I’ve spent the last two months looking for basket cheese. And when I say “looking for,” I mean simply trying to figure out what the heck it was. More accurately, since I had a feeling anything that hard to identify would probably NOT be for sale within driving distance of Apex, North Carolina, I just wanted to find out what it was most like so I could accurately substitute for it.
I never found it but I did discover that it’s a soft cheese named for the ridges and shape left by the mold it is set in, and that there is pretty much no substitute. So one person somewhere on a website said to use ricotta and I did.
Wondering why I was so excited about basket cheese?
This year I got it into my head that it would be cool to make a traditional Pizza Rustica for Easter, just like Nanny Staino used to make. Since this required dough-from-scratch, complete with kneading and rolling out, I was a bit concerned about my lack of experience in that area. (I also spent two months trying to figure out a store-bought option that I could substitute for the crust but finally gave in and realized if I didn’t make my own dough I might as well not bother.)
I never gave much thought to how to make the Easter pie. It just appeared at Nanny’s house the week of Easter—a thick, solid, golden brown wheel, completely encased in a flaky shell of pastry crust, inside filled with layers upon layers upon layers of dried Italian sausage, provolone, mozzarella, roasted asparagus and fluffy eggs. Served warm it was an amped-up frittata but actually it was meant to be eaten cold. At room temperature or even from the fridge, all the ingredients fuse together into a spicy, salty, savory terrine that is impossible to accurately describe.
Is Pizza Rustica a pie? A quiche? An omelet? A stuffed pizza? I didn’t spend much time thinking about it then. My grandmother died almost 20 years ago and it’s been about that long since I’d taken a bite of the Easter-time tradition.
So when I decided to try to revive the recipe this year, I didn’t expect it to be easy. Obviously, Nanny hadn’t left behind any written directions, and none of the family members that we are currently talking to still make the pie.
Like so many “traditional” Italian recipes, every cook has her own secrets so a web search proved useless as far as finding a version that included asparagus. When I stopped thinking of lack of asparagus as a deal-breaker, I was still faced with any number of combinations of meats, cheeses and greens. Some were automatically thrown out—bell peppers? Uh, no—and others were considered for a while until I realized I was going to doctor way too much of the recipe to my personal tastes making the directions pretty useless.
After finding the closest recipe I could, from an old issue of the mouth-watering Saveur, I faced the next problem: cost. Considering it’s peasant food, a pizza rustica sure racks up the dollars in the grocery store. My recipe called for provolone, mozzarella, 19 eggs, sweet Abruzzese sausage, soppressata, prosciutto, boiled ham, ricotta, pecorino romano and the increasingly elusive basket cheese. Luckily most of these items can be stored for quite some time, so I would buy one or two each week until I had stocked up on everything. As for the basket cheese, I finally gave up the hunt and added an extra pound of ricotta to the recipe in its place. I suppose this dish would have been a lot more “peasant-y” if I had raised the pigs and cows and cured my own meats and soaked my own cheeses rather than spending a month’s wages at the gourmet store for imported items in pretty packages….
The final challenge was making the dough. I’ve never rolled out dough before and I’m going to save you the boring details of the holes, the jagged edges, the odd shapes, and so forth. I will share that somewhere along the line I clearly miscounted the cups of flour, because the dough was crumbly and dry and would not form a ball for me to knead. I threw in an extra egg for good measure. It was only hours later that I told my mom about this and she said that adding too much egg makes the dough hard. And yes, it was a little hard. But it looked pretty, golden brown and glossy, with thick rolled edges, and it was edible. VICTORY! (And better luck next year.)
There was a bit of a tussle that evening, because although the pie is meant to be eaten cold (room temperature or even better—from the fridge!) my mom insisted hers had to be warm because she didn’t eat cold food. So I gave in that night but made sure to eat a big, giant slice right from the fridge for breakfast the next morning. It was perfetto.
It’s possible I missed the point with my Pizza Rustica adventure. In a frenzy to collect authentic, premium cheeses and meats to ensure I followed the recipe to the letter, I seemed to have forgotten about the “rustica” part. Peasant food is about throwing in whatever you have in the house, making a truly unique recipe each and every time. Many years ago in my father’s town of Spezzano Piccolo, it was often a challenge to just find some meats to fill the pie (and the meat really is the key—the purpose of the pie is to break the Lenten fast), never mind meeting the tally of four kinds of meats and four kinds of cheeses as I did.
I didn’t fast for Lent and I’m not catholic, so like so many other cultural traditions, the meaning of this one has changed with time. All I really wanted was to recreate something from my childhood and pay homage to my grandmother.
And I think Nanny would have been proud. Next year I’ll throw in the asparagus to make the recipe truly my own.