be sure to put the cheese in a strainer with a weight on it for about an hour to push out the water. Pastured chicken eggs will also have wonderfully yellow yolks enrich the color of the cheese. And for the savory versions, not only are the hard boiled eggs a dazzling daffodil yellow but a good, properly raised and humanely slaughtered pork renders a much tastier ham pie. These pies require some time and some work but all in all they are easy and so well worth every effort.
For the pasta frolla crust, see the page on Ricotta and Rice pies.
What you need