As Easter Sunday approaches my husband looks forward to enjoying his mother's recipe for "pizza chena" the family's version of an Italian Easter Pie. I make it to honor his Italian mother and the fond memories he has growing up in a small Michigan town in a family of 10 happy kids.
A tradition throughout Italy Easter Pie signifies the end of the fasting period of Lent and mark Easter's universal themes of rebirth and renewal. There are many variations that range from sweet to savory and also differ greatly by region, city, as well as individual family. My mother-in-law's parents were from Guardia Lombardi, Italy, a small city about 75 miles outside of Naples so her version takes its root from there.The family refers to their version as "pizza chena" but no one really knows for sure why or what is its correct Italian name. Mom's recipe is a savory version of the pie somewhat similar to a quiche but more dense and substantial. Her version is most similar to what is referred to as "pizza piena", which in Italian means stuffed pie, and for which there are many recipes on the internet. There are also a number of recipes for "pizza chena" on the internet, but these are not at all like Mom's. While the filling in Mom's pies feature a mixture of eggs, ricotta, Parmesan cheese and some ham encased in a seasoned pasta dough crust, the "pizza chena" recipes on the internet contain many layers of Italian meats, sausages and cheeses encased in a bread dough.
Of my husbands 9 brothers and sisters, only a few continue the tradition today. I think I make a pretty good version, but my husband's sister, Ann, makes the best tasting pies. Her crusts, which are the hardest part of the recipe to make, are tender and her filling is rich and creamy. The pies are highly seasoned with dried basil and lots of black pepper. Mom used lots of pepper in most of her dishes so I suspect her peppery version was a personal enhancement to the recipe.
There is a "pizza piena" recipe on Martha Stewart's website that is very similar to Mom's "pizza chena", but the recipe below comes straight from my mother-in-law and I want to make sure she is properly credited. So, come Easter Sunday my husband will enjoy his "pizza chena" along with that big peanut butter chocolate egg the Easter Bunny delivers. Buona Pasqua a tutti!
Filling -- make this first and set aside:
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coarse black pepper
1 tsp. dried basil
2 T. sugar
1/2 lb. cooked ham, diced
1 1/2 lb. fresh ricotta (the good stuff from Italian specialty markets)4 T. grated Parmesan
Beat the eggs with an electric mixer til light, foamy and lemon colored, about 2-3 minutes.
In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, Parmesan cheese, salt, black pepper, dried basil, sugar and ham.
Mix together till all ingredients are very well combined.
Add to eggs and mix together till smooth and set aside while you make the dough.
Dough -- essentially a pasta dough:
1/2 tsp. coarse black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1 T. oil
3 c. all-purpose flour
In a food processor add flour, salt and black pepper. Process for few seconds to aerate and combine all dry ingredients.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with a hand mixer til very light and foamy - a good 3-4 minutes. Add the oil.
Turn on the food process and add the egg mixture through the top feed tube.
Process till dough gathers together. If dough doesn't form properly add some water if too dry, or flour if too wet.
Turn out mixture onto a lightly floured surface and knead incorporating til dough is soft, smooth and elastic.
Form into round mound of dough. Cover with a bowl and let rest on the counter top for 10-20 minutes. This will allow the gluten to develop and produces a soft, malleable dough that is easy to work with.
Cut dough into two pieces - one piece slightly smaller than the other to form top and bottom crusts.
Roll out first dough till very thin (do not flour the rolling surface as it will cause the dough to slide around too much).
Line a 9 1/2 " casserole or deep dish pie plate letting the dough overhang all the edges by at least 1 inch.
Fill the casserole with the filling and cover with remaining dough that has been rolled out in same fashion as base dough.
Seal dough with water, flute and vent the top crust. Brush the top with egg wash.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 45 minute to one hour till filling is completely set and knife inserted in center comes out clean.