It’s hard to believe I was in Greece a year ago, lamenting over the fact that their Orthodox calendar meant Easter celebrations wouldn’t coincide with the length of my stay. It was still able to experience the Cretan springtime, though, and made up for lack of tsoureki by consuming enough χόρτα (“horta”: wild leafy greens) to grow a hortopita jungle in my stomach.
Crust girl ’til the end, I was craving something like hortopita with a more substantial pastry and luckily this pie with a multi-layered crust exists. As the newly-arisen Christ would have it, torta pasqualina happens to be an Easter tradition in Italy (the name itself translates to “Easter cake”, after all). There are many elements of quiche in this torta, particularly the prominence of eggs.
Eggs are universally associated with this holiday, which is why they appear baked into this Italian pie, braided into the aforementioned Greek tsoureki, and as the hidden candy-filled orbs of my childhood; Ancient Egyptians and Romans were decorating Easter eggs even before the Pantone craze. Like well-designed international airport signage transcends most cultural differences and language barriers, the very definition of an egg explains why they’re symbolically linked with the concept of life—and therefore the Easter celebration of resurrection.
Historically, they were also considered a mealtime luxury along with most the dairy, meat, and sugar that was abstained from during the pre-Easter period of Lent (which called for this decadent crepe cake 40 days ago), so the bold and rather ostentatious amount used in this savoury cake can be considered the equivalent of icing on a sweet one. Plus, they make for a killer slice cross-section.
Semiotics aside, the spinach and samphire are not to be overshadowed! Along with the spring onions that become my go-to Allium come March, fresh spinach is a lovely way to celebrate springtime’s greenery… and with the summery sea breeze inching closer each week, I couldn’t resist a bit of samphire. Different from a leafy green, samphire is another one of those UK-prominent gems that I only discovered upon uprooting from Florida. Referring here to the species Salicornia europaea growing in coastal marshes, “samphire” has a geographically revealing etymology—having linguistically deteriorated from “Saint Pierre” into “sampiere” and finally “samphire/sampha/sampkin”, it was originally named for Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. Its pronounced saltiness is due to proximity to the sea and estuaries allows you to get away with adding less salt in the dish, and its crisp texture is a nice contrast to the spinach when cooked.
Samphire’s been used in England for ages, from glassmaking to salad-tossing—Shakespeare (happy 450th birthday to that brilliant man!) mentions it in King Lear, for crying out loud. It’s is a lovely English substitute in an Italian pie, so I figured I’d fully embrace the local and use English cheese in the place of traditional parmesan and ricotta. Red Leicester packs a sharp punch of flavour and, although diet fads and bad marketing have sadly tarnished its reputation, I’m still a firm believer that the decadence of quality (fresh, organic, full-fat) cottage cheese is a force to be reckoned with.
Torta Pasqualina w/ Spinach & Samphire
- 350g whole wheat flour
- ½ t sea salt
- 3 T olive oil
- ~170ml (~¾ cup) warm water
- 1 T olive oil
- 2 spring onions, chopped
- 500g spring greens (spinach, samphire, etc.)
- freshly ground black pepper
- pinch of marjoram
- pinch of sea salt*
- 150g full-fat, organic cottage cheese (or ricotta)
- 60g (2oz) red leicester cheese (or parmesan), grated
- 5 eggs
- sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
Stir together water, olive oil, and salt before pouring over flour in a large mixing bowl. near until dough comes together and becomes smooth after a few minutes, adding more water or flour as necessary to avoid dough becoming too dry or too sticky. Divide dough into 6 balls, making one larger than the others to form the base. Wrap and set aside at room temperature for about an hour to rest.
Prep the greens by washing thoroughly and chopping roughly. Heat oil in a large pan and add spring onions, stirring for a few minutes before adding the greens along with a sprinkle of pepper and marjoram. If you’re using samphire, you may not need to season with salt at all.* When sufficiently wilted, squeeze dry and transfer to a bowl.
Once cooled slightly, mix in the cottage cheese, grated red leicester, and 1 egg (reserving the other 4 for later).
Heat oven to 375ºF/190ºC.
Oil the sides of your baking tin (regardless of size or shape). Begin rolling out the biggest ball of dough very thinly, lining the bottom of your tin so that the edges are overhanging. Brush some olive oil and roll out the next ball of dough to gently layer over this first sheet. Brush again with some oil before repeating with a third ball of dough.
Transfer the filling carefully into the dough-lined tin. With a utensil, create 4 wells in the mixture and break an egg into each indentation, keeping yolk intact. Dress each egg with some olive oil, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a sprinkle of grated red leicester.
Roll out the fourth sheet of dough, gently covering the filling. Brush the surface and repeat with remaining two balls of dough. Finally, fold over the overhang of the first bottom layer of dough, sealing the pie’s edges. Prick some holes over the top with a fork, taking care to avoid breaking the egg yolks. Brush with a final coating of olive oil and bake for between 45 minutes and 1 hour in the oven, or until crisp and golden brown on top. Allow to cool a bit before slicing and serving.