To say that we Italians are food traditionalists is an understatement. Time and time again we go back to dishes that we have known since we were kids and we still enjoy them immensely. Come Easter and torta pasqualina will appear on very many tables. “Torta pasqualina” translates as Eastertide cake but it is actually a savory pie: layers of a golden, shatteringly flaky olive oil pastry, encasing a substantial filling of chards (biete, in Italian), fresh soft cheese, Parmigiano or pecorino , eggs and marjoram. It is a centuries old dish and one of the highlights of the Italian vegetarian canon – the quintessential spring dish. It originates from Liguria (in particular from Genova, the capital of Liguria) but is now hugely popular throughout the whole stivale (boot, as Italy is often casually referred to). There are very many variations, even if the basics are always the same: transparently thin layers of a simple dough similar to filo pastry, lots of green, mild leafy vegetables, cheese and eggs. After baking, torta pasqualina is let to rest for a few hours and it is then eaten at room temperature, never hot. It is served as an antipasto or a secondo. In my household it makes the perfect piatto unico (one meal dish).
Actually vegetable pies of all sorts are common in Ligurian cooking: they can be with pumpkin, mushrooms, leeks, onions. This is what Colman Andrews wrote on the subject and if you like this kind of cooking I do recommend his excellent book.
Torta pasqualina is, arguably, the most famous of all Ligurian vegetable pies. Already in 1570 the Renaissance cook Bartolomeo Scappi describes it but it is likely that such pies are much older. They have always been a clever, frugal way of using what is in season and cheap (vegetables, wild herbs, simple fresh cheese), with eggs, olive oil and precious flour being used according to one’s purse.
If you read Italian, this is a 1863 version of torta pasqualina from what is considered one of the bibles of Genoa cooking and it is similar to what we make today.
In Italian cookery terms, the pastry used in torta pasqualina is called “pasta matta”, which literally translates as “crazy pastry”, meaning a lean pastry where very little fat or no fat at all is used: just flour, water and salt. In the past it was used as an ingenious way of encasing and cooking food in something sturdy. The dough for torta pasqualina can include some olive oil and this creates a more tender and flavorsome pastry. It must be rolled super thin and the pie is then assembled by layering these transparently thin sheets of dough.
Many online sources claim that an authentic torta pasqualina must have 33 layers of dough, in remembrance of the 33 years of Christ’s life. In the main 19th century books about Genova and Ligurian cooking (this and this) there is no mention of this. The woman who is these days considered the high priestess of torta pasqualina and one of the last keepers of traditional Ligurian cooking, Signora Enrichetta Trucco (see below), says that the “33 sheets business” is not compulsory at all: as long as you make between 8 to 10 layers, you will be firmly in real torta pasqualina territory.
I have tried versions of this pastry where white wine is used and I did not notice any substantial difference and so I stick to the plain flour+water+oil combination.
The pastry must rest for at least one hour, otherwise you will not be able to roll it thin; I tend to make it the day before but I have also kept it in the fridge for days without problem.
Traditionally, the filling’s main ingredient is chard leaves, even if I prefer a mixture of chard and spinach. The chards can be used either raw, finely sliced and tossed with a handful of flour to absorb humidity or lightly cooked and squeezed dry. Sometimes a soffritto of onion is added, grated Parmigiano and/or Pecorino a constant presence. Signora Trucco also uses a pinch, “un pizzico” as we say in Italian, of an ancient spice blend called La Saporita, which is rather tricky to find even in Italy and almost forgotten. In my last trip to Milan I came across it though and these are the ingredients: coriander, cinnamon, caraway seeds, cloves, nutmeg, star anise – intriguing, almost a relic of a bygone era, perhaps a relic of Renaissance cooking when spices where used much more liberally in Italian cooking that today. Even before finding it, I had experimented with different spices (nutmeg, black pepper, cinnamon, allspice, coriander) and everything works, provided that it is used sparingly.
