Torta Pasqualina – or Easter Cake – dates back to the 1500s and originates from Liguria which lies just to the South of us here in Piemonte. It’s not actually a cake but a savoury pie made with layers of thinly rolled pasta brisee, a shortcrust pastry made with olive oil instead of butter, and filled with a rich mixture of ricotta and spinach flavoured with fresh marjoram and nutmeg. The addition of whole eggs which bake in the oven creates a wonderful effect when you cut the pie open, making it the perfect lunch or picnic food for Pasquetta (Easter Monday).
For the pastry
200g plain white flour
6 tablespoons olive oil
8 tablespoons cold water
For the filling
500g spinach, fresh or frozen
400g ricotta cheese
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
A handful of fresh marjoram (or a teaspoon of dried)
Half a nutmeg (or a teaspoon of dried)
Salt and pepper to taste
Start by making the pasta brisee, which is basically a shortcrust pastry made with olive oil. Put the flour in a bowl with half a teaspoon of salt then stir in the oil so that the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the water and mix by hand until you have a firm dough. If the mixture seems crumbly add a little more water.
Turn onto a board and gently knead until the pastry is smooth in texture then cut into six pieces, roll into balls and place in the fridge to rest whilst you make the filling.
Heat some olive oil or a knob of butter in a frying pan and add the spinach. If you are using fresh spinach you will need to add a handful at a time, allowing each handful of spinach to wilt down before adding the next. I used frozen spinach which I defrosted in advance, squeezing out any excess water before adding to the pan. Season well with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. Then remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool.
Drain any excess water from the ricotta and place in a large bowl. Chop the marjoram and add it to the ricotta with a beaten egg and the grated Parmesan cheese. Stir well then chop the spinach and add to the mixture.
Now it’s time to assemble your pie!
Ideally you need a deep round bake or pie tin but I didn’t have one so I used an oval dish which I greased well with olive oil before starting. Roll three of the pastry balls out thinly on a floured board to fit the dish and place each one on top of the other, brushing each layer with olive oil as you go. The original recipe for Torta Pasqualina apparently includes 33 sheets of pasta brisee, one representing each year of Christ’s life, but in the interests of time and our waistlines I made my dish with six, three for the base and three for the top.
Once you have three layers of pastry, add the filling and make three small wells in the top with the back of a spoon. Break a whole egg into each of the wells then roll out the remaining three sheets of pastry and layer on top, using water to seal the edges so that the pastry sticks together.
Once all the sheets are added you can fold any leftover pastry up around the edges and then brush the pie with milk or beaten egg. Place in a hot oven (around 200C) for around 30 minutes or until the pie is golden brown and firm to the touch. Serve hot with Spring vegetables or cold as part of a picnic or with a salad.