Today is Pasquetta, or ‘Little Easter’, known in English as Easter Monday. A holiday in Italy and much of Europe, folks traditionally take to the roads to drive out to the countryside and enjoy a fresh air picnic. In Campania and elsewhere, one favorite item in the Pasquetta picnic basket is the pizza rustica, literally ‘rustic pie’, a savory concoction of flake pastry crust with a filling of eggs, cheese and cured meats. It’s a kind of simple country cousin to the more elaborate casatiello, the ne plus ultra of Easter pies. The pizza rustica is much better known abroad, and is much appreciated by Italian-Americans.
The only part of this recipe that’s a bit tricky, at least for non-bakers like myself, is the crust. This version of the pizza rustica uses a crust made from a pasta sfoglia, usually translated into English as puff pastry, made from flour and lard, mixed with just enough water to bring things together. It needs careful handling—not too much kneading, which would develop the glutens and produce a tough crust. And the high fat content means the dough needs to be kept cold or it will quickly become unworkable. Having said that, it’s not as difficult as it may sound. Hey, if I can do it, you can.
For the crust:
- 5oog (1 lb) flour (see Notes)
- 250g (1/2 lb) lard (or butter)
- Salt, to taste
- 100 ml (1/2 cup) tepid water, or enough to form a ball
For the filling:
- 350g (12 oz) ricotta
- 5 medium eggs
- 350g (12 oz) mozzarella, cut into small cubes (see Notes)
- 150g (5 oz) prosciutto and/or salami, cut into small cubes (see Notes)
- 100 g (3-1/2 oz) grated Parmesan cheese (or a mixture of Parmesan and pecorino)
- Salt and pepper
1 egg, plus a few drops of water (optional)
Step 1: Making the pasta sfoglia: Place the flour and the lard in a large bowl. Mix them together with your hands, squeezing the lard through your fingers until it is well incorporated into the flour, forming little grains that will look a bit like moist sand:
Now begin to add the water, mixing this time with a spatula, until the flour has come together. Use your hands to form the dough into a ball:
Wrap the dough ball with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to chill for about an hour.
Step 2: Making the filling: Put the ricotta and eggs into another large bowl. Mix them well until you have achieved a smooth custard-like mixture:
Now add the other cheeses and cured meats, mixing them into the ricotta and egg mixture with a spatula until the mixture is homogeneous. The mixture will have stiffened up quite a bit:
If you’re still waiting for the dough to chill, place the filling in the fridge too, covered with plastic wrap to keep it moist. (Both dough and filling can wait for several hours, or even overnight, if you like.)
Step 3: Assembling the pizza rustica: When the dough ball is well chilled, take it from the fridge and unwrap it. Flour your working surface (if possible, it should be marble or granite) and your dough ball, too, to prevent sticking. Take about 2/3 of the dough, flour it well on all sides and form it again into a ball, and flatten the dough ball out a bit with a rolling pin:
Now take the rolling pin and roll out the dough into a fairly thin (but not paper thin) disk, turning the dough with each roll to ensure it comes out as evenly round as you can manage. (No need for perfection here…)
Now you need to place the dough into a pie plate—but whatever you do, don’t try to move this delicate dough with your hands! Instead, roll up the dough with your rolling pin:
Now, using your rolling pin, transfer the dough onto a pie plate and unfurl it on top of the plate, making sure it covers the entire plate by a good measure. Press the dough down into the plate to make a shell, like so:
Cut off the excess dough that hangs over the edges of the plate. Now place all the stuffing into the shell:
Now you have two choices: you can roll out the remaining dough into another disk, to use as a cover for the pie OR, as I like, you can take a little more time and effort to make a lattice top. For the latter, roll the remaining dough out into a long, rectangular shape, then using a pastry wheel, cut the dough into long strips. If you’re hand isn’t too steady (like mine) you can use the rolling pin as a guide:
Now lay the strips over the filling in a cross-hatch pattern. Take up all the remaining dough and roll it out into one long strip. Twist that last strip so it resembles a cord and use it to create a trim all around the edge of the pice plate. You should wind up with a pie like this:
Finally, if you like, take one more egg, add a few drops of water and beat them together well with a fork. Then brush this egg wash all over the surface of the pie. This will help the surface to brown and develop an attractive sheen.
Step 4: Baking: Place the pizza rustica into a moderately hot over, say about 190C/375F for an hour or so, until the filling is cooked through and the top is nicely brown. If you like a browner crust, you can raise the temperature for the last 15 minutes or so, using the convection setting if you have one.
Let the pie cool for 20-30 minutes before eating. The pie can also be eaten at room temperature which, to my taste, makes it even better. When eaten warm, the filling will be rather creamy and your slices a bit messy, if very tasty:
When eaten cold, the filling will firm up quite a bit and the pie can be sliced very neatly, perfect for an Easter Monday picnic:
The crust given here is my personal favorite. It is savory and flaky and delicious. It is not really true puff pastry, however, which involves incorporating the fat into layers of dough to produce a truly ‘puffy’ result. It is more like a more homely pie crust. Another version of the dish, however, is made with a dough made from flour and egg with only a bit of butter or lard for enrichment. It makes a firmer but less friable crust, better some say for eating cold although I would disagree. Some recipes also call for adding sugar to the crust, which, of course, makes it sweet. The contrast of sweet crust and savory filling intrigues me (some pasta timbales are made that way as well) but, not having much of a sweet tooth, I haven’t tried it.
The filling always begins with the egg and ricotta mixture, but from there you can add the cheeses and cured meats you like. Smoked provola is a common addition and provolone (not too aged) would also be nice. Older recipes, including the first written recipe for pizza rustica, from Il Cuoco Galante, an 18th century Neapolitan cookbook by the illustrious Vincenzo Corrado, calls for fresh sausage, cooked and sliced.
Besides it role in a picnic, you can serve pizza rustica as part of an antipasto spread for Easter dinner itself, just like we did…