The other star ingredient of torta Pasqualina is prescinseua, a spreadable, mildly acidic fresh cow cheese, a cross between ricotta and Greek yogurt. Prescinseua is one of those typically local Italian ingredients that is impossible to get outside the region. Outside Liguria, most Italians would now use ricotta instead but I managed to track down the recipe for a homemade version of prescinseua from this really remarkable book – part family history, part cookery book. Ms Schenone gives a beautiful and well researched account of many local Ligurian dishes. She also met Signora Enrichetta Trucco and she reports her recipe for a simpler chard torta. You can see Ms Schenone’s recipe for prescinseua in the preview. I have made it a few times and it is very good (and simple).
I have also had success using half greek yogurt and half creme fraiche; some people use half ricotta, half greek yogurt: I tried it but it lacks the pleasant sourness of real prescinseua . I have also used plain Greek yogurt only, made a little thicker with some flour and it is good. Failing all this, plain ricotta only can be used, even if is a tad too sweet for my palate. (precinseua recipe: search the preview and you will find it at p 307)
To assemble the pie, first you lay several layers of dough, well brushed with oil, then you add the chards and some Parmigiano or pecorino, then a thick layer of prescinseua, more Parmigiano and a good drizzle of oil. Now you have to choose if you want eggs or not in your torta pasqualina. Eggs (or just egg yolks) are mentioned in most versions – they are synonymous with Easter after all. They are cracked open atop the prescinseua and covered with slivers of butter. I have also seen and tasted versions without eggs: I do not put them, because I do not like the taste and texture of overcooked yolks. Sometimes I add some eggs either to the chards or to the prescinseua, to get a creamier filling.
Then more layers of dough are placed on top and the whole think is baked for a rather long time, until deep golden. Torta pasqualina is baked in large and shallow tins, well oiled. I have often used disposable aluminium round tins but I got the best results with a sturdy Le Creuset tin for tart tatin, which made the pastry beautifully crisp.
One admission: for a long time, I loved the making torta pasqualina more than the actual eating, because, all in all, I prefer a crisp pate brisè and torta pasqualina cannot be that crisp, because of the rather well filling. Lately, as I am getting older I guess, I have found myself enjoying the dining experience more and more and the torta will definitely appear on my Easter table.
Colman Andrews in his book on the food of the Italian-French riviera (of which Liguria is part of) admits that an honorable torta pasqualina can be made with filo pastry. I have never tried it but it makes sense: my only advice would be to brush it generously with oil, to have at least five sheets at the bottom, to use plenty of breadcrumbs in between sheets to absorb any liquid shed by the chards and to cook the torta until a very deep golden color. I draw the line to the use of puff pastry, as seen in many versions: this would be untraditional, inauthentic and plain wrong in my book.
Original torta pasqualina has always two distinct layers (three if you add the eggs at the end): the vegetables and the soft cheese atop. You can mix everything together of course if you want: what you get is called torta cappuccina – same flavor, different look.
This is David Tannis’ version of torta pasqualina.
This is a typical Ligurian savory pie from the excellent Nick Malgieri: I tried it and it is very good.
If you read Italian, I have written extensively about torta pasqualina on my Italian blog. There is the recipe and some general observations. In any case, do have a look at these two excellent videos, to get the feel of what an authentic torta pasqualina should be like: this, where signora Enrichetta Trucco shows her panache and this, from a traditional trattoria in Genova. The videos are in Italian, but watching is perhaps more important the understanding the words.
Once out of the oven, torta pasqualina does need several hours to cool down and it is really at its best at room temperature, no warmer. Once I made the mistake of slicing it when barely warm and the filing had not had enough time to settle and compact – be smart and wait.
