28 March 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Torta Pasqualina

CHIAVARI, Italy –  In Italy, torta Pasqualina is to Easter what turkey stuffing is to Thanksgiving in the U.S.A. It just wouldn’t be the same without it.  This savory torta, which is very similar to the far more popular French dish – quiche, originated in Genova during the 1400’s
     Torta Pasqualina
It is a dish that in the past was served exclusively in the spring – at Easter to be more precise - which is how it got it’s name – Pasqua, which means Easter in Italian. And it is also why the traditional Pasqualina recipe called for 33 layers of puff pastry, one for each year of Christ’s life.
One of the differences between quiche and torta Pasqualina is that the ingredients of our torta are not mixed together and cooked in an egg and milk custard as they are in a quiche, but layered, starting with Swiss chard. Next is a layer of prescineua, a fresh, light cheese that is similar to cream cheese. It is a Ligurian specialty and not found outside of the region, so ricotta is often used as a substitute.
  1. Layers of Deliciousness
  2. As for the 33 layers of pastry, no one really does that any more. One more modern recipes I found  called for 10 layers of pastry, five on the bottom and five on the top, but most of the recipes seemed to make do with four, even when using frozen grocery store puff pastry. The recipe below calls for two layers of puff pastry, one for the bottom and one for the top, but if you choose to go the traditional route and use more than one, be sure to brush a little olive oil between each layer so they stay flakey and don’t stick together.

  3. But the most distinctive difference between torta pasqualina and quiche is the addition of whole raw egg yolks to top the final layer. In the traditional torta recipe, the one with 33 layers of pastry, it calls for 13 yolks to be placed on the top of the torta, twelve yolks around the edges and one yolk in the center, representing Christ and His 12 apostles.

  1. The Final Touch
  2. But whether you use 13 or 4 as called for in the recipe below, the raw yolks are placed in a hollow made in the cheese layer with the back of a tablespoon. The whites are then lightly beaten and a few spoonfuls of the frothy whites are spooned over the top before adding the final layer of pastry.

  3. Torta Pasqualina
  4. Serves 6-8 (as an appetizer)

  5. 500 grams of frozen puff pastry
  6. 1 kg of Swiss chard
  7. ½ medium onion finely chopped
    500 gr. of whole milk ricotta 
    250 gr. light cream
  8. 8 eggs
  9. 50 gr. butter
    125 gr. grated Parmesan cheese   
  10. 1 tablespoon of chopped, fresh marjoram
  11. Salt and pepper

  12. Thaw the puff pastry at room temperature (about 2 hours)

  13. Sauté the chopped onion in a little butter and olive oil until it is translucent. Blanche the Swiss chard in boiling water for 3 or 4 minutes, drain, squeeze dry, rough chop and add to the sautéed onions and cook together to blend the flavors. Then add a pinch of salt, pepper and the marjoram to the Swiss chard and onions, mix and set aside to cool.

  14. In the meantime, as the Swiss chard is cooling, combine the ricotta with the Parmesan cheese, light cream and 2 lightly beaten eggs. Set aside.

  15. Roll out one portion of puff pastry and place it in the lightly greased baking pan, with a couple of inches of overlap, which will be used to seal the top.  When the Swiss chard is room temperature, mix in 2 lightly beaten whole eggs and sprinkle with a few spoons of grated parmesan cheese and spread the mixture on the bottom of the baking pan.

  16. Top the Swiss chard with an even layer of ricotta. With the back of a tablespoon, make 4 evenly spaced indentation on the top of the cheese layer. Separate the first raw egg and place the yolk in the indentation. Fill the remaining indentations the same way, using the last 3 eggs.

  17. Lightly beat the egg whites and carefully spoon some of the frothy egg white mixture over the cheese and egg yolk layer.  Cover with the remaining sheet (or sheets) of puff pastry and carefully seal the edges. Brush the top with a bit of milk, and prick with a fork or a small sharp knife, to allow the steam to escape.

  18. Bake in a pre-heated oven – 186 degrees C (360 degrees F) for 40 minutes, or until golden brown. If the instructions on the package of frozen puff pastry call for a higher temperature, I would suggest following those directions, just check the torta often to make sure it cooking and browning and not burning.

  19. Serve warm or room temperature.

    Perfect for a Picnic
  2. Afterthoughts.

