And observe yet again.
With fanfare, I present to you the Torta Rustica. Some years ago, my brother gave me Glorious Italian Cooking (http://www.nickstellino.com/cookbooks_detail.asp) by Nick Stellino, and the Torta Rustica is in it. This is what Nick calls a “picnic pie,” which means that it’s made to travel, or to eat on the go, or to sit a day or so for a quick lunch, and still be unbelievably good. His story about La Signora Pacis and how she made this for the neighborhood kids after their basketball games is enough to want to buy this book, or to raise your kids in Sicily with such food after kids’ sports games (as opposed to grape or fruit punch sugar water and Hostess treats, a la my childhood).
I have mentioned numerous times that I am a first-generation Italian, my pop emigrating from Naples in the 1950’s. I would love to say, in my most romantic and nostalgic tone, that I grew up eating this torta and that its taste brings me back to childhood, days now gone never to be had again, wishing that I could again savor those times with family and food. But, no, that would be bullshit on my part. Nick is from Sicily, and Italy’s regions all have different delicacies. I know these tastes, for sure, but not altogether in one dish. When I read this in the cookbook, I think I actually said out loud, “Oh my fucking word.” I had to make it.
You might think this looks difficult to make, but ’tisn’t. Yes, there are lots of pieces to it, but there are shortcuts, too, that make it easier. From start to finish, you’re looking at 2 hours, or less if you rush. Being on the last few days of my Christmas break, I’m in no hurry, so listening to some French bistro music while cooking on a late Thursday morning gives me no pressure to do anything except enjoy myself and my time in the kitchen. And thus, the Torta Rustica is in my fridge as I write this.
You need a 9″ springform pan, like one used for cheesecake. You also need pizza dough. I bought two portions from Trader Joe’s, of which I used 1 and a 1/2, but you can easily use my pizza dough recipe (https://dinnerwithjonny.com/2012/11/12/nonnas-pizza-from-naples/) if you are hardcore and want everything made from scratch. Use half of my full recipe and you should be fine.
2 bags of pizza dough from Trader Joe’s, or 1/2 a recipe of my dough, or enough dough to make a good size pizza
3 tbsp. olive oil (to saute)+ 1/4 cup olive oil (for the eggplant)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, chopped
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1 1/2 tsp. dried basil (fresh, use 1 1/2 tbsp.)
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano (fresh, use 1 1/2 tbsp.)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 10 oz. box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 cup ricotta
1 1 1/2 lb. eggplant
1 lb. sliced ham (I used a combo of Black Forest and honey ham; you can also use prosciutto)
1 12 to 15 oz. jar of roasted red peppers, drained
1 lb. grated provolone or an Italian cheese blend
1 cup pitted black olives, sliced, or halved
1 egg, beaten, to brush the dough before it goes in the oven
You make this guy in parts. It looks like a lot, but it isn’t, I promise.
Preheat the oven to 425°. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Take the eggplant and cut off the ends. Slice it lengthwise into 1/4″ to 1/2″ slices. Sprinkle 1/2 tsp. of salt over the slices and place them in a colander to drain, like this:
After 20 minutes, pat them dry with paper towels and layer them on the parchment paper. Brush them with the 1/4 cup olive oil (or more…they drink a lot of it):
Roast them in the oven for 10 minutes. Flip them and roast for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Lower the oven temperature to 400° for when the torta is ready to go.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat for two minutes, until a speck of water cracks when you drop it in there. Then, add the onion and garlic, lower the heat to medium, and saute for a minute or two. Add the mushrooms, oregano, basil, 1/2 tsp. salt, red pepper, and black pepper. Let this cook for at least 10 minutes, stirring once in a while, until the mushrooms are drier and limp. Remove from the heat and stir in the spinach and ricotta. Set this aside and it will look like this:
With the pizza dough, you need 2 pieces, like a pie. You need to roll out one big piece (flour the board, wise guy) into a 15″ diameter or so, or enough for 1 inch to overhang the edge of the springform pan. It should be about 1/2″ thick. When you do it somewhat right, it should look like this:
Now this is the fun part. You have to layer the ingredients in this like a pie. You split all of the portions of ingredients in half, and then you layer them in this order: ham, spinach mixture, peppers, eggplant, cheese, and olives. You need to make two layers of each. This is what is looks like up to the first layer of peppers:
This is what is looks like all filled (two layers of each ingredient) without the final dough on it:
Take the other piece of dough, which shouldn’t be as big as the first one, and roll it out to fit the top of the torta, 9″ in this case. Place it on top and fold the bottom dough into the top and crimp it with your fingers. It will look like this:
The ugliness of my crimping gives it an even more rustic feel, in my opinion. Also, if you notice, you need to put 4 slits into the dough to let the steam escape.
Brush this baby with the beaten egg and put it in the 400° oven for an hour. After 20 minutes of baking, tent the torta loosely with aluminum foil to ensure that it doesn’t get too toasty on top. When you remove it, you should get this:
Let this cool for an hour in the pan, and then cover it with plastic and put it in the fridge for a good 3 to 4 hours (longer, even). Leave the springform on until it’s chilled because you want the pizza dough to firm up.
Once it’s chilled, remove it and slice it into pieces, like this:
I still can’t believe how good this damn thing looks. It tastes a million times better, too. Unreal. You’ll eat this for the next few days, craving it even if you’re not hungry, which is why it’s good only to make this once in a while. If you want it warmer, heat a slice in the oven for a few minutes to get it toasty.
I hope that if you read this, you try to make this. There’s something rewarding about making the Torta Rustica come to fruition, and it works for a picnic or dinner or an appetizer for cocktails.
Until later, eat, drink, and peace out.
©Jon Marino, 2013