Easter puts spring into Italy's step Traditions: For many Italians, grains and a sweet pastry dough are flavorful parts of holiday celebration.

March 26, 1997|By Nick Malgieri | Nick Malgieri,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

In Italy, Easter is considered by many to be the most important holiday of the year and the prime occasion for feasting and celebration.

Many traditional foods center on grains: cooked wheat berries or rice, the grain symbolizing the rebirth of the earth in the spring. Pastiera Napoletana is a pie made with pasta frolla, the Italian sweet pastry dough with a filling made of sweetened ricotta cheese bound with eggs, a cooked custard cream and cooked hulled wheat berries. The wheat adds a subtle, nutlike flavor to the filling and was most likely originally intended to stretch the filling.

Grano, the wheat berries essential to the pastry, are widely available in Italian-American grocery stores at the Easter season. If you can't find them, substitute the same amount of raw rice in the recipe and cook for only about 20 minutes.

Another traditional Easter specialty widely seen throughout Italy is pizza rustica (rustic or country-style). In the southern Italian versions of pizza rustica, the crust is made from pasta frolla, the same sweet pastry used for the pastiera. Though the combination may seem bizarre, I encourage you to try it -- the sweetness of the crust tempers the somewhat salty filling.

Another often-seen Italian Easter pastry is the pizza dolce, sometimes referred to as Italian cheesecake -- a pasta frolla crust filled with sweetened ricotta cheese perfumed with cinnamon and anisette. Light and not excessively sweet, the pizza dolce exists in hundreds of different versions. The simplicity of this version allows the flavor of the ricotta to come through.

The basis for all these pastries is pasta frolla, easy to prepare in the food processor or by hand. The dough handles easily and is very forgiving -- it does not suffer from any of the ills that temperamental flaky pastries do and the dough does not soften excessively during rolling and handling. A fairly low quantity of butter makes the dough easier to work with and the eggs and sugar contribute tenderness that makes the dough tolerate a bit of overhandling.

All these pastries will keep well for several days if tightly wrapped in plastic and refrigerated so that you may enjoy a "Buona Pasqua" free of last-minute preparations.

Pasta frolla

2 cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

2 large eggs

Combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in bowl of food processor and pulse several times to mix. Evenly distribute butter over dry ingredients and pulse until very finely powdered, about 10 times at 1-second intervals. Add eggs and continue to pulse until dough forms ball that revolves on blade.

To mix dough by hand, combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in mixing bowl and stir well to mix. Rub in butter with fingertips until mixture is mealy, but still cool and powdery. Stir in eggs with fork and continue stirring until dough holds together.

Scrape dough to lightly floured work surface and press and knead together, folding it over on itself several times. Press into disk, wrap and chill until needed. (Dough may be refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen. Defrost frozen dough in refrigerator overnight before using.) Makes enough dough to be used for any one of the following recipes.

This most typical savory pie is served at Carnevale (the day before Ash Wednesday) and then again at Easter. Though many recipes for pizza rustica specify that the dried sausage, mozzarella and other filling ingredients be layered, in the Neapolitan version all are diced and added to the ricotta filling, making the pizza easier to cut into wedges.

Pizza rustica alla Napoletana

Makes about 10 servings

1 recipe pasta frolla (see recipe above)

1 pound whole milk ricotta cheese

3 large eggs

1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, coarsely shredded

1/4 pound sweet dried sausage, peeled and diced

1/4 pound prosciutto, shredded

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

egg wash (1 egg beaten with dash salt)

Prepare pasta frolla. Wrap and chill until needed.

Place ricotta cheese in mixing bowl and stir in eggs, 1 at a time, to make smooth, creamy mixture. Stir in cheeses. Add sausage, prosciutto, parsley and pepper and mix well.

To assemble, cut off 1/3 of pasta frolla and reserve it. Roll 2/3 dough into 14-inch disk and use it to line buttered 9-inch springform pan, or 9-inch pan, 2 inches deep. Allow dough to hang over edge of pan. Spoon in filling and spread evenly.

Roll reserved 1/3 dough into 10-inch square. Cut into 10 (1-inch-wide) strips. Brush strips with egg wash. Moisten rim of dough on pan with egg wash. Adhere 5 strips in each direction, forming diagonal lattice. Trim away excess dough even with top of pan and push dough all around off top rim so that it is completely within pan.

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