Lessons Legacy and Lore Of Easter Pie and Picnics

As long as I can remember, our family gathered around the kitchen table to prepare our regional specialty, Easter Pie. Hand written by my Mom on a sheet of binder paper, we have her much used recipe. If this isn’t precious enough, even more so is her hand written message in the corner of this treasured original circa 1960, “Joan, Dad and I have gone to Merced, take care of things.”  

The recipe calls for ricotta, ham, jack or Toma cheese, hard boiled eggs, parsley and Italian sausage. Sounds simple but do not be deceived. Back in the old days, everything came from the farm.  Even our family made the sausage, another regional specialty. Mom, taught by her Mom, would direct my uncles with stern instructions to do the recipe exactly as their Mother had done it. I can see them haggling on the back porch of our cottage home and I can hear my Mom “not too much salt, not another pinch of pepperino”. Uncle Richard would answer, “Now Jess, don’t worry.”            

Generations later, we simplified the process by purchasing the products that were once made on the farm. One uncle became a butcher and had his own shop. All would buy Uncle’s sausage prepared from our family recipe. My cousin, David apprenticed with Uncle Richard and moved to another local grocery. When Uncle Richard moved to Merced, his partner Ray continued the tradition in Los Banos. All three sources had sprung from the original family recipe. The cheeses came from a local artisan source, P&M Cheese in Los Banos, famous for fresh ricotta, fresh and dried jack and teleme cheeses. We would order a good bone in cured ham from our family butchers.   

Preparation would start as early as three days prior to our making Easter Pie, all ingredients readied for the big day.  Originally, Easter Pie making occurred in Los Banos at our family home. Now we convene at my commissary kitchen. The process would take all day and require five or six of us. Now with the advantage of ‘production cooking’, a commercial slicing machine, large bowls, full sheet pans, a convection oven, lots of baking racks and counters for cooling, my sisters and Rick had it down to four hours. They truly mastered Easter Pie making.      

Although we no longer have Mom and Dad at the prep table, the legacy of Easter Pie will survive. Here’s the recipe:      

MY ITALIAN FAMILY EASTER TRADITION – EASTER PIE

Our traditional Easter Pie, Torta, comes from the Basilicata region of Italy.  Pronounced “Cutzzall”, in dialect, I believe that this is Italian ‘Calzone’. Our Easter Pie is consistent with the shape of calzone, large flat turnovers. In English, calzone means ‘little pants’ or diapers. Both resemble a diaper’s similar half moon shape. Ecco! The meaning of the name of my family’s Easter Pie!

In true Italian tradition—to make one for our family would not fulfill our tradition of eating and gifting these pies. As a result, this recipe produces 12 large or 24 medium size pies for eating and for gift giving. Bon Appetito!  

Calzone Dough:

3 eggs lightly beaten
4 cups ham broth* or water
1 Tablespoon 5# pounds flour
1 cup melted shortening
1 ½ packages yeast
salt if water is used instead of ham broth
Method:                                                                                         

Place the flour in a large mixing bow. Proof the yeast. Form a well in the flour. Add the eggs, the yeast, the ham broth (or water and salt) and the seasoning. Knead the dough until it is smooth shiny. Reserve. Cover with a damp cloth. The dough should rise to the rim of the bowl or expand double in volume.  

Filling:

5 pounds Jack or Toma cheese*
4 pounds whole milk or skim milk ricotta
3 pounds smoked picnic ham ‘on the bone’
1 ½ pounds Italian sausage w/sweet red pepper and fennel or wild anise
10-16 hard boiled eggs (Original recipe calls for 16-reduce for health reasons)
1 bunch flat leaf parsley
¾ cup ham broth
Salt and white pepper to taste (omit the salt if using ham broth)
9 eggs, lightly beaten
3 eggs lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water for glaze
*Toma is a cows milk and goat’s milk cheese similar to jack in consistency
Method: 

  1. Simmer the ham in enough water to cover. Cool. Reserve broth.
  2. Cut the jack cheese and ham in ¼ in by 1 inch slices.
  3. Bake the sausage in a preheated 375 degree oven for 35-45 minutes. Cool and slice into ¼ inch slices. Reserve.
  4. Wash and pick the leaves off of the parsley. Chop. Reserve.
  5. Boil the eggs. Cool, Peel. Slice into ¼ inch slices. Reserve.
  6. Select a tub or large square or rectangle pan. Layer the ingredients making sure that you spread them evenly. Start with the cheese and continue, layer by layer, with the ham, ricotta, sausage, hard boiled eggs and parsley. Season with salt (if not using ham broth) and white pepper.
  7. Add the ham broth to the lightly beaten eggs. Pour evenly over the layered ingredients. Hand mix in sections so the ingredients are evenly distributed. Reserve the mix in the refrigerator while rolling the dough.
  8. Cut the dough into balls approximately 6-8 ounces. Roll into 12 -18” circle 1/16th inch thickness. Place 1-2 cups of the filling (depending on the size of the round of dough) on ½ of the round. Distribute the filling until it is ½ inch thick. Leave 1 inch edge of dough around the circumference of the filled side. Fold the flap over the filling forming a turnover. Crimp the edges as you would a pie. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 – 45 minutes. Brush with the egg glaze.  Cool on a rack.   
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