Thursday, April 20, 2006

Pizza Gaina / Pizza Chena

Pizza Gaina is a southern Italian savory cheesecake with cold cuts, encased in a bread crust, much like a pizza rustica. This is the one dish that means Pascha to me, that means "home". Its the only dish that I usually cry while I'm making it. My most favorite memories of my childhood are of my mother and her sisters helping my grandmother with the Easter baking, specifically this dish. I remember the smells and their voices and the easy way that worked together in that old green kitchen on B Street. The smell of the baking rising from the garland stove.... This is the essence of what home means to me - those four women, all in heaven now, cooking for Easter.

I've been thinking a lot of times past this week, and people who are gone, and how its only Ethel, Roseanne and me who remember those days. Before I give you this recipe, I'd like to quote the eulogy I wrote for my mother.

Beatrice Elena Cieri Babineau
March 13, 1919 – February 11, 2005

When I first saw my mother in death yesterday, I was struck by her hands – gnarled, work worn, scarred, but strangely shrunken and lifeless – not the hands that had smoothed my hair or held me tight, and certainly not the hands that my father so fervently kissed just the night before, the last time he saw her alive.

I thought about my mother’s hands a lot last night. My mother had big hands, strong hands, hands that were not afraid of physical labor. I pictured them in life, gathering me close when I was afraid, soothing my many bumps and bruises. I heard the incessant clicking of her knitting needles – the background music of my life. I saw my parents walking hand in hand as they always did, my father holding her close while they danced all alone in the kitchen at the Inn in the early morning. I saw those hands applauding all my concerts through the years, my every endeavor. I saw her knitting intricate clothing for those she loved, especially for her beloved granddaughter, Elisabeth. I saw her hand holding mine as we waited, week after week, in the Stanford Oncology Department. I saw those big, gnarled hands gently and tenderly cradling Elisabeth.

What would I have done without those big, strong, competent hands to love me, to show me how to cook, how to knit, how to love? I felt so sad…

Then I thought of my most favorite memory of my mother’s hands – the week before Easter, elbow deep in flour with Grammie, and Auntie Nettie rolling out piecrust, and Auntie Anna at the sink, up to her elbows in suds. I could almost hear them talking and laughing as they worked, like a well-oiled machine, in perfect sync with each other, and I was comforted. I can picture them all together again, those four who loved each other so very, very much, in a kitchen, cooking a never-ending Easter meal in heaven.

Jesus said, In my Father’s house, there are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you. So, I asked myself, why not a kitchen?

Pizza Chena (Gaina) Crust
5 - 6 C King Arthur unbleached wheat flour
1/2 C sugar
5 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 C shortening (crisco)
3 Tbs yeast
1 - 2 C warm water (varies)

Beat eggs well and add 1/4 C of the warm water. Mix in 1 1/2 tsp sugar and set aside. Mix the following together: 1/4 C sugar, the yeast, and 1/2 C warm water, let stand to proof. Melt shortening with the rest of the sugar, let cool to body temperature. Slowly add in the eggs, making sure that they do not cook. When eggs are incorporated, slowly stir in the yeast mixture. In a big mixing bowl, measure 5 C of flour and stir in the salt. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the liquid ingredients. Knead in all the flour until it is like a soft, but not sticky bread dough. You may need to add more water or more flour, up to 1 C of flour, to achieve this consistency. Oil the dough, cover, and let rise two hours. While dough is rising, make the filling.

Pizza Chena (Gaina) Filling
2 lbs part cream or whole milk ricotta
4 - 6 oz freshly grated parmesan
8 large eggs
1/2 lb prosciutto. sliced paper thin
1/2 lb Genoa salami, sliced paper thin
1 lb fresh Italian mozzarella cheese, packed in water (can use Queso Panella from Mexico)
white pepper
1 extra egg for an egg wash

Beat eggs, ricotta, grated cheese and 1/4 tsp white pepper together.

To assemble the pizza in a lasagna pan, about 10 x 12 x 2 1/2 or so:
Punch the dough down and divide into two parts, 1/4 and 3/4 and let rest, covered. Spray the lasagna pan well. Roll the 3/4 sized dough out to a rectangle about 15 x 20, and place in the lasagna pan. Let the edges drape over the pan. Don't roll it out to thin or it will break and leak. Using a fork, prick the dough well on the bottom and all the sides. Layer the filling as follows: ricotta mixture, then prosciutto, then the fresh cheese, then the salami and repeat until all the ingredients are used up. Make sure that the last layer is the ricotta mixture. When you are layering the ham, place the fatty edges against the dough. Roll the 1/4 portion of dough to about 11 x 13 size and place on top, crimping the top and bottom crusts together very well. Prick the top crust all over and spread beaten egg wash all over with your fingers. Make the sign of the cross over the completed pie, and thank my grandmother, Josephine Catalano Cieri, for being such an exceptional cook.

Bake for 30 minutes in an oven which has been preheated to 350F. Cover the pie with aluminum foil, return to the oven, and turn the oven down to 325F. Bake at 325F for about 1 1/2 hours until a knife comes out clean.

Notes: You may want to actually turn it over part way through the baking time so the bottom is as brown as the top, as my grandmother always did, but I don't usually do that - its too dangerous! This year, I bought 3" deep 9 x 13 and 8" square springform pans, and I'm going to make the pizza in that. I'll post a photo after I make it tomorrow.


Mimi said...

Oh my goodness, tears are streaming down my face. May your Mother's Memory be Eternal.

The recipe sounds good - I'm a vegetarian, but I am thinking of ways to adapt it, yum!

A blessed Holy Friday and a Glorious Pascha to you!

Denise said...

Thanks, Mimi. I cannot describe how much I miss my mother this week. And my Grandmother and aunties as well. I just don't have words profound enough.

This is truly a spectacular dish, and one that makes a fantastic, festive presentation for company. The important thing is to layer the ingredients, whatever you choose to layer it with. I imagine that you could make something similar using some vegan cold cuts, or why not skip the cold cuts entirely and use layers of very thinly sliced colorful veggies, and maybe even spinach or some herbs? It would be totally different in taste, but it would still be delicious just the same, and would have a similar look and feel. I can't quite wait till tonight, so Christ Is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen!

Mimi said...

Indeed, He Is Risen!

I was thinking along the lines of the spinach or roasted veggies myself.

Cara @ Twice Lovely said...

God bless you. What a special recipe and story. Such a lovely blog. It incorporates the spiritual and cultural elements into the making and eating. So much of that is lost these days. It's really very sad. I'm going to attempt to cook this for my family this Easter. May you, too, have a wonderful Easter this year.

Anonymous said...

You put me in mind of being a young bride, learning how to cook Italian with my in-laws. There is something quite special about a community of women engaged in the common goal of nourishing their families, passing on traditions, and laughing while they do so! I too, miss those times and thank you for taking me back and for sharing yours with us! Peace...

Anonymous said...

Buona Pasqua. Thank you for the lovely image of the heavenly kitchen and for this recipe. My family made an enormous one baked in a huge pan and it is good to have a normal sized version of it! !