20 April 2014

LIFE: A Vatican Easter

CHIAVARI, Italy - For the past few days the Italian television airwaves have been taken over by the religious Easter festivities in Rome. Here in Italy the celebrations officially start on Holy Thursday with the Mass of Chrism, (holy anointing oil).  This mass includes the reading of the Passion, which  chronicles Jesus’ capture, suffering and death. 
 Vatican, Rome
Later in the day, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Pope Benedict XVI will wash the feet of 12 men, following the tradition of Jesus and his Apostles. Both masses mark Christ's founding of the priesthood at the Last Supper on the night before he died.

On Good Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion in 33AD, the Pope says mass in the Basilica of St. John Lateran (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano). St. John’s was built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity and St. John’s is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. It is known as Omnium urbis et orbis Ecclessarium Mater et Caput – the Cathedral of Rome and of the World.   
 Via Crucis, Rome
 On Friday evening the Pope leads a torch-lit procession from the Colosseum to Palatine Hill (Via Crucis Procession), and at pre-designated stops, they recite the prayers appropriate for each of the Stations of the Cross.

The Easter Vigil mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica will start at 9PM on Saturday night. No lights will be lit. The Basilica will be shrouded in darkness until Pope Benedict XVI enters. He will be carrying a long, white Paschal, a special Easter candle decorated with gold leaf. 
 Pope Francis, Holy Friday Mass
From the single flame of the Paschal, twelve candles are lit and from those twelve, hundreds of other smaller candles will be lit, one by one,  until the entire church is bathe in candlelight. As the candles are being lit, the Pope will proceed to the altar and begin Mass by saying: 

 Brothers, on this most holy of nights, in which Jesus Christ our Lord passed from the depths of death to life, the Church, in every part of the world, calls on its children to keep watch and pray.” 
 Pope Francis
He will be dressed in a gold robe, called a chasuble, with a white and gold stole around his neck. On his head will be a precious gold and white mitre encrusted with jewels. Versions of the chasuble and the mitre were part of the normal clothing worn by the Romans in the early days of Christianity, and were adopted by Christian clerics.  The Romans wore hats that were very similar in style to the mitre, and the chasuble is simply a variation of the robes worn throughout the Roman Empire. 

The colors of the Pope’s chasuble and mitre are important as colors represent qualities such as virtue and holiness.  The gold color of the Pope’s chasuble symbolizes what is precious and valuable. It also symbolizes majesty, joy and celebration, and because of its brightness, metallic gold, like that found on the Pope’s miter, symbolizes the presence of God. 

Under the chasuble he is wearing a white robe.  Visible is a part of the collar around his neck and the edges of the cuffs under his sleeves. The color white has long symbolized purity, holiness and virtue, as well as respect and reverence. It is used for all high Holy Days and festivals.
 Easter Mass, Vatican

Easter Sunday is joyful. The Vatican altar is filled with flowers in anticipation of the mass that will be said there to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus and his Ascension into Heaven. The Pope shares this special day with the thousands of faithful followers who gather in St. Peter’s Square to see him. He stands before the crowd and delivers his message of peace for the Urbi et Orbi (the city and the world).  After the Urbi et Orbi message, which is broadcast throughout the world, the Pope blesses the crowd.  

You can participate in all of the Easter events  and and information on how to do that is available on the Vatican web site (www.vatican.va). And it is all free. You do need to make reservations for everything however, including the Sabato Santo (Holy Saturday) mass at the Vatican. 

You can also make a reservation for a Papal audience on the same web site. Some tour operators have been known to charge large amounts of money for a Papal audience, but there is absolutely no charge . Actually you are better off if you organize your own visit.  You just have to do it well in advance as tickets are limited. 

 Invitation for a Papal Audience at the Vatican
To reserve a place at a Papal audience go to this page of the Vatican website http://www.vatican.va/various/prefettura/index en.html and click on the “continue” button at the bottom of the page. It will take you to an application form that you can download, fill out and return to the Vatican office. The form must be sent by fax or mail (no email) - the instructions are on the site - and when your application has been processed you will receive instructions regarding your audience and where to pick up your tickets. 

It's a good idea to stay until the end of the audience as that is when the Pope will bless everyone in the audience and those who can’t be there. And if you take your medals and rosary beads and other items to the audience, you can then give them as gifts knowing that they have received the Pope’s personal blessing.

Happy Easter.

