Easter often is associated with the candy aisle, and its tempting display of rainbow-hued jelly beans, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and bright-yellow marshmallow Peeps.
For an 85-year-old cheese company in Verona, the 40-day Lenten season is punctuated not by sweets but by an unusual cheese product that for two days each week leading up to Easter puts its small staff into curd-making overdrive. And no, it's not the ricotta on which the family has built its name over three generations.
It's called basket cheese, and it's been an Easter tradition at Lamagna Cheese Co. for as long as anyone can remember -- probably since the company first set up shop in the Strip District in 1928, guesses vice president Chris Lamagna, one of four brothers who now run the company.
If you're not Italian, or an Italian-American who grew up celebrating Nonna's Old World food traditions, you might be unfamiliar with this smooth, bright-white cheese that comes in white plastic containers. Delicate in texture (think tofu), it's made with pasteurized cows' milk and rennet, an enzyme that causes milk to become cheese by separating it into the solid curds and liquid whey. The stuff looks like a cross between fresh mozzarella and ricotta, but has a much milder taste than those semi-soft cousins -- somewhat bland, if we're going to be perfectly honest, with only the faintest flavor of curds.
"It's not a great table cheese," concedes Mr. Lamagna's brother Mike, the company's cheese master and the eldest of the four brothers. "It's used more as an ingredient."
Some eat basket cheese right out of the slotted container, on top of crackers or good crusty bread, perhaps with a little honey, jam or fruit to sweeten things up, or with a generous drizzle of good-quality olive oil, sprinkle of salt and grind of black pepper. You also can crumble the cheese onto tossed greens for a light lunch (it has just 70 calories in a 1-ounce serving) or pair thick slices with olive spread or tomatoes in a grilled-cheese sandwich. Others like to sprinkle it on top of pasta or marinate it for an antipasta, like they do at the cheese counter in Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip, with roasted peppers, olives, basil and garlic. You also can whip it with sugar and heavy cream into a velvety, pudding-like dessert.
Basket cheese's most popular use, though, say the Lamagnas, is in a rich, seasonal specialty known as Italian Easter pie.
Every region in Italy has its version of the savory dish, which also is known as pizza rustica, pizza chena or pizzagaina. In the Campagna region of Southern Italy, for instance, where the Easter tradition originated as a way to clear smokehouses of winter sausages, the double-crusted pie is stuffed with spicy-hot sopresatta and prosciutto along with basket cheese, ricotta and parmesan; you'll also find recipes that include hard-boiled eggs, salami, sausage, pepperoni or Parma ham -- sometimes all of the above. Really, there is no "right" way to do an Easter pie, other than to go all out with your favorite cured or salted meats and cheeses -- and not be cowed by all the calories. It helps celebrate one of Christianity's most important holidays, after all, so why not indulge?
Susan Parker of Ligonier is among those who happily grew up eating Easter pies.
"My grandmother had a stove in a basement kitchen as well as the one in the main kitchen," she recalls. "It was a pie-making factory, with conversation in Italian so we kids could not butt in."
And talk about volume. They would put the pies on every available space, Ms. Parker recalls. "In the pantry, on top of the china cabinet, to cool and keep out of our little hands."
She continued the tradition for a short time after she married, but her husband, who was from South Carolina, wasn't the biggest Italian-food fan. So today, it's just a fond memory.
Perhaps she should meet up with Nicole Shadel, a cooking instructor and food blogger from McMurray. Now in her 40s, "Nicky D," as she's known by her fans, has been eating basket cheese since she was a kid, and can't imagine an Easter without it. But only in pizza rustica, which in her Italian-American family is served both as dessert as well as something to "keep on the table to nosh on" between the appetizer and soup courses and manicotti.
"It's so delicious," she says of the cheese, which she buys at Uncommon Market in Bethel Park. "You're biting into this deep-dish pie and then you hit this golden nugget of soft cheese. It just adds this extra component of flavor."
What makes it taste even better, she adds, is the fact you can only get it once a year.
