Here's another Italian specialty that I've learned to make in the last few years...perhaps proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks. It's meat and cheese pie, an Easter specialty loaded with cold cuts to celebrate the return to eating meat after a Lent-long fast. My version is based on the one from Patsy's Italian Family Cookbook. I spent many hours at Patsy's watching Chef Sal and his crew making their old-school dishes that have made the restaurant famous for over 70 years. My version is actually streamlined, as I used a four-cheese pizza mix and sliced cold cuts instead of the individually prepared ingredients. The dough is easy to make, thanks to instant yeast (you don't have to worry about the water temperature). The pie goes by many names--Pizza Gaina or Pizza Chena (both dialect variations of Pizza Piena, which is Italian for "filled pie") or Pizza Rustica. No matter what you call it, it is delicious. I am always surprised at how easily is comes together.
Easter Meat Pie
Makes 12 to 14 antipasto servings
Up until the mid-1960s, Catholics abstained from eating meat during Lent. So, when this pie was served for Easter, meat hadn’t been eaten for six weeks. Every family has a different tradition for eating this—some serve it at midnight on Easter Eve, some have it for Easter brunch. But I like it best served in thin slices as an appetizer before the meal. (And leftovers are great as dinner on Easter Monday with salad.)
I have adapted this recipe from Patsy's Italian Family Cookbook, where I served as writer. The Scognamillo family uses all ricotta for the filling. But I have a couple of great Italian delicatessens near me in New Jersey, and I was able to get the traditional basket cheese, which many cooks prefer. This cheese is a fresh cow's milk cheese, similar to farmer's cheese, drained in basket and retaining the mold's shape. It is only made and sold during Easter Week, but farmer's cheese is a good substitute.
Be sure to make it well ahead of serving (at least the morning of your party, or even better, the day before) so it has time to settle. And serve it at room temperature or slightly warmed up in the oven.
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, as needed
One ¼-ounce package (2 1/4 teaspoons) instant (also called bread-machine) yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes, softened
Olive oil, for the bowl
1 pound assorted sliced Italian cold cuts, such as sweet and hot soppressata, prosciutto, capicola, mortadella, prosciutto cotto or boiled ham
1 1/2 pounds basket cheese (available at Italian delicatessens during Easter week) or farmer’s cheese, crumbled
One 15-pound container whole milk ricotta (if you use fresh ricotta, buy about 18 ounces, and let it drain in a wire sieve for an hour or so; I used supermarket ricotta)
One 8-ounce bag “four cheese pizza mix” (shredded mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan, and Romano combination)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 large eggs, beaten
Softened butter, for the pan
1 large egg beaten, for the glaze
1. For the dough:Combine 1 2/3 cups of the flour with 2/3 cup cold water, yeast, and salt in the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer. Mix with the paddle attachment on low speed to make a batter. Add the butter and mix until it is absorbed into the batter and the batter is thinner and stickier. Gradually beat in enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough that cleans the sides of the bowl. Switch to the dough hook. Knead on medium-low speed until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes.
To make the dough by hand. Stir 1 2/3 cups of the flour, 2/3 cups water, the yeast and salt together to make a batter. A tablespoon at a time, stir in the butter, stirring until the butter is completely absorbed into the batter. The batter will be sticky. Gradually stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a dough that is too stiff to stir. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead, adding more dough as needed, to make a soft, supple, and elastic dough, 8 to 10 minutes.
2. Gather the dough into a ball. Place in an oiled medium bowl and turn to coat the dough with oil, leaving the dough smooth side up. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
3. To make the filling: Roughly cut the individual stacks of sliced meats into ½-inch dice—each piece should be about 3 or 4 slices thick. (I find that the chopped sliced meat is easier to eat than the unsliced cubes of meats that some people use.) Mix the basket cheese and ricotta together in a large bowl Add the meats, cheese mix and parsley and mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper, but go light on the salt because the meats are salty. Beat in the eggs and mix well.
4. Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Butter the inside of a 9½-inch springform pan.
5. Punch down the dough. Place on lightly floured work surface and cut into two pieces, two-thirds for the bottom and one-third for the top of the pie. Roll out the larger piece of dough into a 16-inch-diameter round. Fit the dough into the pan, letting the excess dough hang over a bit the edge, stretching the dough as needed and filling in any thin spots or holes with dough trimmings. Add the filling to the pan. Fold the overhanging dough into the pan onto filling. Roll out the remaining dough into a 9-inch-diameter round. Lightly brush the exposed dough around the edge of the filling with the egg glaze. Center the round of dough over the filling. Pierce a cross in the top of the dough. Brush the top lightly with the egg glaze. Place the pan on a large rimmed baking sheet.
6. Bake until the crust is golden brown and a small knife inserted into the filling for 5 seconds comes out hot, about 1 1/4 hours. Transfer the pie to a wire cooling rack and let stand for 1 hour. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cooled, at least 3 hours or up to 1 day. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before serving.
7. Remove the sides of the pan, cut into thin wedges, and serve at room temperature.