Dio dà il pane a chi non ha i denti. (God gives bread to those who have no teeth.)
With Easter Sunday approaching, I’ve had bread on the brain. While Jews are fasting this week for Passover and eat unleavened matzoh crackers, Italians go carb crazy with at least four distinct breads made solely for Easter.
Up in the Bronx, the passionate team behind Gustiamo flew Columba Pasquale in from Padua (first class!). Made by master baker Luigi Biasetto, it is made from mother yeast, stone milled flour, eggs, butter, Sicilian candied orange peel, and almonds. I haven’t tried it, but Gustiamo’s Beatrice and Stefano rave about its melt-in-your-mouth sweetness.
They also received a visit from Stefano’s mother, who made Torta Pasqualina, a Ligurian Easter pie made with flaky pastry, chard, ricotta cheese, parmigiano, and at least five whole eggs.
The most popular Easter bread is traditional sweet braided bread studded with colored Easter eggs. My mother always made the bread in tandem with our annual afternoon of egg dyeing, while my brother and I fought to the death over the wire egg dipper that came in the decorating. (Seriously, egg coloring manufacturers, would it kill you to throw in a couple of those things?)
The brightest eggs would proudly bejewel Mom’s bread, which we couldn’t cut into until after Easter mass. Somewhere in the midst of the priests admonishing the twice-a year churchgoers, I’d start dreaming about it. Sitting in the kitchen following Mass, still wearing my white shoes, I’d quietly nibble around the pink dye that the egg leaked onto the bread itself.
Italians aren’t the only ones who make braided Easter bread. Contributor Natalie Hoch gave us a gorgeous recipe for braided Swiss bread, which suits the Easter version perfectly with the addition of colored eggs. My mom also recommends Betty Crocker’s sweet bread recipe.
But my grandmother made the absolute best Easter bread. Pizza Chiena, which many Italian-Americans and Sopranos fans might know as “Pizza Gain” because of the Neapolitan accent, is a labor intensive, expensive, not-for-any-ol’-day, invite-people-over-to-help-you event that is absolutely worth your time and effort. It can be a religious exercise unto itself.
My mother recalls helping to make the Pizza Gain as a child on Good Friday—a day of fasting—and how torturous it was not to pop a piece of ham or salami in her mouth. Being that Nana always cooked from memory, it’s often hard to replicate that which she did with such ease. But this recipe, adapted from Arthur Schwartz’s cookbook Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania, comes very close. The main addition is that of rice, which gave Nana’s Pizza Chiena the most incredible texture.
Pizza Chiena, or Pizza Gain (Italian Easter Bread)
Total time: 3 hours
Makes 1 9-inch pie
- 1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening or lard, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage (about 2 links)
- 1/2 lb. sweet Italian sausage (about 2 links)
- 3 1/2 cups whole milk ricotta, drained of excess liquid
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1/2 lb. sopressata, diced into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1/2 lb. prosciutto, diced into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1/2 lb. mozzarella or basket cheese, diced into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1/2 cup white rice
- black pepper to taste
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten + 1 egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water
- olive oil
To make the dough, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup water in a small bowl.
Stir the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large bowl or in the bowl of your stand mixer. Using your hands or the paddle attachment on the stand mixer, add the vegetable shortening or lard piece by piece until the flour is moist and pebbly. Mix in the eggs and the dissolved yeast until well-incorporated.
Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead by hand, or use the dough hook attachment and knead until the dough is smooth and silky, about 8 minutes by hand or 4 minutes in the mixer.
Form the dough into a ball and dust with flour. Place it in a large bowl and cover. Let the dough rise to double, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Punch down the dough and let it rise for an hour more.
Divide the dough into two portions: 1/3 of the dough and 2/3 of the dough.
Place the sausages in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil the sausages for about 30 seconds, then remove from the boiling water and allow to cool to the touch. Peel off the sausage casing and roughly chop the meat into 1/4-inch pieces.
In a large bowl, combine the sausages, ricotta, Parmesan, parsley, sopressata, prosciutto, mozzarella, rice, black pepper, and 3 eggs. The filling should be thick, but a little water can be added to make it workable—it will depend on the consistency of your ricotta.
Preheat the oven to 375˚ and grease a 9 1/2-inch springform pan with olive oil.
Roll out the larger piece of dough until it’s thin and large enough to fully cover the bottom and sides of the springform pan with about an inch extra at the top. This will take some muscle and about 10 minutes. Line the pan with the sheet of dough and pour in the filling.
Roll out the second piece of dough until it’s at least 10 inches in diameter. Place it on top of the filling and crimp the edges together. Brush the top of the pie with the remaining egg beaten with 1 tbsp water. Use a sharp knife to make six 3-inch slits in the top of the pie.
Bake for 1 hour, until the pie is golden brown. If the top is browning too quickly, tent it loosely with aluminum foil. Let the pie cool in the pan until you’re ready to serve it. It can be made a day in advance.