Make your Easter an Italian one
Published 1:32 am Saturday, April 15, 2017
In thinking about my Easter dinner I decided to pick a country and cook something from that country. In Italy, Easter is a big deal, since 90 percent of the country are Roman Catholic. But they do not celebrate the same way everywhere and the boot-shaped country has its own set of traditions around one of Christianity’s biggest holidays.
Here are some things you should know about Easter in Italy. The Easter bunny does not exist in Italy, so there are no chocolate bunnies begging to be bitten off. In Italy it is all about the eggs, the symbol of rebirth and renewal. The Italians do go all out for the chocolate eggs, which can range from tiny solid ones to beautifully wrapped foot-high hollow eggs, which hide a gift inside. Most chocolate shops in Italy will custom stuff a chocolate egg. The customer brings the gift to the shop—anything from an engagement ring to black lace lingerie—and wait for the chocolate to be enclosed within the two halves of the chocolate egg.
A popular expression throughout Italy goes like this, “Spend Christmas with your family, but Easter with whomever you want.” No Italian would want to miss his or her nonna’s Easter feast, but Italians use the holiday to reach out to friends, too, for a coffee or a glass of wine.
Colomba is the word for dove and also the name of a dove-shaped yeast cake traditionally served at Easter. It is studded with candied orange peel, then topped with almonds and a sprinkling of sugar to form a crisp, nutty crust. Myth goes that the city of Milan was defending itself against invading forces on Easter Day in 1176. Just when the Milanese seemed destined to lose the battle, three doves flew over the city. Soon after, the battle shifted and invaders were vanquished. Legend holds that after the victory the Milanese celebrated by eating cakes shaped like their savior doves.
Another traditional Easter dessert that is popular in Naples and southern Italy is pastiera, a ricotta and whole-grain pie with a mouthwatering aroma so distinctive, that any blindfolded Neapolitian could instantly identify it. Pasteira is considered by many to be one of Italy’s most important desserts. It is prepared in special pans, whose edges angle out slightly. The pie is often given as a gift and always in the pan it was baked in because of its fragile pastry. The pie needs to rest for two days for the flavors to meld, so it is finished on Good Friday so that is will be ready for Easter.
Scoppio de Carro, which translates as the “Exploding of the Cart,” is an unusual custom in Florence. A huge, decorated wagon filled with fireworks is pulled by white oxen through Florence to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in the city’s historic center. Near the end of the Easter mass, the Archbishop sends a dove-shaped rocket (a symbol of the Holy Spirit) into the cart to ignite the fireworks. If everything goes as smoothly and spectacularly as planned, it is considered an omen of good luck for the year.
The day after Easter is Italy is known as La Pasquetta or (Angel’s Monday). It is a national holiday with everything closed. The Italians go on a picnic that day, often their first outdoor excursion since the start of winter.
Typical foods in the picnic basket include raw fava beans eaten with pecorino cheese as well as salami, bread, and other cheeses.
It is traditional to serve dishes that contain eggs like this egg-rich easy-to-make baked pasta. This is the dish I chose to cook since it seemed delicious and would be great for an Easter buffet or just a simple Easter meal instead of the traditional ham and all the sides. We enjoyed it also for breakfast.
Pretty Easter Pasta Pie
(Crostata di tagliolini)
1 small onion, minced
2 ounces pancetta or prosciutto, minced
8 ounces baby peas
12 ounces fresh mushrooms, any type, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
½ cup homemade breadcrumbs, toasted
7 tablespoons butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk, warmed
1 pound tagliolini, or other thin egg noodles
½ cup chicken or beef stock
½ cup grated parmesan
12 ounces burrata or mozzarella cheese, diced
8 ounces thinly sliced ham, cut into strips
In a small pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Cook the onion and pancetta until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Add the peas and a few tablespoons of water, and cook until the peas are tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; set aside in a bowl.
In the same pan, heat 2 more tablespoons oil over high heat. Cook the mushrooms and garlic for a minute or two, until tender. Season with salt and pepper; set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter as 8-9 inch nonstick spring form pan and dust it with breadcrumbs.
In another small pot, make béchamel: Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat, stir in the flour, and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until smooth. Add the milk and bring it to a boil, stirring until thick, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Boil the pasta in salted water for 3 minutes less than the package directs. Drain and toss with the stock.
Layer the bottom of the prepared baking pan with one third of the pasta. Dot with one third of the béchamel, sprinkle it with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons Parmesan, scatter on the pea mixture, then scatter on one third of the diced cheese. Spread out a second level layer of pasta, dot with one third of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons Parmesan, and scatter all the mushrooms, ham and remaining diced cheese. Top with the remaining pasta and any unabsorbed remaining stock, dressing down to compact the layers. Dot the top with the remaining béchamel, Parmesan, breadcrumbs, and remaining butter, very thinly sliced.
Bake for about 25 minutes, until the pie is set and golden. Let is rest until it comes to room temperature before slicing.
My husband doused his liberally with Tabasco, not Italian but he liked it.