Photo: Janet Wennerstrom
"It's really the simplest cheese someone could make," says Louella Hill, cheesemaker at Narragansett Creamery in Providence, R.I., which has been producing hundreds of baskets of cheese for the Easter holiday for the Boston, Providence and New Haven markets. "It's fresh milk, gently coagulated with rennet and placed into baskets to provide the traditional shape. It's meant to be the first flush of milk with the first flush of green grass, and has a very short shelf life -- a few weeks at most."
It's also the traditional cheese of Italian Easter pies, of which there are many variations: Pizza Piena, Pizza Chena, Pastiera Napoletana or Pizza Rustica.
"Italian Easter pie is always a savory pie," says pie expert Mollie Cox Bryan. "It's filled with cheese and meats, but there are many variations. Some are thicker than others, with specific regional ingredients or meats. And like many pies, family recipes are handed down through generations. Most of all, it's a pie to celebrate the coming of spring."
Basket cheese is produced by a number of commercial cheesemakers across the country, and can be found at well-stocked grocery-store cheese counters, often near the fresh mozzarella, or at Italian specialty stores. Often it is labeled "fresh table cheese" but will be packaged in the identifying plastic basket.
Pattie Federico's Pizza Piena
Note: This recipe makes three 9-inch pies. The recipe for the crust is for a single top and bottom, while the filling is for three Pizza Pienas.
Preheat oven 350 degrees.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup lard
5 extra large eggs
Mix dry ingredients. Break eggs into separate bowl and mix with a fork. Add eggs and lard to dry ingredients. Blend in a stand mixer using hook attachment or by hand until lard is blended into the dough. Slice dough in half, roll into a ball and wrap tightly in wax paper to prevent drying. Set aside, leaving it at room temperature.
Note: Purchase meat in bulk, not sliced.
2 pounds prosciutto
2 pounds boiled ham
1 pound pepperoni
1 basket cheese (or substitute 1 1/2 pounds ricotta cheese)
3 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
18 extra-large eggs
3 egg yolks for brushing pie surface
Cut the meats into small dice. Mix thoroughly before adding remaining ingredients. Mix until blended.
Flour surface and roll out pie crust to fit 9-inch cake pan. Place crust in pan, allowing excess to fall over sides. With a ladle, scoop filling into cake pan. Repeat for remaining two pies. Roll out remaining dough. Place on top of cake pan, tucking in sides, while sealing with a fork.
Mix three egg yolks with fork. Using a pastry brush, paint top crust to provide a shiny finish. With a very sharp knife, cut cross vents in top crust to allow steam to escape.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 55-60 minutes until crust is golden brown.