Mother Knows Best: Frittata di Maccheroni
It is not often my mother-in-law praises my cooking. Generally she is of the school of thought that I use too much olive oil and not enough pig fat, my pasta is too al dente, and my use of black pepper too ribald. Yesterday was a rare exception and I continue to savor the simple words of praise (?), “Cristina…this dish is not so terrible after all…..”
Of course the dish was not so terrible because I followed mamma’s recipe precisely and occasionally let her take over when she guffawed, “oh, just let me do it.” We were making Savory Pastiera, a noodle cake of sorts that is so thoroughly Agerolese it could be emblazoned on the city seal and offered the town key.
Once again the use of pig fat (sugna in local dialect) is prominent and rather than battle mamma on this front, I decided to just surrender to the lard. Mamma is 88. Her sister is 90. Her mother lived to 98 and her father to 96 ½. They all ate/eat pig fat. When mamma states the facts as such, I have little grounds to argue. Her logic boils down to a more rustic Animal Farm like maxim of ‘Pig Fat Good, Olive Oil Bad’. Snowball and Napoleon would be rolling in their hay-covered tombs if they heard mamma now. And begrudgingly, I must admit that she is correct (to a certain extent). Use of pig fat (in moderation) is ideal in tart crusts and for browning certain vegetables and starches.
Savory Pastiera also fares well with the use of lard. There are few ingredients involved in this Pastiera’s preparation, but one should choose each ingredient wisely. On first glance, the ingredients in this recipe might remind you of a Carbonara. But Carbonara, Pastiera is not.
Pastiera more closely resembles an Ashkenazi Noodle Kugel or Persian Tahdig in texture and appearance (notwithstanding the prominent use of pig fat). Traditionally, Savory Pastiera has been a staple on Pasquetta (Easter Monday), when families throughout Italy enjoy an annual picnic. Major Mamma, who rules our house with an iron fist, decrees that this Pastiera be made on Saturday for consumption on Easter Monday. And who am I to argue?
As you will see in the recipe below, the ingredient list is humble and features items we have freely available in our gardens and farms across Agerola. You likely do not have a family pig or chicken coop, but I suggest locating high quality sausage and organic eggs for this dish. It makes all the difference.
The real trick to making Savory Pastiera is browning and flipping it. You cook this pasta cake in larduntil it is, as my mother-in-law says, “bionda, bionda, bionda….blond, blond, blond!” Then you place a plate over your sauté pan and flip the cake. This technique requires patience and practice, but if your Pastiera crumbles when you flip it, just patch it up with errant bits of pasta and nobody will know.
For a brief moment, I fancifully suggested we stray from the original recipe and add fresh plump green peas to the Pastiera. Mamma glared at me hopelessly and shook her head as if to say, “you silly charlatan, you’ll just never get it.” I suppose in her eyes, I am Animal Farm’s Mollie to her Major. I'm all sugar lumps and ribbons, (or green peas and black peppercorns in my case)…..completely out to pranzo.
After her silent screed, Mamma returned to her command post, a triple stack of plastic lawn chairs in the center of the kitchen and instructed me, “flip the pastiera….flip it now.” My stomach sunk to the floor as I rotated the sauté pan. As I slowly jiggled the Pastiera out, mamma watched me carefully. One powerful what with a wooden spoon, and the pastiera was free, in tact and perfectly bionda. Mamma smiled approving, “ È bella, è bella cristina.” I secretly pumped my fist in the air. Ahhh, the important things in life!
The beauty of Savory Pastiera is that it can be prepared ahead and served at room temperature. In fact some people actually prefer it at room temperature. This recipe serves 12, and is perfect for a casual dinner party or picnic. We enjoy a nice balsy, slightly sulfuric Lacryma Christi wine with Pastiera.
- 1 pound spaghetti
- ½ pound rigatoni
- ½ pound mafalde (ribboned pasta)
- 1/3 pound cured Italian sausage, such as Cotechino sliced into ¼” thick coins
- 8 tablespoons lard (or vegetable shortening if you have an extreme aversion to pig fat)
- 12 eggs
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Ground pepper to taste
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- ½ cup fresh ricotta
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a roaring boil.
- Heat 2 tablespoons lard in wide brimmed, non-stick 6 qt sauté pan over medium heat.
- When lard begins to sizzle, add sausage and brown on both sides, occasionally stirring with a wooden spoon.
- Off heat, and set sausage aside.
- Add all three pastas to boiling water and cook until al dente (roughly 8 minutes).
- While pasta is cooking, whisk eggs, salt, pepper, parmesan and ricotta in a medium bowl.
- Drain pasta in colander and add pasta back to pot.
- Add egg mixture and sausage mixture (including fat) to pasta and mix to incorporate with two forks. (*Note: The egg will begin to cook and slightly curdle from the heat of pasta. This step might seem as if you are making carbonara, but you want your eggs to form little curds.)
- Once again, heat sauté pan over medium heat and add three tablespoons of lard.
- When lard begins to sizzle, add pasta mixture and press firmly down into sauté pan.
- Lower heat slightly and cook for 10 minutes, rotating the pan occasionally to ensure even cooking.
- Remove sauté pan from heat, place a large plate over brim and flip pasta cake onto plate.
- Add three tablespoons lard to sauté pan and bring to sizzle over medium heat.
- Gently slide the pasta cake into the sauté pan and cook second side for additional 10 minutes.
- Off heat and place large plate over brim of sauté pan.
- Flip sauté pan over plate and gently nudge out pasta cake. If it sticks, try smacking your sauté pan with a wooden spoon.
- Serve Pastiera hot or at room temperature. Cut as if serving a cake.