Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
Torta di Pasqua
I have a little confession to make. Each year, right around Easter, I am reminded of this deep love I harbor which surfaces in a cyclical fashion with the coming of spring. I mean, not your normal “Oh, I love that sweater on her” or “I just love to curl up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire” kind of love, but that obsessive, slightly creepy “I want to start a life with you and buy you presents” kind of love.
Which is kind of weird, since the object of my ardor is a foodstuff.
Though, to be honest, I’ve noticed that my passion for food is growing more acute as I have become a middle-aged mother of two and things like heavy drinking, recreational drug use, and sleeping around no longer seem appropriate. Let’s just say that eating is one of the few joys of life left to me.
And Easter in Umbria offers humanity a dish which represents, in my opinion, the apex of culinary accomplishment. It’s ne plus ultra. It’s climax. (Ok, now I am getting creepy.) My friends, I present to you Torta di Pasqua (also known as Pizza di Pasqua or simply Torta al Formaggio).
A torta di Pasqua literally seconds from the oven
This savory cheese bread is a traditional Easter dish in these parts, the recipe for which varies from family to family and is a closely guarded secret handed down through the generation. However, from what I can glean from years of attentive observation, there are a few key ingredients used in all variants:
The preparation of this dish begins weeks before baking day, as the farmwives start to hoard their eggs (news flash: farm fresh eggs keep forever, and they don’t have to go in the fridge - things you discover when you move to the country.), as they will be using literally dozens to turn out the numerous mushroom-shaped loaves. I suppose you could even say the preparation begins months before, when they butcher their annual hog at Christmas and put aside the lard (did I mention the awesome amount of lard?) they will later need for the dough.
Kneading the dough
Early on the morning of baking day, the women light the fires in their woodstoves and knead together all the ingredients to make the rich, cheesy bread dough. This is then divided into at least a dozen different tins (many of them refitted industrial sized sardine cans) and left to rest and rise near the warmth of the oven.
Once nicely double or tripled in size and rounded on the top, they are placed into the oven one by one with a large wooden paddle and left to bake ... when they are done they will have risen over the sides of their tins to take the shape of giant cupcakes and are shiny and golden on top.
Despite olive branches and appeals to heaven, the loaves didn't rise as much as hoped
To slice into one of these torte fresh from the oven is to experience bliss. The lard (did I mention the incredible amount of lard?) yields a short, crumbly crust on the outside and a moist, savory crumb inside dotted with melted cubes of Swiss cheese. Some recipes use a bit of pepper in the dough, which I enjoy, though it’s tough to get just the right amount without overshadowing the cheese flavor. Our aunt, Zia Anna, gets just the right amount, for example. And I love her for it.
It’s otherworldly freshly baked, but can also be frozed and toasted for weeks afterwards ... still delicious, though will not bring you to ecstatic tears, which a steaming hot slice certainly can do.
© Rebecca Winke, 2010
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