  3. If you are not familiar with Swiss chard, it’s a dark green leafy vegetable that looks a lot like spinach, but tastes a little sweeter. In other parts of the world Swiss chard stems come in different colors, but here in Italy they are always white. Like spinach, Swiss chard needs to be carefully washed and the stems trimmed.   

  4. There is nothing that says you can’t mix the Swiss chard and ricotta together and eliminate the layers, and in fact many recipes call for you to do just that. You might be tempted to eliminate the egg yolks on the top layer as well, but I wouldn’t recommend it. They really do add an extra dimension to the dish.

  5. About puff pastry. Here in Italy puff pastry is sold two to a package, so I usually buy two packages for this recipe because I prefer four thin layers of dough.  It’s not a bad idea to lightly grease your baking pan with olive oil, or line it with parchment paper, and if you use a spring form baking pan it will be easier to remove the torta for serving.

  6. Torta pasqualina can be served warm or cold and it’s a ‘must’ for the Easter table as it is perfect to take along for the traditional Pasquetta  ‘picnic fuori casa’,  picnic in the country – or at least out in the open - on Easter Monday, which is also a national holiday here in Italy. Happy Easter.

24 March 2013

LIFE: Palms @ the Vatican

CHIAVARI, Italy - It’s long been a custom of Christians to decorate their churches with palm leaves, and to carry them during the rite of consecration on Palm Sunday. It is reminiscent of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, six days before his passion when he was received by a crowd of simple people holding palms and olive branches as symbols of joy and peace. 

 Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican
Today, Palm Sunday, that passage is rememberd. Two thousand hand woven palms from the Ligurian towns of Bordighera and San Remo will be blessed and distributed free to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. One hundred palms have already been offered to the Cardinals, and the largest palm will be carried by the Pope.

The palms are a gift from the two Ligurian cities and are part of a long tradition which, according to local lore, began back in 1586. That was the year Pope Sisto V decided to move an ancient Eyptian obelisk had been brought to Rome by the Roman Emperor Caligola in the year 37 B.C. He wanted it moved from its location in Caligola’s Circus to St. Peter’s Square. St. Peter’s Cathedral had been built over the ruins of the Circus, and the obelisk stood in the middle of what was to be his race track.   

Catdinals Carrying Palms
Sixtus V put engineer Domenico Fontana in charge of the operation. Solid foundations were built to support the heavy structure and on April 30, 1586 the operation began. The installation date was set for September 10, 1586 and on that day hundreds of Romans gathered in the square. They were there to watch 900 workers, 140 horses and 44 winches transport and erect the 350 ton monument.  

Fontana told the Pope that the project was very risky and that total silence was needed to raise the obelisk, once it was in the square. He said even the slightest sound could distract the workers and result in a disaster.The Pope turned to the crowd that had assembled to watch the maneuver and said that anyone who spoke, or made any noise during the delicate and risky operation would face the death penalty.  
The Key Word is Patience
As the obelisk was slowly raised, the ropes holding the obelisk began to weaken and the obelisk began to wobble perilously. Everyone held their breath. It soon became obvious that the ropes were starting to fray and that they were at their breaking point. The ancient Egyptian obelisk was in danger of crashing to the ground.

It was then that a ship’s captain from the town of Bordighera, Benedetto Bresca, broke silence and cried out – Aiga ae corde! (Put water on the ropes!) The chief engineer realized the sailor was right and the ropes were doused with water. They became taut and strong and the obelisk was raised, without further danger to anyone.  Six days later it was placed on the base and on September 26 it was blessed and consecrated.

Not as Easy as it Looks
In spite of the Pope’s demand for silence, the Captain wasn’t punished for his outburst; instead he was praised. As a reward, the Pope asked him what he would like and Giovanni Bresca said that he would like that his town of Bordighera be permitted to provide Ligurian palms to the Holy Week ceremonies at the Vatican.

It’s been more than four centuries that the city of Sanremo and Bordighera have been part of the Vatican’s traditional ceremony of the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday.  It’s an honor they have carried proudly. For the ceremony the palms, known as parmureli, are woven and braided into intricate sculptures, some only inches high, others several meters high. 
Palms for Sale in the Markets Throughout Italy 
There are those who claim the story of Benedetto Bresca is pure fiction, but there is no denying the fact that Bordighera and San Remo have had exclusive rights to supply the Vatican with palms for Palm Sunday, and those rights are in perpetuity.  