17 April 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Easter Pie alla Genovese

CHIAVARI, Italy –  In Italy, torta Pasqualina is to Easter what turkey stuffing is to Thanksgiving in the U.S.A. It just wouldn’t be the same without it.  This savory torta, which is very similar to the far more popular French dish – quiche, originated in Genova during the 1600’s.

 Torta Pasqualina
It is a dish that in the past was served exclusively in the spring – at Easter to be more precise - which is how it got it’s name – Pasqua, which means Easter in Italian. And it is also why the traditional Pasqualina recipe called for 33 layers of puff pastry, one for each year of Christ’s life.

One of the differences between quiche and torta Pasqualina is that the ingredients of our torta are not mixed together and cooked in an egg and milk custard as they are in a quiche, but layered, starting with Swiss chard. Next comes a layer of prescineua, a fresh, light cheese that is similar to cream cheese. Prescineau, which I’m still trying to figure out how to pronounce, is a Ligurian specialty cheese and not found outside of the region so ricotta is often used as a substitute.

 Layers of Deliciousness
As for the 33 layers of pastry, no one really does that any more. One more modern recipes I found  called for 10 layers of pastry, five on the bottom and five on the top, but most of the recipes seemed to make do with four, even when using frozen grocery store puff pastry. The recipe below calls for two layers of puff pastry, one for the bottom and one for the top, but if you choose to go the traditional route and use more than one, be sure to brush a little olive oil between each layer so they stay flakey and don’t stick together.

But the most distinctive difference between torta pasqualina and quiche is the addition of whole raw egg yolks to top the final layer. In the traditional torta recipe, the one with 33 layers of pastry, it calls for 13 yolks to be placed on the top of the torta, twelve yolks around the edges and one yolk in the center, representing Christ and His 12 apostles. 

 The Final Touch
But whether you use 13 or 4 as called for in the recipe below, the raw yolks are placed in a hollow made in the cheese layer with the back of a tablespoon. The whites are then lightly beaten and a few spoonfuls of the frothy whites are spooned over the top before adding the final layer of pastry.

Torta Pasqualina
Serves 6-8 (as an appetizer)

500 grams of frozen puff pastry
1 kg of Swiss chard
½ medium onion finely chopped
500 gr. of whole milk ricotta
250 gr. light cream
8 eggs
50 gr. butter
125 gr. grated Parmesan cheese   
1 tablespoon of chopped, fresh marjoram
Salt and pepper

Thaw the puff pastry at room temperature (about 2 hours)

Sauté the chopped onion in a little butter and olive oil until it is translucent. Blanche the Swiss chard in boiling water for 3 or 4 minutes, drain, squeeze dry, rough chop and add to the sautéed onions and cook together to blend the flavors. Then add a pinch of salt, pepper and the marjoram to the Swiss chard and onions, mix and set aside to cool.

In the meantime, as the Swiss chard is cooling, combine the ricotta with the Parmesan cheese, light cream and 2 lightly beaten eggs. Set aside.

Roll out one portion of puff pastry and place it in the lightly greased baking pan, with a couple of inches of overlap, which will be used to seal the top.  When the Swiss chard is room temperature, mix in 2 lightly beaten whole eggs and sprinkle with a few spoons of grated parmesan cheese and spread the mixture on the bottom of the baking pan.

Top the Swiss chard with an even layer of ricotta. With the back of a tablespoon, make 4 evenly spaced indentation on the top of the cheese layer. Separate the first raw egg and place the yolk in the indentation. Fill the remaining indentations the same way, using the last 3 eggs.

Lightly beat the egg whites and carefully spoon some of the frothy egg white mixture over the cheese and egg yolk layer.  Cover with the remaining sheet (or sheets) of puff pastry and carefully seal the edges. Brush the top with a bit of milk, and prick with a fork or a small sharp knife, to allow the steam to escape.

Bake in a pre-heated oven – 186 degrees C (360 degrees F) for 40 minutes, or until golden brown. If the instructions on the package of frozen puff pastry call for a higher temperature, I would suggest following those directions, just check the torta often to make sure it cooking and browning and not burning.

Serve warm or room temperature. 

 Perfect for a Picnic

If you are not familiar with Swiss chard, it’s a dark green leafy vegetable that looks a lot like spinach, but tastes a little sweeter. In other parts of the world Swiss chard stems come in different colors, but here in Italy they are always white. Like spinach, Swiss chard needs to be carefully washed and the stems trimmed.   

