It’s one of Liguria’s iconic dishes (next to pesto of course) and the recipe has roots that can be traced back to the 15th or 16th century. It is also made with the season’s best offerings: fresh herbs, green vegetables such as silverbeet and plenty of eggs. The dough is similar to that of Liguria’s paper-thin focaccia di recco, made of just flour, water and a touch of olive oil, which is rolled and stretched until almost transparent and then layered to create the base and the top. The original torta pasqualina, it is said, called for 33 layers of dough to represent the 33 years of Christ. However, most recipes today will call for a total of four, two on the bottom and two on top, for a lovely flaky crust but one that’s easier to make at home.
Easter is just around the corner, believe it or not. I love the work that goes into Italian Easter traditions, like pies that take days to make, and this torta pasqualina or Easter pie (pasqua means ‘Easter’ in Italian) is no exception.
- 1 kg silverbeet, central veins removed, leaves blanched
- 2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra, to brush
- ½ onion, chopped finely
- salt and pepper, to season
- handful of fresh marjoram leaves
- 8 eggs
- 120 g (about 1 cup) grated Parmesan
- 350 g (1½ cups) ricotta
- pinch of ground nutmeg
- 500 g (3⅓ cups) strong flour (see Note)
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 310 ml (1¼ cups) water (or as needed)
Oven temperatures are for conventional; if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.
Resting time 1 hour 30 minutes
For the pastry, place the flour, salt and oil in a bowl. Add the water, little by little, until you have dough that is neither dry nor sticky (you may need to add a bit more water and you may not need to use it all, so do this by hand or at least add the water gradually so you can see how the dough behaves).
Knead on a lightly floured work surface for 5–10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic (it should bounce back when poked). Wrap in plastic wrap and rest for at least 1 hour (you can also prepare this the night before and leave it overnight in the fridge).
For the filling, cook the silverbeet in boiling salted water for 5–7 minutes or until tender. Drain well, cool slightly, then finely chop. Squeeze to remove as much water as possible (too much water can make the pastry base excessively soggy).
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over low heat and cook the onion for 5–10 minutes or until soft and translucent. Add the silverbeet, toss to combine, and cook for a further 2 minutes to evaporate excess water. Season with salt and pepper, add the marjoram, then remove from heat. Set aside to cool.
In a bowl, beat 2 eggs, then add the cooled silverbeet mixture and one-third of the Parmesan. Set aside until needed.
In another bowl, place the ricotta, 2 eggs, another third of the Parmesan and the nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper, then stir until well combined. Cover and set aside in the fridge until needed.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC. To assemble the pie, brush the extra oil lightly over a round cake tin with a removable base (about 23–25 cm diameter is fine but larger sizes work too). Cut the dough into 4 equal portions, then work with 1 portion at a time, keeping the others well covered with a tea towel or plastic wrap.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out 1 dough portion until very thin (pick it up and stretch it between your hands gently – you should be able to see your fingers through the other side). Lay the dough gently in the cake tin to cover the side and base, allowing the excess dough to hang over the edge. Brush the dough lightly with the olive oil. Roll out a second portion as before and lay over the first layer of dough. Brush with the olive oil, pushing out any air bubbles with the brush as you do so.
Fill the pie case with the silverbeet mixture, smoothing the top with the back of a spoon. Next, cover with the ricotta mixture, smoothing the top with the back of a spoon. Then, with the help of a spoon, make 4 round indents on the surface of the ricotta to fit 4 egg yolks. Crack the remaining eggs, separating the whites from the yolks. Place the yolks in the indents and the whites in a small bowl. Whisk the whites with a fork and pour over half of the whites to make an even layer that just covers the ricotta. Sprinkle over the remaining one-third of the Parmesan.
Roll out a third dough portion as before. Gently lay it over the top of the pie and brush lightly with the oil or the remaining egg whites. Roll out the final dough portion and lay it over the top. Trim the dough overhanging, leaving about 2½ cm from the edge, and roll the trim until it reaches the top of the pie. Brush the top with the olive oil and bake for 50 minutes or until golden brown. Rest for 20 minutes before slicing to allow the juices to settle.
Serve warm or even cold – this also makes a great portable picnic dish!
• Strong flour, also known as bread flour, is required to give elasticity to this very thin dough. Available from supermarkets.
• This is the most traditional way to make torta pasqualina, but there are many other ways you can approach this pie – corner cutting, if you must. I don’t think it will deter from the flavour as much as from tradition. You could skip the dough and use store-bought puff pastry or filo pastry instead, but I do highly recommend trying out this dough and technique – it’s rather amazing. You’ll see what I mean when you try it. You can also combine the ricotta and silverbeet mixtures together for one filling rather than layers. And you can leave out the cracked egg yolks over the top. Or you can make them whole eggs, if you don’t like separating. If you can’t get silverbeet, use spinach or any other greens. You could also try artichokes or a filling of half-artichokes, half-silverbeet.
• With the leftover dough that gets trimmed off, you can roll it out and make decorations for the top of the pie, if you want to get really festive!
• A final tip: it helps if you have an oven that bakes well from the bottom. If you’re not sure or you suspect it doesn’t, you may want to start baking on the lower shelf and move it up a shelf about halfway through baking.
Recipe from emikodavies.com by Emiko Davies, with photographs by Emiko Davies.