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Food for the soul…Torta di Pasqua

I have a little confession to make.  Each year, right around Easter, I am reminded of this deep love I harbor which surfaces in a cyclical fashion with the coming of spring.  I mean, not your normal “Oh, I love that sweater on her” or “I just love to curl up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire” kind of love, but that obsessive, slightly creepy “I want to start a life with you and buy you presents” kind of love.

Which is weird, since the object of my ardor is a foodstuff.

Though, to be honest, I’ve noticed that my passion for food is growing more acute as I have become a middle-aged mother of two and things like heavy drinking, recreational drug use, and sleeping around no longer seem appropriate.  Let’s just say that eating is one of the few joys of life left to me.

Torta di Pasqua

And Easter in Umbria offers humanity a dish which represents, in my opinion, the apex of culinary accomplishment.  Its ne plus ultra.  Its climax. (Ok, now I am getting creepy.)  My friends, I present to you Torta di Pasqua (also known as Pizza di Pasqua or simply Torta al Formaggio).

Literally seconds from the oven....

The recipe

This savory cheese bread is a traditional Easter dish around these parts and the recipe varies from family to family and is a closely guarded secret handed down through the generations.  However, from what I can glean from years of attentive observation, there are a few key ingredients used in all its variants:

  1. a farmwife, between the ages of 62 and 87
  2. an amazing amount of lard
  3. an outdoor wood-burning brick oven
  4. an astounding amount of lard
  5. eggs, and a lot of ’em
  6. an astonishing amount of lard
  7. parmeggiano, pecorino, and swiss cheese
  8. an insane amount of lard
  9. some other stuff, mainly flour and salt

The Preparation

The preparation of this dish begins weeks before baking day, as the farmwives start to hoard their eggs (News flash:  farm fresh eggs keep forever, and they don’t have to go in the fridge.  Things you discover when you move to the country.) as they will be using literally dozens to turn out the numerous mushroom-shaped loaves.  I suppose you could even say the preparation begins months before, when they butcher their annual hog at Christmas and put aside the lard (Did I mention the awesome amount of lard? For an explanation as to my non-dogmatic interpretation of vegetarianism which allows for the occasional lard intake, see here.) they will later need for the dough.

Kneading the dough

Preparing the pans for the oven

Surveying the oven-ready loaves (note the dollops of lard dotting each one...did I mention the lard?)

The big day

Early on the morning of baking day, the women light the fires in their woodstoves and knead together all the ingredients to make the rich, cheesy bread dough.  This is then divided into at least a dozen different tins (many of them refitted industrial sized sardine cans) and left to rest and rise near the warmth of the oven.

Getting the wood stove up to temperature

Sardine can reincarnated as baking tin

Before the flames

Once nicely double or tripled in size and rounded on the top, they are placed into the oven one by one with a large wooden paddle, an olive branch blessed during Mass on Palm Sunday is tucked in with them, a quick prayer to Santa Rita is said (the gist:  “Santa Rita, please let our loaves rise””), and the oven door is sealed with mud.

A surprising number of baking tins fit in that oven

After the flames

When they are done, they should have risen over the sides of their tins to take the shape of giant cupcakes and are shiny and golden on top.  As you can see, sometimes Santa Rita is a cunning vixen and they don’t rise as much as the bakers would like…leading to the naming of the saint in much different–and probably unprintable–terms.

Despite olive branches and appeals to heaven, the loaves didn't rise as much as hoped

The elixir of the gods

To slice into one of these torte fresh from the oven is to experience bliss. The lard (did I mention the incredible amount of lard?) yields a short, crumbly crust on the outside and a moist, savory crumb inside dotted with melted cubes of swiss cheese.  Some recipes use a bit of pepper in the dough, which I enjoy, though it’s tough to get just the right amount without overshadowing the cheese flavor.  Our aunt, Zia Anna, gets just the right amount, for example.  And I love her for it.

Crispy outside, moist inside

It’s otherwordly freshly baked, but can also be frozed and toasted for weeks afterwards…still delicious, though will not bring you to ecstatic tears, which a steaming hot slice certainly can do.

Cast and crew: from left Zia Anna, Nicolò, Nonna Emma, Zia Viola


  1. letizia |

    I am trying to decide if I should kill myself eating the torta di Pasqua or if I should refuse to go to heaven unless I am given large daily amounts of it. You know I’m allergic, this is a torture.

    • rebecca |

      Letizia, after the almost entire loaf I went through between last night and this morning, I’m not feeling so well and I’m not even lactose intollerant! Though, given that one has to die eventually, I can’t think of a better way to go. Okay, maybe there is one better way to go. (I was thinking of chocolate! You have such a dirty mind….)

  2. Giselle Stafford |

    Oh Rebecca,

    Lordy lordy lordy! Or should that be Lardy lardy lardy!

    This shouldn’t be just for Easter!

    What a wonderful way of baking too – love the image of sealing the oven with mud!


    • rebecca |

      Giselle, I just love all the tradition surrounding the torta…they make it before holy Saturday because then it goes in a basket with a salame, some hard-boiled eggs, a bottle of wine, and some salt to get blessed at Mass and the contents of the basket are then eaten for breakfast on Easter morning. Lovely country traditions that have to be documented now before they die out!

  3. George |

    I love Torta di Pasqua! It’s one of the things I miss about Italy. I like when it has walnuts in it, too. That extra, nutty crunch is so good! You’re so lucky to have so many wonderful farmwives around to make it for you. I hope you’re learning the lessons well for when you’re a farmwife of 62-87. You’ll need to teach your sons’ farmwives, too.

    • rebecca |

      George, the one with nuts is called pan casciato (cheese bread as well, but with a slightly different recipe)…that’s more of a fall dish, and one I love as well. Another caloric bomb.

  4. Pamela Sheldon Johns |

    Lovely article and photos! When we moved to our farm ten years ago, we arrived exactly at Easter. The first day here, an elderly couple came by to inquire if we had started the wood oven. Later… too late, I’m afraid… I understood that my very large forno was probably at one time the community oven.

    • rebecca |

      Aren’t those the things that bother you years afterwards…toes you had no idea you were trodding on, traditions you had no idea you were breaking? Part of the heartache of the expat life…

  5. Rosemary |

    Delightful story! I LOVE the recipe! You made me chuckle outloud, reading it. Thank you so much.