We learned about Easter Pie years ago, when visiting the family of an Italian-American graduate school friend, John Agresto (who recently published a cookbook full of great recipes and reminiscences of growing up in Brooklyn, Tomatoes, Basil and Olive Oil: An Italian-American Cookbook). In addition to an Easter dinner of monumental proportions, their holiday was marked by a tasty spinach/cheese/meat pie that simply sat around in the kitchen for snacking in the unlikely event that someone was hungry. Carolyn and I spotted a recipe a few years later (1972!) in the Sunday NY Times for “An Elegant Easter Pie,” a recipe by Jean Hewitt under the title “Anita Sheldon’s Torta Di Spinaci.” It wasn’t quite the same as the Easter pie we remembered at the Agrestos, but it was mighty good and it became a family tradition at Eastertime until we lost the recipe some years back. It was, thankfully, recovered recently at the bottom of a file cabinet and it’s been reinstated in our holiday repertoire. We served it most recently at our annual Easter Brunch. While it has holiday credentials, it also makes for great picnic fare, or an easy luncheon dish. We just noticed that the recipe has also been published in Amanda Hesser’s wonderful new The Essential New York Times Cookbook.
Here’s the recipe, with thanks to the New York Times, Jean Hewitt, Amanda Hesser, and Anita Sheldon.
ANITA SHELDON’S TORTA Dl SPINACI
Serves 8 to 10 [or more — it’s a generous size]
For the Pastry
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces [put in all this butter; the pastry is rich, but delicious!]
1 large egg yolk
Approximately 3 tablespoons water
For the Filling
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 3/4 pounds fresh spinach, trimmed and washed well, or two 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach
Three 1-inch-thick smoked pork chops or pork loin (about 1 pound), any fat and bones removed and meat diced, or 1/2 pound bacon, diced
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 5 ounces)
1 cup (8 ounces) ricotta cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
1. To make the pastry, place the flour, salt, and butter in a bowl. With a pastry blender, 2 knives, or your fingertips, work the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse oatmeal.
2. Mix the egg yolk with 3 tablespoons water and sprinkle over the mixture. Stir with a fork, adding only enough extra water to make a dough that just clings together. Divide the dough in half and form into 2 disks. Wrap each one in wax paper and chill briefly.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Heat the oil in a large skillet and sauté the onions until tender but not browned. Set aside.
4. If using fresh spinach, place the washed spinach leaves, with just the water that clings, in a large saucepan, cover tightly, and cook until the leaves wilt. Drain well and let cool enough to touch. In batches, gather the leaves in your palm and press out all the liquid by squeezing as firmly as possible. Chop the spinach. Or, if using frozen spinach, cook according to the package directions; drain well, cool, and squeeze dry. [Note: the squeezing part is really important — get all the water our or you’ll have a soggy crust!]
5. Combine the chopped spinach and onions in a bowl and let cool completely, then add the diced smoked pork, Parmesan cheese, ricotta, salt and pepper to taste, and lightly beaten eggs.
6. Heat the oven to 425°F. Roll out half the pastry on a lightly floured work surface into 12-inch circle and line a 10-inch pie plate with it. Brush the bottom and sides of the shell with the lightly beaten egg white. Pour in the filling.
7. Roll out the remaining pastry and cover the filling. Trim, seal, and crimp the edges. Make a steam hole and if you’re up for it place leaves, cut from the pastry scraps, around the hole (not over it). [We put leaves around the edges for an elegant spring look.]
8. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and done. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting.
The torta can be baked early in the day and reheated in a 375°F oven. Cover loosely with foil to prevent overbrowning. [It is also just fine at room temperature or slightly warmed]