As you can see from the videos, torta pasqualina is never too deep
a 24 cm x 4-5 cm round metal tin, well oiled
Pastry enough for 8 layers
Italian 00 flour or plain flour – 300 g (for a more rustic pie use 240 g 00 flour and 60 g fine wholemeal flour)
water at room temperature – 150 g approximately
extra virgin olive oil – 4 tablespoons
½ teaspoon salt
Mix everything together and knead for few minutes. The dough must be soft and supple, adjust flour or liquid accordingly. Wrap in cling film and rest for at least one hour or up to 5-6 days in the fridge. I prefer to let the dough rest overnight in the refrigerator: this makes the rolling a dodle. Bring it back to room temperature before using it, keeping it wrapped until ready to roll it.
swiss chards – 750g-1 kg, leaves only/or 500 g chards and 250 g spinach (see notes)
1 large golden onion, finely sliced
a pinch of mixed spices (see post). I have often used nutmeg and black pepper only
fresh marjoram or parsley, chopped – a couple of tablespoons or to taste
Parmesan or pecorino, grated – 50 g approximately or to taste
Prescinseua (see post) – 500 g or half Greek Yogurt and half creme fraiche left to drain overnight. If you use ricotta, it must be very well drained
unflavored toasted breadcrumbs
extra virgin olive oil
Slice the chard leaves very finely, wash them and wilt them in a large, covered saucepan, adding no water. Drain, let them cool down and squeeze them dry.
Fry the onion in some olive oil till very tender and golden. Add the cooked chard , turn it and coat in the oil and let it “insaporire” (take/absorb the flavor). The mixture must be on the dry side at the end. You can add some of the cheese to this mix, if you want and/or some of the eggs (unless you want to place all the eggs atop the greens, as a final layer). Add some spices if using and the herbs. Let it cool down.
Preheat the oven to 180° C. If you have a pizza stone, use it
Beat up the prescinseua to loosen it up a little. You can add some of the cheese to it, if you want and/or some of the eggs (unless you want to place all the eggs atop the greens, as a final layer)
Divide the dough into 8 pagnottelle (little rounds of dough). Roll it out one by one on a lightly floured surface with a rolling pin. At one point it is easier to stretch it by hand as if it were a pizza, turning it and stretching over your knuckles. Check again this video and it will be very clear. Place the first sfoglia (sheet of dough) into the tin, allowing it to hang iover the edges Drizzle with olive oil and scatter some breadcrumbs over it. Procede systematically with four more sfoglie. The breadcrumbs are my addition and they are not traditional but I think they help a lot to avoid too soggy a bottom, absorbing some of the juices released by the vegetables.
Before adding the chards, make sure that the last sfoglia is well covered with breadcrumbs. Place the chards, followed by the prescinseua (and the eggs if using on top). Drizzle generously with oil.If you have not mixed the Parmesan in the chards or in the prescienseua, sprinkle it over each layer.
Now it is time to cover the torta with the remaining three pieces of dough, remembering to drizzle oil in between each sfoglia. You do not need to add breadcrumbs here. Try to stretch these last three layers as much as possible when you place them on the torta, so as to create taut sheets, Before placing the last sfoglia, wet the rim with same water: this will work as glue. Place the last sfoglia. Using a pair of scissors remove the excessive hanging dough and create a border, sealing the edges. Brush the edge with oil. Now you have a choice: you can either leave the torta as it is or you can tear the last sfoglia to create some vents. The former option will create a doomed shaped torta pasqualina, like the one in the signora Trucco‘s video, the latter (my preference) will give you a flat top but it will also ensure that the top sfoglie are well cooked and not too soft because there is no steam trapped inside.
Cooking the torta: I place my torta directly on the bottom of my oven, its hottest part. This helps crisp up the bottom, after 30 minutes I move the torta in the lower third of the oven, placing it on my pizza stone and I cook it for a further 45 minutes or more or untill the top is a deep golden color but covering with some tin foil if it appears to be darkening too quickly.
Let it cool down for several hours and eat it at room temperature. Torta pasqualina keeps well for a couple of days and it actually also makes excellent picnic food.
Buona Pasqua a tutti.
Use the chard ribs for a a cooked salad or sautè them in butter and parmesan – they go beautifully with fried eggs. Sometimes I have also used the stems too in the torta, chopped up small.
Dough: my quantities make more dough that you actually need but they will allow you to roll and stretch it without getting too stressed. The remaining dough can be kept in the fridge and used for a couple of flat breads.