- Associated Press - Thursday, April 17, 2014

VERONA, Pa. (AP) - 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 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, 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 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.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/RrPYYI

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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