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).
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:
- a farmwife, between the ages of 62 and 87
- an amazing amount of lard
- an outdoor wood-burning brick oven
- an astounding amount of lard
- eggs, and a lot of ‘em
- an astonishing amount of lard
- parmeggiano, pecorino, and swiss cheese
- an insane amount of lard
- some other stuff, mainly flour and salt
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.