One of my earliest memories is of spending time in the kitchen as a toddler, holding onto my mother’s leg while she cooked. I remember the soft denim of her jeans, the comfort of moving around the room with her as she quietly worked. The kitchen was a peaceful place, calm, with none of the electronics fiascoes or juggling acts that have cropped up in my single-countered, closet-sized apartment kitchen.
I wasn’t much older when the ritual began: tying on my mother’s white apron, with “La Creme de La Creme” screened across the front in red stencil letters, dragging one of our white plastic kitchen chairs over to the counter to help. And while helping my mother measure ingredients and stir dough was fun, making a delicacy start to finish without adult supervision was even better. There was the “Waldorf-Astoria Chocolate Cake” my mother had baked in a heart-shaped tin for my fifth birthday; when I was six, I decided it would be a great idea to duplicate it, in cahoots with my good friend Sarah and my three-year-old brother Micah. My mother, conveniently napping, awoke to a kitchen floor dusted with flour. No recollection of how the cake actually turned out.
After a few years of basics - cookies, cheese omelets, macaroni - my mother’s gourmet cookbooks beckoned. The Vegetarian Epicure, 70s vegetarianism in all its buttered, cheesy, eggy glory, opened up the world of European cuisine. One night, in my teens, I made Pizza Rustica for our family’s dinner. Pizza wrapped up in a butter-based pie crust proved to be almost illegally delicious, somewhat more gourmet than a classic pizza pie, yet down-home and accessible to make. My grandmother, who had given the cookbook to my parents as a gift back in the 70s, had wanted to tear out the page in the introduction that featured the following gem: “If you have passed around a joint before dinner to sharpen gustatory preparations, you will most likely pass another one after dinner, and everyone knows what that will do - the blind munchies can strike at any time.” But the only gustatory preparation you’ll need for this deep-dish pie is the rich, savory scent - herbed tomato, three cheeses, and a browning crust - that wafts from the oven as the baking time draws to a close.
Adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas
~Yield: 1 deep-dish 9 1/2” pie~
Notes: Author Anna Thomas advises making the crust with marsala rather than the usual ice water. We had a bottle of cabernet hanging out in our fridge, so I used that. It added a marvelous depth of flavor to the crust. Feel free to swap out the olives and bell pepper for any pizza toppings you like - I’m planning to try mushrooms next.
~Yield: 2 crusts~
2 cups flour (I used 1 cup white and 1 cup white whole wheat)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 to 3 tablespoons chilled marsala, red wine, or ice water
Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and toss with the flour, using your hands, two knives, or a pastry cutter, until it all looks like coarse corn meal. Add a few drops of lemon juice and the chilled wine or water, one tablespoon at a time, while tossing the dough lightly until it begins to come together. Don’t use more than 3 tablespoons of liquid! Pat the dough into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least an hour. Prepare the pizza rustica filling, below, during this time.
16 ounces ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 cup grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon chopped parsley (I omitted this)
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce, or 10 ounces tomato puree + 4 ounces tomato paste
2/3 cup sliced olives (I omitted these)
8 ounces mozzarella cheese
1 very large bell pepper
In a large bowl, beat the eggs and add the ricotta cheese, onion, parsley, and Parmesan cheese. Season well with salt and pepper.
Heat the olive oil in a pan. Mince or crush the garlic and add it together with the marjoram and oregano. When the garlic begins to color, add the tomato sauce (or tomato puree and paste), the olives, and more salt and pepper to taste. Allow the flavors to mingle for a minute or two, stirring occasionally, then remove from the heat.
Thinly slice or grate the mozzarella. Cut the pepper into narrow slices.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Now it’s time for the pie crust: Remove the chilled dough from the fridge. Flour a large piece of parchment paper. Use a knife to cut the chilled dough in half. Working with half the dough at a time, flatten it into a disk with your hands - this may take some patience and gentle nudging, since the chilled dough will be hard - and roll it out with the same patience, until you a have a circle a little larger than your pie dish. Sliding your hand under the parchment paper, palm up, invert the pie dish over the dough with your other hand. In one quick motion, press the pie crust into the pan while turning it right side up. Carefully peel away the parchment paper.
Spread half the ricotta mixture into the prepared pie crust. Layer half the sliced or shredded mozzarella over it, followed by half the tomato sauce, and half the pepper slices. Repeat all the layers.
Roll out the other half of the dough on the parchment paper. Slide your hand under the parchment paper and place the second dough circle on top of the pie, this time inverting the paper over the filled pie dish. Peel away the parchment paper and cut away any crust, pinching the edges together with the bottom crust. With a sharp knife, cut three long parallel slashes through the top crust.
Bake the pie in the preheated oven for about 35 - 40 minutes, or until the top is browned. Let the pie stand at room temperature for half an hour before serving.