Easter brings with it many predictable foods: chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, ham, and hard-boiled eggs. But some Italians use the season to feature a surprisingly sweet vegetable dish on their tables.
It's called torta co'bischeri agli spinaci. Francine Segan calls it "Tuscany's sweet spinach pie." Segan is a food historian and author of Dolci: Italy's Sweets. She shared a recipe for the pie for All Things Considered's Found Recipe series.
Segan says she stumbled across the dessert while visiting Tuscany. One day while exploring, she came across a side street where people were lined up outside of a bakery.
"When I got to the window [and] looked in, I noticed something bright green," she says. "It was so surprising because the Italians don't generally use food coloring."
The green was from spinach, which is boiled and chopped, then mixed with finely ground almonds, sugar and eggs. Unlike a quiche, the dish is sweet. Segan says during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Italians didn't divide courses the way we do now. It wasn't unusual to have something sweet at the beginning of the meal.
"They thought balance with every course [would] keep the appetite interested throughout the feast," she says.
The spinach pie is baked in a distinctive pie crust, where the dough isn't pinched at the edge, but shaped into chubby round points that mimic bischeri — the tuning pegs of a violin or guitar.
"It's so simple to make and it's so rewarding because the flavors are so unique and surprising — and it's even healthy," Segan says. "You get some of your vegetable servings in dessert."
Recipe: Torta Co' Bischeri Agli Spinaci (Tuscany's Sweet Spinach Pie)
Serves 8 to 10
The ground almond-spinach filling is light and satisfyingly spongy — almost soufflé-like. As with zucchini bread and carrot cake, the spinach contributes an earthy undertone, moistness and an unusually brilliant color.
For the crust
18 ounces (about 3 cups) "OO" or all-purpose flour
9 ounces butter (2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
7/8 cup granulated sugar
4 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons baking powder
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
For the filling
10-12 ounces frozen spinach or 1 pound fresh baby spinach
8 ounces blanched almonds
4 large eggs, separated
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 ounces minced candied citron or lemon peel
1/4 cup Marschino or other aromatic liqueur
2 tablespoons pine nuts
For the crust: In a large bowl, in a food processor or on a clean work surface, mix the flour, butter and sugar until the mixture resembles coarse sand.
Add the egg yolks, baking powder, zest and salt, and mix until dough forms.
Roll the dough into a disc, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out.
Lightly butter a 10-inch deep-dish pie pan.
Roll out 2/3 of the dough, making it large enough to hang well over the sides. If you like, make a series of "peg" shapes along the outer edge of the dough. To do that, fold the edges of dough over and cut into the edges, and gently press "fret" shapes by pinching the dough between thumb and forefinger at a distance of about 1/2 inch apart.
Using a fork, poke holes throughout the entire bottom and sides of the crust.
Roll out the remaining dough to form lattices over the top of the filling. Refrigerate all the dough, covered in plastic wrap, until ready to use.
For the filling: Cook the spinach in a few ounces of salted water until tender. Allow to cool. Squeeze out all the cooking liquids and finely chop in a mini food processor. Reserve.
In a food processor, grind the almonds until they resemble coarse sand. Reserve.
In a bowl, beat the yolks with 1/3 cup of the sugar until creamy and light yellow. Add the almonds and beat until well combined. Add the spinach, candied peel and liqueur, and mix until well combined.
In a separate bowl, beat the whites until soft peaks form, then add in the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar and beat until it forms a glossy meringue.
Slowly fold the meringue into the yolk mixture. Pour into the prepared pie crust. Sprinkle with the pine nuts and top with the remaining dough in a lattice pattern.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour, until golden.
Allow to cool to room temperature, then serve sprinkled with confectioners' sugar.
Recipe reprinted from Dolci: Italy's Sweets by Francine Segan, copyright 2011. Reprinted with permission of Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today's Found Recipe takes us to Tuscany and it's in advance of Easter. Because chocolate eggs, chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, all those sugary holiday treats, I mean, they're just so predictable. You know what's not predictable?
FRANCINE SEGAN: Torta co'bischeri agli spinaci.
CORNISH: Spinaci in a pie. And no, it's not a quiche. The spinach is boiled and chopped, then mixed with finely ground almonds, sugar and eggs. It's baked in a distinctive pie crust, one where the dough isn't pinched at the edge, but shaped into a chubby, round points. We'll let Francine Segan tell us some more.
SEGAN: That chopped spinach gives it a beautiful green color, gives it a wonderful earthy tone. And more importantly, it became very synonymous with Easter time, with spring, with new green buds bursting out of the ground.
CORNISH: Francine Segan is a food historian and recipe collector, two qualities that make her cookbook, "Dolce: Italy Sweets" both fascinating and delightfully tempting. Here's how she first stumbled upon the improbable sweet spinach pie.
SEGAN: I rented a home for the month in Camaiore, a little town on a hilltop in the province of Lucca in Tuscany. Walking about beautiful cobblestone streets and I noticed on a side street a long line outside a bakery. When I got to the window and looked in, I noticed something bright green. It's so surprising because the Italians don't generally use food coloring, but it was so green. What kind of a green (unintelligible).
I walked in. And I said, what is that? And she looked at me as if, don't you know? Then she explained it's torta co'bischeri agli spinaci, a sweet spinach pie. So I kept asking her, excuse me, this is dessert? (Foreign language spoken) Yes, of course, yes. And it was so strange to imagine spinach for dessert.
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SEGAN: The history of Tuscany sweet spinach pie is very interesting. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Italians didn't so much divide courses the way we do. There was more of a mixture. You might have something sweet at the beginning of the meal and they wouldn't necessarily have only sweets at the end. They thought balance with every course to keep the appetite interested throughout the feast.
So the name had something interesting. What is bischeri? It's the tuning part of a violin or a guitar. And so that is why the crust has that kind of round ovalish shape to mimic that. But there's another part of the story.
Nowadays, the word bischeri means in Tuscany, a fool. And it came because when the Duomo was being built in Florence, big cathedral in the center of town, the people that were building it wanted to acquire the land for it. And so they were paying people who owned the land a wonderful fee for the properties.
One family, the Bischeri family, kept holding out. They wanted more money and more money. And at a certain point, the town planners decided to change the angle of the Duomo and to leave the Bischeri family out of it and not buy their land. And so that was such a foolish decision that from the 1300s on, the name Bischeri became the name for a fool, especially about money.
Torta co'bischeri agli spinaci, it's so simple to make and it's so rewarding because the flavors are so unique and surprising. And it's even healthy. You get some of your vegetable servings in dessert.
CORNISH: That's Francine Segan. You can find out how to make sweet spinach pie and see a picture of it in all its bright green glory on our Found Recipe series page at NPR.org.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.