The palm and the cross continue to be Christian symbols seen in churches during Holy Week. Today many churches save the palms from their Palm Sunday services and burn them the following year as the source of ashes for Ash Wednesday. The Catholic Church considers the blessed palms to be sacramentals and endowed with the power to promote good thoughts and increase devotion. 


21 March 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: I Think the Word is Prickily

CHIAVARI, Italy – As you all know by now, just about everything you eat, drink, smell, touch, hear and see in Italy has a story. Some stories are long, other’s like today’s story on artichokes, are not. It’s a short and thorny tale – if you’ll excuse the pun – of unrequited love, the love of Zeus, the king of the Gods, for the beautiful nymph Cynara.  She was young, blonde and beautiful with deep green eyes, and he, well he was, shall we say, resistible.

Cynara, Cynara, Is it Really You?
But the mythological Greek King of the Gods was not to be trifled with. He took his revenge by turning the capricious and flirty nymph into a thorny plant.  He colored the plant green, reminiscent of Cynara’s eyes, and gave it prickly thorns and a prickly center as reminders of the deep and jealous pain he suffered by her rejection.

We are reminded of this story every day as this is artichoke season in Italy. The market stalls are piled high with leafy artichokes of every type, long and skinny ones with thorns, without thorns, with purple-ish leaves, without purple-ish leaves, and  fat, round ones too.  Artichokes are generally known as carciofi in Italian, except in Genova where they are called artichoke in Genovese dialect, which is pronounced “are tee cho kay”.  Sound familiar?  Artichoke comes from the Arabic al-kharcuf, and before that from the Persian al’d’ishuk, which means earthy and prickly – prickly being the best, and most used word to describe this delicious vegetable.

A Variation on the Theme
The plant known as cynara scolymus in Greek – cynara for our blonde beauty and scolymus, which is Greek for prickly – there’s that word again -  grew wild in the Mediterranean thirty thousand years ago. Food anthropologist Sergio G. Grasso likens artichokes to a woman.  ‘With its delicious center hidden under layers of prickly leaves, artichokes, like women, artichokes demand time and patience before giving something away,” he writes.   

My favorites are the fat, round ones called mammola that grown in and around Rome. They are the classic artichokes served boiled with butter or Hollandaise sauce outside of Italy, and served either with a parsley, garlic, and breadcrumb filling or deep fried “alla Giudea”.  The expression "alla giudìa”  doesn’t really refer to kosher dietary laws, but to a style of cooking – in this case in the style of Jewish cooking – meaning to deep frying in oil which is part of Jewish culinary tradition.  

You’ll find a number of web sites, both in English and Italian, offering recipes using artichokes, but if a trip to Rome is in your future, here’s a short list to print out and save of the best places in Rome to eat ‘carciofi alla Romano’ and ‘alla Giudea’.

Restaurant  Paris
1) In the heart of Trastevere, this family run restaurant specializes in Roman cuisine, starting with artichokes. Following antique recipes and traditions, they use only fresh, local ingredients whenever possible, including the fat, mammole artichokes that grow in the fields just outside of Rome. The culinary results are dazzling.

Prices start at: 13 € - Piazza di San Callisto 7a - 06/5815378

Vecchia Roma
2) This restaurant may be called Old Rome, but in the kitchen there is a young and passionate cook named Rossella.  Rossella, who is the daughter of Tonino, the owner, prepares her own inspired version of classic ‘alla Romano’  artichokes as well as ‘alla giudia’ . Vecchia Roma, which has been around since the late 1800’s, is located near the Basilica of Santa Maria in Capitoline Hill.

Prices start at: 5 € - piazza Campitelli 18 – 06/6864604   

3) Take a tip from the locals. Put the menu aside and ask your waiter what’s cooking today. If they tell you carciofi alla romana, you’ve hit the jackpot. It’s a double jackpot  if you manage to get a table on the wrap-around terrace. Either way, you can’t go wrong with this local favorite. Here's another tip: Because this place is so poopular with the locals, you might want to get there a little early, say 7 PM. You'll have a better chance at getting a table.

Prices start at: 3,50 € - piazza dei Ponziani 7 – 06/5818355
Armando al Pantheon
4) The name says it all. In the shadow of one of Rome’s most famous landmarks, Armando’s menu reads like a ‘what’s hot’ in Roman cuisine. When they are in season, the artichoke dishes Armando’s son Claudio whips up draw Romans like honey bees to a field of flowers. Need I say more?

