Italian women bound into a flurry of baking activity before big holidays like Easter and Christmas. Then they rush their baked goods to friends and family, as though the holiday will not happen unless every last baked good is delivered.
A week before Easter my mom went into production on rice or pastina pies (a Neapolitan tradition) and Easter Bread. The creamy pies, are almost like custard pies only with more substance. They’re, made of rice, cooked with lemon and orange rind, vanilla, milk, eggs, sugar and more. The bread is a sweet bread drizzled with icing and decorated with nonpareils (colored sprinkles).
My mom, her sisters and her best friend, Angelina, each baked pastina pies, then delivered them to each other’s homes before Easter. My dad or brothers had to cart my mom from one house to the next, pies in hand. She left with her pies and came home with pies from her sisters and Angelina. The disrespectful name, Trader Pies, was given them by my brothers, and it stuck.
The best part came when my mom tasted the other pies. You’d hear, “Oh ______’s pie wassa so good a dissa year. I gadda ask a her ha she makes it — andda Angelina’s issa da best. But, ______’s pie was hard assa damma rock dissa year. I ting a she cooked it a lilla too long.” (Names have been omitted to protect the innocent bakers.)
If done properly, pastina pies are a lovely, creamy, not too sweet Easter dessert. Improperly done, they can be rock-hard, over-cooked lumps. Nothing is more irritating than taking hours to bake something only to realize it would be more useful as a shot put. (Yes, I’ve done it!)
Easter Bread is wonderful as a sweet bread or absolutely fantastic as French Toast. It’s great toasted too, spread with a little butter. Even though the icing gets stuck on the toaster, it’s well worth the mess! (I always add some green food coloring to sweetened coconut, mix it until it’s all green, and put the Easter Bread on top of it so it looks like Easter Grass.)
Beware though, do not leave the Easter bread with coconut on the table overnight when a young, untrained chocolate lab is around. Our lab, Cosmo was apparently overcome one year by the awesome smells early one bright Easter morning. My then husband awoke to the sound of tinkling. When he went into the breakfast nook where the lovely breads had been sitting, he saw it was Cosmo’s metal ID tags jingling against the plate as the dog wolfed down half my beautiful braided Easter bread. He came in and told me my mom must have wanted a taste, so she possessed Cosmo’s soul for Easter. I wanted to strangle the dog, but I guess it was a compliment.
I was going through my recipes and was thrilled when I found this old tattered one of my mom’s for Easter bread. I can’t wait to use it! I wanted you to see how well used it was and how interesting her take on spelling was. God I miss that woman!
I miss my role as sous chef, stirring the rice in the giant pot on the stove for her. I miss the gleam in her eye and the sly smile on her face as she decided to add blasphemous chocolate to her Trader pies. And I miss the stunned look on her sister’s faces when she showed up with maverick chocolate pies. She made holidays fun.
If you want to try her Easter Bread recipe here’s the translation:
est = yeast, weather = water, scold = scalded, buber = butter, magerina= margerine, vinela = vanilla, oreng crante= orange rind, picken = pumpkin, minet = minute. Anise olio is anise oil, but you can use anise extract, probably 1 teaspoon for this recipe. Start checking the bread for doneness after about 1/2 hour. Good Luck!
And dammit, I wish I lived closer to my family so I could bake and trade with them. Usually we just call each other the night before Easter, as we have a glass of wine and bake our pies. Sometimes secret ingredients slip out under the influence, like the year Uncle Bob confessed he added marshmallow fluff. Could a Nutella Trader pie be next? Maybe I’ll get crazy this year…who knows?
You don’t have to be a genius to bake these pies or the bread. It takes a little time, but it’s worth it and it’s a nice tradition. If it turns out good you can send one over to the neighbor. If it turns out bad, just fling it at someone you don’t like. But chances are, the dog might go for it.
I think any tradition that inspires giving, self-defense or possession of your family pet is a good one. Pour yourself a glass of wine, try these and let me know how it goes.
Pastina Pies (Radical chocolate is optional)
For this recipe, I consulted Angelina Belculfine and her sweet daughter, Theresa. Angelina was my mother’s best friend and the only woman whose pies my mother ever admitted were better than her own. I also consulted Aunt Blanche and Uncle Richard who took mom’s recipe and personalized it. And, of course, I tweaked it.
(This recipe will make two pies.) Honestly, this year, I just used my regular pie crust dough and I have to say it had a nice crunch which contrasted wonderfully with the creamy rice custard. I think I prefer it. (Waiting for lightning strike from Mom’s spirit.)
2 c. flour
1/2 c. Crisco or butter
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1/8 c. (or less) milk
Mix together all dry ingredients then add Crisco to flour mixture. Make a well in the flour and Crisco mixture and drop in eggs. Add milk a little at a time until mixture is the consistency of soft dough. Dough will be softer than regular pie dough. Set a small amount of dough aside to make strips to put on top of pies. The dough just flops over the custard filling about an inch on the sides. So you have to fill the pie with filling first, then fold over the edges and lay the strips on top of the liquid filling. Generously flour surface then roll dough out for bottom crust and put it into greased pie pans. (This dough is notoriously hard to deal with, so don’t worry if it falls apart, just patch it together and move on.
2 cups white rice cooked in water until done
(Usually the ratio is one cup of rice to two cups of water.)
Once rice is cooked, you should have about four cups of cooked rice. Place that in a large pot on the stovetop, then add:
3 cups milk
1/2 cup whipping cream
3/4 to 1 cup sugar
1/3 to 1/2 cup ricotta
1/3 cup butter
1/4 tsp. salt
Cook this mixture for about 15 minutes.
(Note: Make sure mixture is cool before adding eggs or they will cook as soon as they hit the hot mixture. Remove a little of the rice-milk-cream mixture and stir in the eggs first, then slowly add it to the rest of the cream mixture.) Remove from heat.
2 whole eggs slightly beaten
3 egg yolks slightly beaten
1 grated lemon rind
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon extract
1 oz of rum
(Optional) 1 Tbsp chopped citron
If you want to get radical and try the chocolate I would probably omit the lemon rind and lemon extract. Then just melt 1/4 to 1/2 cup of chocolate chips (my mother would have used Nestle, but you can use some other brand like Scharffen Berger) and mix it with a tablespoon or two of milk or whipping cream, then add the chocolate to the rice mixture. Taste for sweetness once chocolate is added. If necessary, add more sugar, a teaspoon at a time.
Then pour the rice-cream mixture into the prepared pie crust. and bake at 350 for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned and not watery in the middle. Do not overbake! If using regular pie crust, cooking time may be slightly longer.
And below is the Finnish Spring Bread recipe I used for Easter Bread before I found my mom’s. It is really good!