Recipe below: Torta with Escarole, Sausage, Almonds, and Fennel
Of all the themes in Southern Italian cooking, nothing, absolutely nothing, hits home for me more than savory pies, not even pasta, which is extremely dear to my heart. The first savory torte I ever tasted was most definitely the pizza rustica my family bought every Easter. The first time I tried it I was expecting sweetness. It looked so much like the ricotta cheesecakes that were also part of our Easter scene that it had to be sweet. But with one bite it opened up in my mouth with luscious savoriness. This is a high, solid pie filled with ricotta, prosciutto, provolone, and salami, encased in pastry, sometimes with a lattice top. My parents never made their own, but as soon as the cooking bug hit me, when I was 14, it was one of the first things I tried in the kitchen. The process was involved for a novice, and I needed more than a few attempts to work the pastry into something I could actually roll. But after several dusty, crumbly messes, the thing finally came out so well I couldn’t believe I had made it. I was on a cooking high for days. Where did I get the recipe? Not from a relative, so it must have been in a book. I can’t remember, but I made so many pizza rusticas my family got sick of seeing them and smelling them. My parents instructed me to trot them around to neighbors, who, refreshingly, appreciated them.
After that triumph, I learned how to make my grandmother’s torta di scarola, a very different creature. That was flat, green, greasy, and salty with anchovies, and the crust was made with olive oil. How peculiar it seemed. It too became a fixation.
For years now I’ve been delving into the vast repertoire of classic savory tortas, some rich, some austere, with varying notes of bitter and salty and even touches of sweetness. Their seasonings can include the entire Southern Italian pantry—pine nuts, pistachios, almonds, raisins, anchovies, mint, oregano, rosemary, fennel, honey, citrus zest. And I’ve come up with many improvisations on the theme, all holding the flavors of Southern Italian close at hand.
The torta I’ve assembled here is a far-flung variation on a double-crusted Christmas torta they make around Campania. It always includes both greens and fish. When I was a kid my mother’s friend Gloria, whose family came from Sorrento, made one with salt cold and escarole. It also contained almonds or pine nuts and raisins and, I think, capers. Everything Gloria made was excellent, but this really knocked me out. Somehow while reflecting on this particular torta, I decided to replace the fish with sausage. That made it completely unlike the original, but I just thought I’d mention my inspiration.
Oh, and another thing. I’ve taken some liberties with the pasta frolla, the pastry. I’ve added olive oil along with the usual butter. I’ve found that that makes the crust incredibly flaky and light, better for the rich filling I’ve chosen.
You’ll need a 10-inch quiche or tart pan with a removable bottom.
For the pastry:
2 cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into little pieces
The grated zest from 1 lemon
1 extra large egg, plus 1 egg yolk beaten with a little water to brush over the top
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
About 3 tablespoons cold, dry vermouth, or possibly a little more
For the filling:
2 large heads escarole, the leaves cut into small pieces
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ pound Italian pork sausage, removed from its casings
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A splash of dry vermouth (about 2 tablespoons)
The grated zest from 1 lemon
½ teaspoon lightly toasted fennel seeds, finely ground
About 6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
⅓ cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
1 extra large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons grated pecorino Toscano or Grana Padano cheese
To make the pastry, place the flour, salt, sugar, and nutmeg in the bowl of a food processor, and give it a few pulses to blend. Add the butter, pulsing a few times to break it into tiny pieces. In a small bowl, mix together the whole egg, lemon zest, olive oil, and 3 tablespoons of the vermouth. Pour this over the dough, and pulse very briefly, until the dough looks moist and crumbly but hasn’t formed a ball. You should be able to press a bit of it together between your fingers and have it stick. Add more vermouth if it’s still dry. Dump the crumbly dough out onto a work surface, and press it into a ball, giving it a few quick kneads. Divide the dough into two sections, one a little larger than the other, and wrap them in plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator at least and hour and a half before you want to assemble the torta. Or you can keep it overnight.
Set up a medium pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add some salt, and then add the escarole, blanching it for about 2 minutes. Drain and plunge it into an ice bath to stop the cooking. Now drain it again, and then squeeze out as much excess water as possible. Chop it well.
Take your dough from the refrigerator to let it warm up at bit.
In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium high flame. Add the sausage, breaking it up with your spoon, and sauté it until it’s lightly browned, about 3 minutes. In the last few moments of cooking, add the garlic. Now add the vermouth, and let it bubble until almost evaporated. Turn off the heat, and remove the pan from the stove. Add the escarole, lemon zest, fennel seed, thyme, the almonds, the egg, and the pecorino or Grana Padano. Season with salt, black pepper, and a little of the Aleppo, and mix everything well.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Coat your tart pan with a thin layer of olive oil, and place it on a sheet pan.
Roll the larger piece of dough out into a big circle. Drape it into the tart pan, leaving about an inch of overhang. Press the dough into the corners so it fits snugly. Stick it in the refrigerator.
Now roll out the smaller piece of dough to about the dimension of the pan, a little over 10 inches across.
Take the tart pan from the fridge, and fill it with the escarole sausage mix. Give it a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Place the smaller dough circle on top, pressing it to stick to the bottom dough rim. Now, with a pair of scissors, trim the overhang to about ½ inch all around. Make little folds all around so you have an attractive and nicely sealed border. Cut three little air slits in the top, and brush the tart with the egg wash.
Bake until golden, about 40 minutes. Let sit 15 minutes before slicing.