Prices start at: 5 € - Salita de’ Crescenzi 31 – 06/68803034

La Campana 
5) La Campana has been around since 1518, making it one of the oldest locandas in Rome.  Located near Piazza Navona, in the heart of Old Rome, the classic Roman dishes on it’s menu include offerings from their private vegetable garden. It was one of Caravaggio’s favorite eateries, back in the day when it was owned by Pietro la Campana.  

Prices start at: 6 € - vincolo della Campana 18 – 06/6867820

17 March 2013

LIFE: Sprucing Up the Sistine Chapel - Coincidence or ??

CHIAVARI, Italy – It might have been coincidence or maybe Pope Benedict knew the Sistine Chapel would soon be in the public eye again, but an order went out for the Sistine Chapel to be cleaned – all of it. It’s a project that involves more than calling in an ordinary cleaning crew with buckets and mops and putting them to work. Cleaning one of the greatest art treasures of all time is slightly more complicated than that.
 Antonio Paolucci, Director of the Vatican Museums
Thanks to modern technology, reaching the ceiling of the Chapel may be a little easier these days, but no less daunting than when Pope Julius II commissioned Michaelangel to paint the chapel ceiling in 1508. Michangelo and his assistants carried out the work with the help of a system of wooden scaffolds that had to be taken down, moved and reassembled as the work progressed. Today, a type of ‘cherry picker’ called a ‘spider’ has replaced the wooden scaffolds.  It’s four legs anchor securely to the floor as restorers and cleaners, armed with soft cloths, vacuum cleaners and brushes are lifted the 15 meters (about 50 feet) in the air bringing them face to face with Michaelangelo’s lunettes.

And that is how the dusting and cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s two thousand five hundred square feet of painted surfaces began. It involved a dozen restorers of the Vatican Museums and two interns who later admitted how difficult it was to focus on just a few square inches of painting at a time and ignore where they were and the wonderfulness of the heavenly masterpiece of Michaelangelo around them.

The 'Spider'
Working only at night, the project took almost a month to complete, twenty nights to be exact. Historians have often wondered how long the first cleaning of the Chapel took, and how it was done. They do know that it was carried out by farm worker Francesco Amadori, who had been hired by the Farnese pope Paul III on 26 October 1543, which was exactly two years to the day that Michaelangelo had put the finishing touches to the Last Judgment.

One of Amador’s secrets was revealed in 1625, when gilder Simone Laghi was brought in to do some touch-up work in the Chapel. That is when he discovered that Amadori had carried out his assignment using a soft linen cloth and slightly moistened pieces of soft, crust-less bread.  
Cleaning Inch by Inch
Almost three hundred years and several botched restorations later, a painter, Francesco Podesti, was brought in to supervise a complete cleaning of the Sistine Chapel.  Podesti recommended that the frescoes be delicately cleaned using feather brushes, and if needed, soft wool, as they would not damage the colors, which during the intervening 300 years had been repeatedly covered with layers of linseed and walnut oil that had become as hard as enamel. The habit of covering the frescoes with oil, which began in an attempt to brighten the colors that had become dull by the dirt and smoke of the candles, was now replaced with the belief that a thorough cleaning was enough to preserve the frescoes without any other intervention.

The Chapel’s latest cleaning was a little more scientific in its scope. In addition to cleaning the walls, the crew also examine the consistency of the colors before them using a special ultra-violet lamp called a Wood’s lamp. This allowed them to see the extent of past restorations, touch-ups and over-painting that has been done. They also collected dust samples which were then sent to various scientific laboratories to be analyzed.
Cleaning the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
It was slow, tedious, back breaking work but no one complained. They all knew it was an honor and a privilege to be part of the team and everyone took their responsibilities very seriously. Their nights in the Sistine Chapel will be the fodder for many a story during their lifetimes, to be told over and over again, including the part about the party they threw for themselves when the cleaning of the hand of God that touches Adam infusing him with the breath of life was finished.

At the stroke of midnight, on the twentieth day, they took off their coveralls for the very last time, the ‘spider’ was closed and put away, and the Chapel emptied. Footsteps echoed along the deserted galleries of the Vatican Museums as the guards turned out the lights, closed the door and delivered the keys to the Sistine Chapel to the Clavigeri, the keepers of the keys.
 The Newly Cleaned Masterpiece
The Sistine Chapel was now ready to host the conclave to elect a new pope that would take place here less than two months later.

. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmNbecu1V6I  a PBS  video on Pope Leo X, the Medici pope who commissioned the painting of the Sistine Chapel.