November 26, 2014 12:00 PM

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Sasha Alexander invented a whole new holiday tradition as a way to honor the important women in her life. “Every year I do a gratitude dinner or lunch to thank my girlfriends for being there for me and for being amazing women,” says the actress, 41. “We all have such busy and full lives—especially when you’re juggling work and kids—and you just don’t get to spend that time together to say, ‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re so awesome.’ ”

The Rizzoli & Isles star’s annual event is heavy on Italian influences—Alexander is of Italian descent, as is her husband, director Edoardo Ponti, 41, son of screen legend Sophia Loren. “We do some very traditional Italian things, like we always eat lentils, which bring prosperity,” says the actress and mother of daughter Lucia, 8, and son Leonardo, 3. “And the minute people arrive, I tie a little red piece of yarn to their wrist, which is for good luck and health. You’re supposed to keep it on as long as it stays on. It’s something my family has always done.”

And while Loren doesn’t usually attend the event, her larger-than-life presence still makes her mark on the meal. This year, in fact, Alexander decided to include some dishes from her mother-in-law’s cookbook Recipes and Memories, including Alexander’s favorite: the ricotta pie. “It’s pretty amazing,” she says, “especially with raspberries on top.” (In fact Alexander is such a fan of her mother-in-law’s culinary skills, she’s working on an adaptation of the 1998 cookbook. “A lot of the recipes take a long time or use ingredients we don’t carry here in America,” she explains. “I want to modernize it and make it more efficient for a family.”) And the entire spread is served on red-and-gilt English country rose china handed down from Loren. “This was their Christmas china for years, and it was given to my husband and me when we got married. It’s something that I pull out on special occasions.”

Alexander masterfully melds the formal china with her rustic farm table and burlap place mats, along with miniature dahlia centerpieces from Botany, an L.A.-based florist, and accents from A2B Table, a home-goods website owned by a friend. “Instead of using traditional napkin holders, I use rosemary and twine,” says the self-professed “arts and crafts geek,” who dreams of opening a paper and craft store one day. “Then I put a little card on each one that I hand-emboss myself with a word explaining what that person embodies to me—’strength,’ ‘courage,’ ‘joy.'” During the party, Alexander makes sure she spends one-on-one time with every guest. “It gets a little raunchy at the end because I’ve got a few friends who have wicked senses of humor,” she admits. “But it’s a great way to get caught up and share what’s happening with everyone.”

SOPHIA LOREN’S RICOTTA PIE

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar, divided

Large pinch of salt

8 tbsp. cold, unsalted butter, cubed

2 large eggs, divided

4 large egg yolks, divided

3¼ tsp. lemon zest, divided

1 (16-oz.) carton whole milk ricotta

2 tbsp. pine nuts

2 tbsp. golden raisins

1 tbsp. minced candied orange peel

1 tbsp. minced candied citron

All-purpose flour (for rolling out the dough)

Unsalted butter (for greasing the pan)

1. Whisk together flour, ½ cup sugar and salt in a large bowl. Blend in chilled butter using a fork or by hand until mixture resembles coarse meal; set aside.

2. Whisk together 1 egg, 1 egg yolk and ¼ tsp. lemon zest; add to flour mixture, stirring just until blended. Add 2 to 3 tsp. ice water to mixture, if necessary, to hold dough together. Shape about two-thirds of the dough mixture into a ball; flatten dough into a ½-in. thick disc, and wrap in plastic wrap. Repeat procedure with remaining dough. Chill dough at least 1 hour.

3. Whisk together ricotta, remaining sugar, 1 egg and 2 egg yolks until smooth. Stir in pine nuts, next 3 ingredients and remaining lemon zest; set aside.

4. Preheat oven to 350º. Place larger ball of dough on a lightly floured work surface. Sprinkle top of dough and rolling pin with flour. Roll dough into a ¼-in.-thick, 12-in. circle. Transfer to a well-buttered 9-in. pie or tart pan with removable sides. Press dough gently in place; allow dough edges to hang over sides of pan.

5. Pour ricotta mixture into tart shell; smooth top with small spatula. Cover loosely and chill.

6. Place remaining dough on a lightly floured work surface. Sprinkle top of dough and rolling pin with flour. Roll dough into a ¼-in.-thick, 9×11-in. rectangle. Cut dough into ½-in. strips using a pastry wheel or a small, very sharp knife.

7. Remove filled tart shell from refrigerator. Arrange dough strips diagonally over filling to create a lattice pattern. Trim excess ends of dough strips. Fold edges of tart shell pastry to cover ends of lattice strips; crimp edges to seal.

8. Whisk together remaining egg yolk and 1 to 2 tsp. water until blended. Brush egg mixture evenly over pastry edges and lattice strips.

9. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until crust is golden and filling is puffed. Transfer to wire rack; cool 15 minutes. Remove sides of tart pan; cool tart completely on a wire rack. Serve at room temperature.

Makes: 8 to 10 servings Prep time: 2 hours (including chilling and cooling) Cook time: 40 to 45 minutes

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