The Italian Easter table is an array of symbolic dishes of the season. Every province has its own unique specialties that represent resurrection, fertility and rebirth. The spectrum covers earthy foods, both savory and sweet. An ancient Italian saying, “Natale con i tuoi, la Pasqua con chi vuoi”, means “Christmas at home and Easter with whomever you wish.” But for the most part, Italians return to the family home to celebrate the holiday.
A traditional meal is usually roasted leg of lamb with fresh rosemary and crushed garlic. It is served with asparagus, homemade pasta and a large salad. Vegetables typically play an important part in Italian meals, especially spring vegetables because they are tender and delicate. These include early peas, baby artichokes, asparagus, spinach and Swiss chard side dishes. They are also an important ingredient in egg-rich savory tortes that are combined with hard-boiled eggs and different kinds of cured meats. These tortes are served as appetizers or main dishes throughout the holiday.
Torta Pasqualina (Easter Cheese and Spinach Pie)
You may substitute 2 sheets of puff pastry for the homemade dough. See directions below.
For the dough:
- 8 cups all-purpose flour
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
For the filling:
- 2 pounds fresh spinach or Swiss chard
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup of finely chopped onion
- 1 pound ricotta cheese, drained in a sieve for 30 minutes
- 1 cup milk
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 4 large eggs
- 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Egg Wash For Puff Pastry:
1 Large Egg
For the dough:
Mix the flour, oil and salt and gradually add enough water (about 1 cup) to make a stiff dough that leaves the sides of the bowl cleanly. (The dough will become sticky if too much water is used.) Knead the dough thoroughly and divide it into 10 equal-sized balls. Put on a lightly floured pastry board and cover with a damp cloth for 15 minutes.
For the filling:
Wash the spinach or chard well, drain thoroughly and cook in as little water as possible until soft. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil and saute the onion until soft but not brown. Drain the greens and chop finely. Add to the onions and cook for a few moments. Set it aside to cool.
Mix the ricotta with milk, add a pinch of salt and put aside.
Brush a large deep pie dish or 9 inch springform pan with olive oil.
Roll one ball of pastry into a wafer-thin sheet larege enough to fit in the pan, keeping the rest of the pastry balls under the damp cloth. Place the dough in the prepared pie dish, brush lightly with oil and trim off excess pastry. Repeat this with five more balls of pastry, brushing each layer with oil and layering one on top of the other.
Spread the cooked onion and greens on top of the sixth layer of pastry, and spread the ricotta mixture on top. Hollow 4 wells in the filling and crack an egg into each one. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and Parmesan.
Roll out the remaining balls of pastry in precisely the same manner as teh bottom layers and place them, one by one, on top of the filling brushing each layer with oil.
Prick the top layer with a fork, brush it generously with oil and trim off any overlapping pastry.
If using puff pastry:
- Allow the pastry to come to room temperature.
- Roll out the two layers until fairly thin, making them large enough to cover the springform pan with a enough overhang to cover the filling.
- Lay one layer over the other to cover the bottom and sides of the pan.
- Put the filling into the pan, smoothing it evenly.
- Make four hollows evenly spaced around the filling and carefully crack the eggs into the hollows.
- Fold the overhanging edges of pastry over the top of the pie, folding to fit.
- Beat the egg with a teaspoon of water and brush over the top of the puff pastry.
Bake either pie in a 400-degree oven for about 40-50 minutes or until the pie is golden brown. It may be served hot or cold.
Eggs, the symbol of life, are an essential component of Easter foods. In nature, hens lay fewer eggs during the long winter and more in spring, as the days grow longer and temperatures get warmer. Aside from dyed and decorated eggs, Easter treats include egg-shaped cookies and marzipan and chocolate eggs.
Easter bread and pastry are found on every table. On the sweet side are round breads from Sicily and Abruzzo with colored hard-boiled eggs baked into the loaf. Also popular for Easter is Colomba, a sweet bread baked in the shape of a dove. The dough contains candied citrus and is topped with toasted almonds and sugar crystals.The dove is a universal symbol of peace.
PASQUA: FIRST COURSE
Easter feasts encourage an adventurous spirit in the kitchen. At Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Italians are likely to stick to traditional dishes, but at Easter, there is much more diversity. There is no typical antipasto or even primo piatto (first course) for Easter, but young cured meats and cheeses are usually served in some form.
Some popular first course dishes include: Fried Artichokes, Insalata di Polpo (Octopus Salad), swordfish or tuna seasoned with grapefruit and generous platters of young pecorino, fava beans and salumi.
Popular pasta dishes for Easter are Lasagna, in all its varieties and Baked Pasta, for which every household in Italy has a different recipe. Those who have the time and skill to prepare homemade pasta, might make their own local specialty (such as, orecchiette, cavatelli or pici), or stuffed pastas such as ravioli or tortelloni. An alternative to pasta is risotto made with fresh seafood and baby peas or asparagus.
PASQUA: THE MAIN COURSE
For secondo (the main course), roasted or grilled meat is usually served. For centuries, the most popular choice for Easter has been lamb—not just in Italy, but in many other Mediterranean and European countries too. In Rome lamb is marinated with lemon and rosemary and then roasted.
