Pizzachin: A Christmas Tradition
Inevitably, spending the holidays away from my family gets me a little nostalgic. I’m a sucker for old things. I love things that connect me to people, past or present. It’s one of the things I love about food, and especially food traditions. And food is an essential cornerstone of the Micai family. My mom’s side of the family is Italian-American and the majority of them live in New Jersey. The running family joke is that all we do when we get together is eat and talk about what we’re going to eat next.
I remember the first time I was allowed to make pizzachin with my mom. Every Christmas season various members of my mom’s family make the special roll (similar to a stromboli) for Christmas Eve dinner. Living across the country in Idaho, away from her mother and brothers in New Jersey, it was a way for my mom and us to be connected to the Micai’s, even if we weren’t together. I think I was somewhere around 10 or 12 years old, maybe younger when I first helped make it, though I’d eaten it before. I helped my mom with the first couple rolls and then a phone call interrupted. She sat in the living room talking for a while and instead of stopping, I just kept rolling and filling, rolling and filing the pizzachin until they were all done. I didn’t want to stop just because mom wasn’t there. It was too fun. And every year following, I made the pizzachin.
The origin of pizzachin (pronounced pizza-keen, not like pizza chin) is a point of contention in the family. Nobody is entirely sure where it came from and the Micai's discuss/debate who first made it all the time.
From what I can gather from my mom, she first remembers her Uncle Chick (she doesn’t know his real name) making the roll when she was around 5 years old. Uncle Chick was my grandma’s brother-in-law, the husband of one of her older sisters. This is on the Mulé side of the family. However, the Micai side of the family (my grandfather’s) also made pizzachin at some point. Both sides of the family emigrated from different parts of Italy. The Mulé’s from Villalba, Sicily, the Micai’s from Sermide, a town near Bologna in northern Italy. My grandma and grandpa started making pizzachin when my mom was older, in her teens. It even changed forms in the time they made it. Originally it was made by using the leftover ends of deli meats from the deli counter at the grocery store, the pieces that were too small to cut with the slicer. It was a lot cheaper this way. It wasn’t until later that they started buying sliced meats.
When I look up pizzachin on the internet, it gets even more confusing. It doesn’t exist. Pizzachena, pizzachina, and pizzachiena are the closest. My mom and aunt speculate that the last “a” was dropped like most Italian words that got translated to English (interesting article here about the Italian-American accent). They all refer to a meat and cheese pie that is an Easter tradition in Italy. It’s a type of deep-dish pie with either bread dough or pie dough that is filled with cured meats and cheeses. Some recipes I found even had hardboiled eggs or potatoes. Another I found was similar to the roll that we make, but instead of lunch meats, it was filled with Italian sausage. I finally found one allusion to pizzachina being served at Christmas-time in travel blog talking about Christmas in Italy. It was just half a sentence talking about family traditions and the “kind of a calzone stuffed with egg, cheese, and salami.”
Regardless of where it came from, it’s delicious, and one of my favorite Christmas traditions. I don’t really have a recipe, but here’s the method if you want to try to make your own.
1. Roll out the dough.
For some reason, we always used Rhodes frozen bread dough. It came in packs of three and one of the defining parts of making pizza chin was leaving it out to thaw and rise overnight. We’d wake up and they would be these huge balloons of dough taking over the counter. You can really use any pizza or bread dough. It just has to be rolled as thin as possible, using olive oil to prevent it from sticking to the surface.
2. The meats and cheese.
I use black forest ham, soppressata, cappicola (hot coppa), and provolone cheese. It’s usually about 6 slices of ham, 5 of soppressata, 5 of coppa and 3 of provolone (cut in half). I just buy a bunch of it at a grocery store or deli, making sure to ask for it sliced as thin as possible. Like, paper thin. I usually divide up the meats and cheese evenly and just use whatever I have. It’s not every exact. The dough should just be covered, with very little space not covered in meat or cheese, including all the way to the edges of the dough.
3. We brush the inside with melted butter and garlic powder before adding the meats and cheese. then we add the meats.
4. Roll the pizzachin.
Once it’s completely rolled, pinch the ends as tight as possible and trim any excess dough. Place the roll seam side down on a baking sheet with parchment paper. Brush the outside with a little more butter. Bake in a 350 F oven for about 45 minutes - 1 hour until it is golden brown.
Cut it into little pinwheels and enjoy! Pizzachin is actually even better (in my opinion) once it’s a couple days old and reheated in the oven. I’m not sure why, but it is.
You can make any variation on this that you’d like. Some family friends have served it with a side of sauce (but it really doesn’t need it). Apparently my grandma tried to add vegetables like broccoli to it when my mom was younger, but nobody wanted it. It’s honestly best just as is, with all the meats and cheeses really shining through.