There is nothing that says you can’t mix the Swiss chard and ricotta together and eliminate the layers, and in fact many recipes call for you to do just that. You might be tempted to eliminate the egg yolks on the top layer as well, but I wouldn’t recommend it. They really do add an extra dimension to the dish.

About puff pastry. Here in Italy puff pastry is sold two to a package, so I usually buy two packages for this recipe because I prefer four thin layers of dough.  It’s not a bad idea to lightly grease your baking pan with olive oil, or line it with parchment paper, and if you use a spring form baking pan it will be easier to remove the torta for serving.

Torta pasqualina can be served warm or cold and it’s a ‘must’ for the Easter table as it is perfect to take along for the traditional Pasquetta  ‘picnic fuori casa’,  picnic in the country – or at least out in the open - on Easter Monday, which is also a national holiday here in Italy. Happy Easter.

13 April 2014

LIFE: Palm Sunday at the Vatican

CHIAVARI, Italy – Today is Palm Sunday. In Italy, church ladies have been selling braided palms in the local street markets this week, while others have been busy decorating their churches with palm fronds and braided palm crosses. It’s an old custom. It reminds us of the crowds that held palms and olive branches as symbols of peace and joy when they greeted Christ as he entered Jerusalem six days before his passion.  
Pope Francis and the Palms of Bordighera
In Rome’s St Peter’s Square two thousand woven palms from the Italian Riviera towns of Bordighera and San Remo will be blessed and given away. One hundred palms have already been given to the Cardinals, with the largest one reserved for Pope Francis.

The palms are a gift from those two Ligurian towns and are part of a long tradition that began in 1586. That was the year Pope Sisto V decided to move an ancient Egyptian obelisk that had been brought to Rome by the Roman Emperor Caligula in the year 37 BC.  Pope Sisto V wanted the obelisk moved from its location in Caligula’s Circus to St. Peter’s Square.
The Obelisk in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican
So workmen got busy building the foundations needed to support the heavy obelisk and by the scheduled installation date of September 10, 1586, all was ready. Hundreds of Romans began to gather in  St. Peter’s Square. The monument weighed 350 tons and it was going to take 900 workers, 140 horses and 44 winches to move it and try to set it up. Who would want to miss that show? No one.  

The Vatican’s Chief Engineer, Domenico Fontana, warned the Pope that the project was very risky and that total silence would be needed to raise the obelisk once it was in the Square. Fontana said that even the slightest sound could distract a worker and result in the obelisk crashing down on the crowd. In other words, a total disaster. The Pope turned to the crowd and said, “if anyone speaks or makes any noise during this delicate and risky operation, they will be sentenced to death.”

Cardinals Carrying Palms of Bordighera 
As the obelisk was slowly raised, the ropes holding it began to weaken and the obelisk began to wobble perilously.  Everyone, including the Pope, was holding their breath. It soon became obvious that the ropes were not going to hold, they were starting to fray and were almost at their breaking point. The ancient Egyptian obelisk was in serious danger of crashing into the ground.

Just then, Benedetto Bresca, a ship’s captain from the Ligurian town of Bordighera, cried out – “aiga ae corde!” Put water on the ropes. The Chief Engineer spun around to see who dared to speak out, but then he realized the Captain was right. He ordered the ropes to be doused with water. They soon became taut and strong and the obelisk was raised without further danger of falling. Six days later it was blessed and consecrated.
Weaving Palms, One by One 
In spite of the Pope’s demand for silence, the Captain wasn’t punished for his outburst, instead he was praised. As a reward, the Pope asked him what he wanted and Captain Bresca said what he really wanted was for his town of Bordighera to provide Ligurian palms to the Holy Week ceremonies at the Vatican.

It’s been more than four centuries since that day the Captain spoke out, and the cities of San Remo and Bordighera have been sending palms to the Vatican ever since. They are used for the Vatican’s traditional ceremony of the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday. For this special ceremony the palms, which are known as parmureli, are woven and braided into intricate sculptures large and small.
 Not as Easy as it Looks
You may think that Captain Breca’s story is pure fiction but there is no denying the fact that Bordighera and San Remo do have had the exclusive right to supply the Vatican with palms for Palm Sunday, and those rights are in perpetuity.

If you happen to be at the Vatican on Ash Wednesday, the ashes you receive will be the ashes of the palms of Bordighera and San Remo. The Vatican, and many churches throughout Italy save their palms from Palm Sunday and burn them for Ash Wednesday. The Church considers the ashes from the blessed palms to be sacramental and endowed with the power to promote good thoughts and increase devotion.