Another typical Roman recipe is Grilled Lamb Chops served with roasted potatoes and artichokes. In Tuscany, lamb is slowly braised with onions and carrots, then served with seasoned cannellini beans. In the Puglia region, boiled lamb is served with fresh herbs and vegetables. In Trentino, polpettine (little meatballs) are made with ground lamb, scallions, parsley and rosemary and served with tomato sauce as an entree.
PASQUA: DESSERT COURSE
Dolci (dessert) is an important part of the Easter feast. Chocolate eggs are among the favorite. In Italy and they contain a surprise inside for the children.
The Pastiera Napoletana is another authentic Easter tradition, originating in Naples, this cake is made with ricotta cheese, candied fruit and orange-blossom water.
The Pizza Pasqualina, a dessert made with cinnamon and chocolate, is a specialty of northern Lazio.
In Sicily, cassata and cannoli are the traditional desserts; and in Sardinia, Casadina, a puff pastry dessert stuffed with ricotta and raisins, is usually served.
Pane di Pasqua (Easter Bread) is a famous Easter treat made all over Italy. Sometimes it is prepared as a dessert and other times as a savory pastry.
In vegetarian households, the symbolism of the “sacrificial lamb” can be represented by small lamb-shaped cakes and pastries that are eaten for dessert.
Lemon Gnocchi with Peas and Spinach
Potato gnocchi are flavored with fresh citrus, sweet peas and baby spinach
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 8 ounces fat free half & half
- 1 clove garlic, smashed
- Fine Sea Salt
- 3 cups packed baby spinach leaves
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 (1-pound) package Potato Gnocchi
- 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
In a large skillet, combine peas, half & half, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cover and simmer for about 5 minutes, until tender. Stir in spinach and cook uncovered until leaves are wilted. Remove pan from heat and mix in lemon zest and juice.
Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring salted water to a boil. Add gnocchi and cook until they float to the top, about 4 minutes. Drain gnocchi, reserving 1/4 cup of pasta water, if needed.
Mix hot gnocchi with the vegetable sauce in the saucepan. Add some of the reserved pasta water, if needed. Stir to coat. Top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
Roman Grilled Lamb Chops
Though this classic Easter recipe for lamb originated in Rome, it has long since become a national favorite.
- 8 to 12 lamb chops
- 3 fresh bay leaves, finely ground
- 3 sage leaves
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- A few juniper berries
- Coarse sea salt
- Black peppercorns
- 1/2 glass dry white wine
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 lemons, cut into wedges
Layer the lamb chops in a large container.
With a mortar, a knife or an electric grinder, finely grind all of the herbs and spices—including the salt and pepper. (If you use a knife, use the flat side to first crush the juniper berries, peppercorns and salt.) Place them in a bowl, then mix with the wine and the olive oil, stirring with a fork. Pour this marinade into the container with the layered lamb chops. Marinate overnight.
Ideally, lamb chops are best grilled on an open coal fire or barbecue, but you can also cook them on the stove in a cast-iron grill or a heavy pan. They will be ready very quickly—lamb chops (unlike pork chops) can be served rare or medium-rare, according to your preference. Serve them hot with a couple of lemon wedges.
Roasted potatoes are usually served with this dish.
Rosemary Roasted Potatoes
- 2 pounds potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
- 2 cloves garlic
- Coarse sea salt
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a large sheet pan with aluminum foil.
Toss the potatoes with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil; spread them evenly on the sheet pan, and bake, turning occasionally with a spatula, until golden brown on the outside and creamy inside, about 20 minutes.
While the potatoes are roasting, finely chop the rosemary and garlic together. Remove the pan from the oven and place it on top of the stove.
Drizzle the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil over the potatoes, sprinkle with sea salt and 2 tablespoons of the rosemary-garlic mixture. Mix well.
Return the pan to the oven to heat the seasonings through.
Serve as a side dish.
Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Garlic
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 1/2 pounds broccoli rabe, thick stems removed and discarded, cut into 3 inch pieces
- Ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino romano cheese
In a large deep skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onion, garlic and pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until the onion softens, 5-6 minutes. Add the broccoli rabe and 1/2 cup water; season to taste with salt and pepper and toss gently.
Cover and cook until the broccoli rabe is softened, about 5 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the water has evaporated and the broccoli rabe is completely tender, 2 minutes longer. Stir 1/4 cup of the pecorino into the broccoli rabe. Sprinkle with remaining pecorino over the broccoli rabe and serve.
Springtime Lemon Cupcakes
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 teaspoons lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 12 ounces chilled mascarpone cheese
- 1 3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 teaspoons lemon zest, plus extra for ganish
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Line two 12-cup muffin pans with cupcake liners.
Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl until combined.
In a separate bowl, combine milk, olive oil, lemon zest and vanilla. Set them both aside.
Beat butter and sugar in the large bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat well until mixture turns pale yellow. Turn the speed down to low and add the flour mixture and milk mixture, alternating both. Continue to beat until combined.
Fill muffin cups two-thirds of the way full with batter. Bake until golden and cooked through, about 17 minutes. Check with a toothpick to be sure. Allow cupcakes to cool before frosting.
Frosting: In a bowl, beat the mascarpone, vanilla, lemon zest and sugar at a medium speed until the frosting is light and fluffy. Frost the cupcakes and sprinkle the top of each cupcake with a little lemon zest.
Makes 2 dozen cupcakes
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