The joys of Easter
Rustic beauty and rich flavor of Italian desserts celebrate the holiday
Ricotta pie (Torta di ricotta): Sweet pies filled with fresh ricotta and even grains are also popular Italian Easter dessert choices. Candied citrus is often added to bring out the flavor of the cheese (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
"It's about the return of milk and eggs," says Chicago pastry chef Natalie Zarzour, who specializes in Italian desserts. "Everything is super, super rich. There's no such thing as too much cheese, too much ricotta."
It's hard to pinpoint traditional desserts that are popular throughout all of Italy, as each region has its own specialties. But most areas have favorite sweet breads, rich pies and delicate cookies served predominantly at Easter.
One widely known Easter treat, however, is dove bread (colomba di Pasqua), a sweet, yeasted bread in the same vein as Christmas panettone but in a bird shape. You can find it at many Italian-American grocery stores as well.
"The dove is a symbol of peace. Eggs are renewal," says Mary Ann Esposito, cookbook author and host of the long-running PBS series "Ciao Italia."
As in America, families have their own holiday favorites. Esposito remembers her mother making her northern Italian classic each Easter — a cream-filled, whiskey-doused spongecake that was covered in meringue and crisped in the oven like a baked Alaska. "She just called it torta di whiskey," she says with a laugh.
Zarzour, whose family is Sicilian, always thinks of pupu cu l'ovu (doll with the egg) at Eastertime. Hard-cooked eggs are enveloped in either cookie or brioche dough before being baked and garnished with glaze and candied anise seeds.
Sweet pies filled with fresh ricotta and even grains are also popular Italian Easter dessert choices. Candied citrus is often added to bring out the flavor of the cheese, but the farm-fresh product doesn't need much embellishment.
"When ricotta pie is made, it's usually for the sake of the ricotta," Zarzour says. "You don't mess it up with a lot of flavors."
Small cookies are popular on an Italian Easter spread, but this is not a time for fussy, intricate desserts. These are foods designed to bring family and friends together, in celebration of the season.
"They're beautiful in a rustic way," Zarzour says. "These things are made in family sizes. They're rustic and big and beautiful."
Ricotta pie (Torta di ricotta)
Prep: 40 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Servings: 10-12 , one 9-inch pie
Note: The dough should be made one day in advance. For best results, use fresh, hand-dipped ricotta. Look for it in Italian groceries or good cheese shops. Also, the ricotta for the filling will need to be drained one full day before preparing and baking. To drain ricotta, make sure you have one and a half times the amount called for, since it will lose some water as it drains. Place it in a fine mesh colander lined with cheesecloth and set the colander over a bowl, making sure the colander doesn't touch the bottom of the bowl. Place a heavy plate or bowl on top before refrigerating. Double zero flour (00 flour) is available at Italian import and other specialty stores. It produces a fine and delicate texture in pastry dough.
For the dough:
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature