Early spring is here and I’m so looking forward to everything thawing out and green leafy things sprouting and blooming again! I never thought I’d say this, because as a child I really did not like to eat vegetables, but I can’t wait to add new and exciting green foods to my plate every week. In the winter season, I definitely have a hard time eating these, and tend to rely on all my starchy, carby veggies and foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, and lots of different types of bread. They’re just so comforting during the cold season. Now that I’m older, I have learned to appreciate the delicate buttery, grassy flavor of asparagus, and the mild, slightly sweet and tannic taste of baby spinach leaves, and the fresh, crisp, peppery, slightly sweet taste of lettuce. Back when I was a child, there was no way I would have eaten green vegetables on my own. My parents did manage to sneak them into a variety of dishes and meals, and probably the most successful of all of these is the typically Argentine recipe of spinach pie known as tarta pascualina. It is called a tart if it only has a bottom crust, and it is called a torta pascualina or spinach pie if it has a double pie crust.
Pascualina, as we call it for short, is a delicious spinach and ricotta pie encased in a flaky pie crust or empanada dough, and although we eat it year-round, it was traditionally served during Lent or on Easter Sunday. It is a dish of Italian origin: the original “pasqualina” comes from the Liguria region in Northern Italy, and dates back to the 14thCentury, during a time when much of the food was sourced from locally-grown crops. The Ligurian countryside, although beautiful and close to the Mediterranean Sea, was hilly and mountainous and could only produce a small amount of wheat, and so, if Ligurians needed larger amounts of flour, they had to purchase it outside the region, which was very expensive. Meat was also very costly in the region. However, leafy green vegetables like chard, spinach, and basil were super abundant and easier to grow, so in the end Ligurians developed recipes where they could use a small amount of wheat, about enough to make a pound of flour, which was enough to create a thin dough for a tart or a pie. They created a variety of savory pies based on seasonal vegetables like leeks, fennel, artichokes, and some include mushrooms too. And that’s how pascualina came to be! Traditionally, pascualina does not have meat because it is served during Lent. Devout Catholics that they are, the Italians created a more luxurious version of pascualina for Easter, when they would usually use phyllo dough instead of a regular shortcrust pastry featuring 33 layers: each layer representing a year of in the life of Jesus. They took the symbolism even further by hiding 13 hard-boiled eggs inside the spinach filling, 12 around the edge and 1 in the center, representing Jesus and his 12 apostles, which would create a very nice visual appeal when cutting into the pie and finding the surprise. Cheese and eggs were luxuries, so they were saved for a special occasion like Easter. Another fun fact? Because most houses did not have their own ovens many centuries ago in Italy, the pascualina was cooked in the town’s community oven. Each family would line up to the town’s giant, community brick oven, waiting for their turn to bake their pie. The pies would come out of the oven, piping-hot, golden-topped, burnished, and mouth-wateringly delicious, and they would have been indistinguishable from one family’s pie to another’s if each family hadn’t marked or written their initials on the top crust.
I didn’t grow up in Italy, so how did pascualina get to South America, and specifically, the River Plate area of Argentina? Italian immigrants, emigrating during the great wave in the early 20th Century, brought their culinary heritage and recipes, including pascualina, into Argentina and Uruguay, where it is has been a typical dish for over 100 years. In Argentina, the pascualina tart gained popularity to the point that Argentines consider it a typically Argentine dish, and as Argentine as the Buenos Aires obelisk! Argentines love it because it’s easily-prepared, and many substituted the dough used in empanadas in place of puff pastry or pie dough. My Mom would but a little bit of flaky fish, one of her many attempts at hiding nutritious ingredients in the recipes for her children. Most households made a basic tart or pie dough, but fancier versions use puff pastry or phyllo dough.
The original pie was made with spinach or chard and embellished with hard-boiled eggs and cheeses such as prescinsêua, a fresh Ligurian cheese. Since that is almost impossible to find outside of that region, Argentines replaced it with ricotta, sometimes adding pecorino and parmesan too. Some Argentine home cooks prefer to use Swiss chard or acelga, while others used spinach. Acelga was much feared by me and my siblings because it was much more bitter than spinach! But the truth is that the combination of the steamed spinach or chard with the slightly sweet onion and creamy cheese makes for a very pleasing dish that even kids like. As it is often typical, each family had its own recipe, but the variations are ever so slight. Some people only spiced it with salt and pepper, while others incorporated nutmeg. For the crust, feel free to use purchased pie dough or phyllo dough. You can also use the recipe for empanada dough, or pate brisée also known as shortcrust pastry, usually used for tarts and quiches, or puff pastry. It wouldn’t be atypical to serve pascualina even cold: the pie keeps well in the fridge and it can be served warmed or after it has cooled. It’s also a popular menu item served in bakeries, delis, and cafes, rather than at restaurants.
As Easter is approaching and family meals are looming, if you celebrate the holiday, pascualina can be an impressive and unexpected vegetarian dish. It can make a breakfast or brunch extra special. For a grown-up version, you could serve it with a glass of wine! It could be served as an appetizer in individual servings if you wanted to, and it truly is a stupendous dish. The key to making a delicious spinach pie is to use good ingredients: fresh, good quality chard or spinach, a high-quality olive oil, and whole milk cheese. You’ll really taste the ingredients! Recently, I served pascualinato my husband and he loved it! We both felt like we were eating a delicious, savory dish, and that eating our vegetables was not a chore at all. Simple as this dish may be, the taste is amazing and you will not be disappointed. And needless to say, you don’t have to be Catholic (I certainly am not) to eat this cherished spring recipe! I hope you will give it a try!
Pascualina Pie (Argentine Spinach Pie)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Bake time: 45-50 minutes
Servings: 8-10 slices
- 2 discs pie crusts or 2 sheets of puff pastry
- 1 2/3 cup chopped onion
- About 10 cups raw spinach
- 1 whole raw egg
- 10 ½ oz whole ricotta
- 4 ½ oz shredded parmesan
- 1 ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- 1 tbsp olive oil + 2 tbsp butter
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 6 additional eggs (optional) or 6-7 fresh mozzarella balls
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Lightly grease the interior of a pie dish and roll out one of the pie discs, pressing it into the pie dish to form the bottom. Set aside.
- In a steamer over boiling water, steam the spinach and when it has achieved a bright green color and soft texture, remove from the heat and squeeze out any excess liquid. Place on a cutting board and finely chop so that no large stems remain.
- Finely dice the onion and mince the garlic.
- In a medium skillet, over medium heat, place the olive oil and butter and warm up until shimmery.
- Add the onion to the skillet, cooking for a few minutes, until the onion is translucent.
- Add the minced garlic and cook for 1 or 2 minutes, until the garlic turns golden.
- Add the chopped spinach and season with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir well to blend. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.
- While the spinach cools, in a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, parmesan, and raw egg, whisking well.
- Add the cheese and egg mixture to the cooled spinach mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon.
- Use the filling to fill the pie dish and spread evenly using the back of a spoon.
- If you want your pascualina to have hard-boiled eggs nestled into the filling, complete this step: create 6 indentations in the spinach filling and crack 1 egg at a time to use all 6 of the optional eggs, placing each egg into an indentation. I omitted this step because I do not like hard-boiled eggs, and my family did not place eggs in our pascualina. I placed balls of fresh mozzarella instead, as shown in the picture.
- Brush the edge of the bottom pie crust with water and place the second disc of pie crust, carefully, over the pie. Press the edges together, forming a crimp. If you want to use a decorative style, that would be great. You can also try an empanada repulge!
- Lastly, brush the top of the pie with egg wash or milk and bake the pie in the preheated oven for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until golden brown.
- Remove the pie to cool before slicing. It can be served warm or cold, and can be refrigerated up to 3 days.
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