While similar products, such as Karoun Dairy's vacuum-packed Mediterranean Farm Fresh Basket Cheese, is available year-round at Giant Eagle ($7.49), you'll only find Lamagna basket cheese ($5 to $6 a pound, depending on the vendor) and Cleveland-made Miceli's Forme a Formaggio Basket Cheese ($7.99 for just under a pound) in early spring at Italian markets such as Pennsylvania Macaroni and Labriola's and larger supermarkets across the region. Which means if you're going to try it, you better do so quick, before it disappears off store shelves until next year.
Basket cheese is in a category known as formaggi freschi -- fresh cheeses sent to market after a very brief period of ripening (in Lamagna's case, less than a day). Because of its high moisture content, it has a very short shelf life -- three weeks at most, according to Mr. Lamagna -- and therefore is meant to be eaten shortly after it is purchased.
So while customers start calling for the product come Ash Wednesday, "you cannot sell a pound of it after Easter," said Chris Lamagna.
Fresh basket cheese is not to be confused with another Italian basket cheese known as canestrato, an aged artisanal cheese with a thick rind made from a mix of goat and sheep's milk that pairs especially well with fresh fruit and wine; one of Sicily's favorite table cheeses, canestrato also can be grated onto pasta or soup.
Yet both are similar in that each of the cheeses is formed and shaped in small, vented baskets. Traditionally, the baskets (canestri in Italian) were crafted from woven wicker or reeds; today, they're more often than not made of plastic. Whatever the material, the method makes for a beautiful presentation. When basket cheese is unmolded in your kitchen sink (it comes packed in brine), it reveals the impression of the basket it was made in.
We much preferred the Lamagna basket cheese to the Miceli's. Not only was it creamier in taste, but it also is molded in bigger containers and had a much more pronounced "basket" look.
While the daily production amounts are mind-boggling (some 800 pounds per batch), the making of fresh basket cheese is about as simple as it gets, says Mike Lamagna. After cooling the pasteurized milk to 90 degrees, the cheesemakers add rennet. Forty-five minutes later, when they've got a big vat of milk gelatin, it's ready for workers to cut the mass into cubes with a cheese harp.
"We rake it a few times to help take the whey from the cheese, then when it's firm enough, we drain away the excess whey and the curds fall to the bottom," says Mr. Lamagna.
After packing the tiny solid parts into plastic baskets, two are put on top of each other to create one unit, flipped a few times so any remaining whey drains away and then placed in a cooler for about an hour to firm up. After a quick 20-minute dip in a salt brine, they're put on racks once again to drain.
He says, "Then the next morning, we bag them" and it's off to market and into people's fridges.
In years past, Lamagna made upwards of 8,000 pounds of basket cheese during the Easter season. But as old-timers have died off, so has the tradition of baking pizza rustica on Good Friday and then breaking the Lenten fast with a huge, luscious slice on Easter Saturday. Today, the cheese company makes only about 6,000 pounds a season.
Which is too bad, really, because Easter pie and all the other dishes you can make with fresh basket cheese are nothing short of amazing.
Below, we offer a few easy recipes that allow this seasonal food to shine. They should please the traditionalists, as well as those looking to start new culinary traditions with a quintessential Italian food. Buona Pasqua!
Pizza rustica (Italian Easter Pie)
This luscious (and filling) pie, stuffed with meats and cheeses, is served by many Italian Catholics at noon on Easter Saturday to mark the end of Lent and break the six-week fast. I used a sweet pastry crust but a regular pie crust works just as well.
Be sure to let the pie cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting into slices, or you may have trouble getting it onto a plate in one piece. Delicious for breakfast the next morning!
Homemade or prepared pastry or regular pie crust for a 2-crust pie
1/2 pound bulk sausage, cooked and drained
1 small onion, chopped
1/4 pound pepperoni, chopped
1/4 pound hard salami, chopped
1/4 pound prosciutto, chopped
1 pound fresh basket cheese, drained
1 pound fresh ricotta
4 ounces shredded mozzarella
4 ounces shredded provolone
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
3 eggs, lightly beaten
Pepper to taste
Place bottom crust into 9-inch pie pan.
Prepare filling: Crumble and cook sausage. Add chopped onions, and cook until soft, about two to three minutes.
