Time Honored Pies
This dish is a specialty from my father’s town of Ragusa, Sicily. Ragusa is close to the southern most point of Sicily. The origins of Ragusa can be traced back to the 2nd century BC. Over the century’s Ragusa has been occupied by the Greeks, Carthaginians, the Arabs in 848 AD and in the 11th century by the Normans. That might be the reason my brother Richard and I have blue eyes.
Today, Ragusa bustles with light Industry, Agriculture (horticulture, olives), farming and small oil fields. I can remember watching family movies of my father’s visit to his home town, posing in front of the oil rigs with his mother and father and cousins. When I went to visit his town in 1969 I could remember beautiful parks and baroque style buildings lining the streets. My Aunt Angie and Uncle Benny, who was with us on that trip, could not remember the street my father’s house was on. So we asked a person just walking by if he knew where the “family Bocchieri” had lived. Can you imagine doing that in any town around here? He didn’t know but said he would bring us to a person that did. We walked a few blocks away and the gentleman yelled up to a second story window. A few seconds later this sweet old woman came to the window and was posed the question. She thought for a few seconds and then her hands went wild in the air and she knew exactly where the “family Bocchieri” had lived. I thought that was truly amazing.
Mpanata is a pie made with many fillings. Mpanata means, “between the bread”. This style of flatbread or Focacce dates back to the Moors occupying Sicily. We would always make these pies for Christmas and Easter holiday dinners, among other things. Some of the fillings included lamb, onions and red wine for Easter – broccoli rabe, garlic and oil, sweet sausage and caciocavallo cheese (another specialty cheese originating from Ragusa) – spinach, capers, breadcrumbs, currants and walnuts – and my favorite, broccoli, black olives, garlic and olive oil and caciocavallo cheese.
I could remember my Aunts and grandmother in the kitchen with their aprons on and flour dusted all over the table as they worked as a team, one rolling out the dough as the other would be preparing the saute broccoli or spinach. It made Christmas a special time. My Aunt Mary and Aunt Angie would bring platters of this mpanata to the table for Christmas Eve. There was nothing better than waking up the next morning and having it for breakfast,along with the Scacciata and home-made Sfinciuni (Sicilian onion pizza). They were even great right out of the ice box without warming them up.
All my aunts and uncles and grandparents are gone now and I seem to be the only one in the family that carries on cooking these traditional family dishes. I feel like by sharing these recipes with you, in a way, their legacy lives on.
My parents are both 92 and are the last of their generation from my family. Till this day when I visit my mother in Long Island she throws me a hint that she wants me to make her mpanata . Her diet is extremely limited, but this she can eat. And how I enjoy watching her dine on a simple food that links her with her past. I’m sure it brings back memories for her of her mother and grandmother. How can I let this tradition fade?
Here is filling #1 in a series of mpanata recipes that I have.
For the Dough
2 lb. bread flour
2 envelopes of dry yeast
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
Or buy 2 lb. of bread dough in your local Italian bakery.
The Dough – Making the starter
In a bowl mix ½ cup of warm water and the yeast. Add the sugar, ½ cup of flour, mix until it is well blended and a soft dough is obtained. The starter should be just a little thicker than pancake batter. Set aside covered in a warm place.
After 45 minutes to 1 hour combine risen dough with 1 3/4 cup of warm water in a large mixing bowl. Add half of remaining flour , the oil, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and knead, adding the rest of the flour to get an elastic dough, like bread dough. If you are using a stand mixer, knead the dough with the dough hook for about 3 minutes. Add remaining flour a little at a time until the dough rides up the hook. Take the dough out of the mixer and hand knead for at least 5 minutes.
Dough should be smooth, elastic and slightly tacky. Make a ball, cover it in a large lightly oiled bowl and put in a warm place until it almost doubles in size, 1 to 2 hours.
For the Filling
2 bunches broccoli rabe, remove the tough stems, cut 1 inch from bottom and rinse
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 lb. Italian sausages, casing removed if link sausage. If using the thin spiral sausage, cut into 1 inch pieces.
¼ lb caciocavallo cheese* cut in ¼ inch cubes
salt and pepper
In a 4 qt. saucepan, bring to a boil about 2 quarts of water with ½ tablespoon of salt. Put broccoli rabe in the boiling water to blanch them just long enough for the water to return to a boil. Drain and set aside.
In a 4 qt. saucepan, over a medium flame heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil and the garlic. Just when the garlic starts to sizzle add broccoli rabe and sauté for 10 minutes, until tender. Add about 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper to your taste. Don’t forget, the sausage and cheese add salt to this dish, so don’t over salt.
Remove from flame and using a slotted spoon place in a colander to drain and set aside.
Using the oil and liquid left from the broccoli cook the sausages meat over a medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from flame using a slotted spoon place in the colander with the broccoli rabe, to drain.
Preheat oven to 375.
When dough is ready, on a lightly floured surface, split it in 2 pieces. Briefly knead each piece, roll it into a round shape and place in a greased pan.
Spoon the filling over it; add the cubed cheese, making sure to leave the edges free of filling.
Knead the other piece of dough and roll it into a round shape. Moisten the edge of the mpanata with water, place on the top of the dough with the filling. Seal it well; pinching all around to make sure it is sealed firmly.
Cut 2 or 3 slits on top to let the vapor to escape.
Place in the 375 oven and cook 15 minutes. Take out and brush with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and return to the oven for an extra 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. If the mpanata doesn’t brown after 30 minutes place on a higher level of the oven and check it 5 minutes at a time.
*Caciocavallo cheese is a soft cheese made in southern Italy. It taste like a mild provolone . You can buy it in anyItalian specialty store. Sorrento’s Pastry shop in East Hanover carries it also. While you’re there you can pick up some bread dough if you don’t want to make your own.