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Lent buster
Cook of the month Carol Leff's pizza rustica is steeped in love and memories

When Carol Leff finishes kneading the dough for pizza rustica, the meat and cheese pie eaten the day before Easter, she makes the sign of the cross over the bowl.

"My grandmother always made the sign of the cross over the dough when she put it to rise," said Leff, The News' March Cook of the Month. "I made the sign of the cross over the dough this morning," a little prayer, she said. " 'Grandma, don't let me be embarrassed when The Buffalo News comes.'"

Inside a sturdy bread dough crust, layers of Romano-enriched ricotta cheese are interspersed with salami, sopressata and prosciutto, plus hard-boiled eggs. This isn't diet food. But Holy Saturday comes but once a year.

"It was made for Holy Saturday because the fasters could have meat, finally on Holy Saturday, after fasting Good Friday," said Leff, whose maiden name is Mavica. "So they just used to put it in all together."

It's called pizza rustica, and you'll find variations across Italy, with differences in fillings and assembly, Leff said. "This is Calabrese, from my Calabrian grandmother, Grandma Zicaro," she said. "My Sicilian grandmother didn't make it."

Every time she puts her pizza rustica in the oven, Leff said, she thinks of the people who passed on the lessons that made her the cook she is today.

"It's tradition," said Leff, who lives in Lancaster with Jeffrey, her husband of 34 years. "I love my grandparents, I love my mother and father. My mother passed away 22 years ago, my father 19. It's just a way of keeping, in my heart, that connection."

At home, where she runs the office for her husband's furniture business, Leff likes to turn out jambalaya and other eclectic dinners for friends. But her soul food is Italian specialties, like her "Sunday gravy," or tomato sauce with meat, which has left some eaters begging for cooking lessons.

Leff's gravy starts with tomatoes and typical ingredients like sausage, but the meat parade has only begun. To get the flavor she's after, Leff will add lamb neck bones and beef, and pigs' feet. At times, she'll go all the way with a braciole of pigskin, stuffed with bread crumbs, parsley and cheese, tied with butcher's string and simmered, along with everything else, until tender.

That's the way her grandmothers and aunts did it, from her childhood days in Brooklyn. That's where she learned to make her marinara sauce -- with onion instead of garlic, the way great-grandma did it -- and began her baking career.

Carol moved to Buffalo with her family in 1969. She met her future husband at her father's furniture business, where Jeffrey had arrived on a salesman's call.

Their first date was over food, at Dave's and Len's Deli in the former Statler Hilton. "They flew their pickles in from Brooklyn every day, and I would ask him to bring back a pickle for me," said Leff. "One day he said, 'No, you'll have to come to lunch if you want a pickle.' That was really our first date."

Now, with son Jason grown and living in Houston, Leff isn't cooking for such a large crowd on Easter. Shouldering her role as curator of family recipes, she has made a book of family favorites and family pictures, a memory book with food. It's illustrated with "pictures of my mother and my grandmothers, the three women responsible for me cooking the way I do," said Leff.

Will she be able to pass on the traditions? Leff sighed in response.

"I'm hoping," she said.

> Grandma Zicaro's Sausage Pie (Pizza Rustica)

4 pounds ricotta cheese

8 uncooked eggs

2 pounds mozzarella cheese, shredded yourself

1 cup grated Romano cheese, preferably Locatelli

1 pound sliced Genoa salami

1 pound sliced semi-dry sausage, like sopressata

1 pound sliced prosciutto

6 hard-boiled eggs, sliced

Salt and pepper

Use Easter bread dough, recipe below, for bottom and top crust of a 2-inch-deep, 12-inch pan, preferably springform.

Roll out about one third of the dough to a circle 3 to 4 inches wider than the pan bottom. Place bottom dough in oiled pan, with edges hanging over pan sides.

Beat ricotta, raw eggs, Romano cheese, with salt and pepper to taste, until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Fold in mozzarella.

Cover bottom with layer of cold cuts. Spoon in half of ricotta mixture and distribute evenly. Place half of the hard-boiled egg slices in layer.

Cover eggs with another layer of sliced meats, then remaining hard-boiled eggs. (There may be meat left over.) Spoon in the rest of the ricotta and distribute evenly.

Roll out another third of the dough, approximately, for the top. Trim it with scissors to leave a 1-inch overhang. Twist the top dough and bottom dough together to seal. Use a sharp knife to slit vents in top dough.

Bake in 400-degree oven until golden brown, about 2 hours. Let cool completely before removing from pan. Serves 10 to 16, depending on appetite.

> Easter Bread Dough

5 pounds flour

5 ounces cake yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons salt

15 eggs, beaten

Lukewarm water

Dissolve yeast in a small amount of warm water with a teaspoon of sugar.

Place flour in a large pot with salt. Add beaten eggs and dissolved yeast, work together adding more water as needed. Dough should be sticky after kneading.

Cover and place in a warm spot to rise, until double in size, about 4 hours. Punch down and let rise again, about 4 hours. Then dough is ready to use for pizza rustica.

The recipe will usually produce enough leftover dough for a loaf of bread: Shape, place on cookie sheet, cover and let rest for 1/2 hour. Bake in a 400-degree oven until light brown. Slide from sheets into oven rack and bake until golden.

> Name: Carol (Mavica) Leff

Dish: Pizza rustica

Residence: Lancaster

Mouths to feed: 2

Go-to-instant meal: Pasta and peas

Guilty pleasure: Pasta with "Sunday gravy"

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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