Chop the rest of the meats into small pieces. Drain fresh basket cheese, pat dry with paper towels, and then crumble or slice into bite-size pieces. Drain any excess moisture from ricotta.
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl (I used my hands). Pour filling into pie crust. (This is a lot of filling and you will have to pack it into pie plate.)
Put on top crust and seal edges. Cut slits in top to let steam escape.
Bake in 350-degree oven for 50 minutes (my pie took about 70 minutes to properly brown). If you like, brush the top of pie with melted butter. To prevent the pie from overbrowning, loosely cover the edges with aluminum foil, then remove foil during the last 15 minutes of baking.
-- Adapted from Lamagna Cheese Co.
Fried Basket Cheese
This dish is very similar to fried mozzarella sticks. In other words, kids should love it.
1 pound basket cheese
Vegetable or peanut oil for frying (1 to 2 cups)
1 cup panko or whole-wheat breadcrumbs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs, whisked
1/2 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
Salt and pepper
Fresh tomato sauce, for serving
Remove basket cheese from plastic basket holder. Pat dry with paper towels or clean dish towel. Freeze cheese for approximately 15 minutes to harden a bit. Slice into 1-inch wedges and set aside.
Place a heavy -bottomed deep pan with vegetable or peanut oil over medium-high heat.
Prepare breading by placing panko or whole-wheat breadcrumbs, all-purpose flour and 2 whisked eggs in separate bowls. Season the breadcrumbs with 2 to 3 sprigs of chopped parsley, about ½ cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese, salt and pepper.
Line up the dipping assembly line as follows: Basket-cheese pieces, flour, egg, then breadcrumbs.
Start by dredging one piece of cheese in flour and dust off excess. Next, dip the floured cheese in the egg. Finally, coat with breadcrumbs by pressing down with your hand on each side. Transfer to a dish and repeat until all basket cheese is breaded.
Once ready, carefully drop the breaded cheese into the hot oil and flip with a spider (a spoon-like utensil with slots or mesh basket and a long handle). Allow the breading to become golden brown and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil. Salt immediately. Transfer to a nice serving dish. Serve warm with prepared chunky tomato sauce and enjoy!
-- Adapted from Angelocarlino.com
Basket Cheese Panini
I don't have a panini press, so made this sandwich in a frying pan, like you would grilled cheese. The original recipe called for olive paste but I opted for sun-dried tomato spread. Fresh spinach completes the colors of the Italian flag.
2 slices ciabatta bread, each ½ inch thick
Olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper mixed for brushing
2 tablespoons sun-dried tomato paste or spread
2 1/4-inch-thick slices basket cheese
2 slices of tomato, thinly sliced
1/4 cup baby spinach, stemmed
Preheat an electric panini maker according to the manufacture's instructions.
Brush 1 side of each bread slice with olive oil mixture. Lay the slices, oiled side down, on a clean work surface. Spread the top of each slice with 1 tablespoon tomato paste. Place the basket cheese on 1 slice and top with tomato and spinach. Season with salt and pepper. Top with the other bread slice, oiled side up.
Place the sandwich on the preheated panini maker and cook according to the manufacturer's instructions until the bread is golden and the cheese is melted, 3 to 5 minutes.
Transfer the sandwich to a cutting board and cut in half. Serve immediately.
-- Adapted from Miceli Dairy Products (miceli-dairy.com)
Basket Cheese and Chocolate Pudding
Tastes like tiramisu!
1¾ cups heavy cream, divided
1/2 cup dark chocolate, chopped
1 pound basket cheese
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup Bailey's Irish Cream Liqueur
1½ tablespoon finely ground coffee
Heat 3/4 cup of the cream in a small sauce pan, bring to a boil remove from heat. Add chopped chocolate. Whisk until well incorporated, set aside and cool to room temperature.
In food processor, mix the basket cheese, sugar, Bailey's Irish Cream and ground coffee until smooth. Add remaining 1 cup of the cream and process until just mixed. Divide this mixture among 6 8-ounce dessert dishes.
Spoon the chocolate mixture over the basket cheese mixture and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Serves 6.
-- Narragansett Creamery