I am a self-confessed dessert addict. If anything rich, creamy and sweet comes my way, I have to have it. Since the Tuscan idea of dessert mostly tends to be healthy fresh fruit or biscotti, and doesn’t fully satisfy the dessert addict within, this Easter I’m turning to Southern Italy for some inspiration and tradition – the Pastiera Napoletana.
It’s rather like a cheesecake (of sorts) but with a pastry base and lattice top. When I first made one I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and thought it was probably one of the most mad desserts I’d ever come across – whole cooked grains, candied citrus, cinnamon, vanilla and orange blossom water flavour a sweet ricotta and egg base – it sounds intense but the combination is to die for. This bomb of a dessert has a texture that seems actually lighter and fluffier than a cheesecake and is surprisingly delicate.
The tradition of the Pastiera goes back to ancient times when it was a Spring time ritual and over the centuries, like many pagan rituals, it became a part of religious events and is now an Easter classic. Each individual ingredient is said to be symbolic, the most important one being the whole cooked grains, so try not to skip out on anything in this recipe!
Pastiera is an easy dessert but it takes time and planning and you cannot be in a rush to make this. These days it’s traditionally made for Easter Sunday lunch, which means that housewives all over Naples begin making this on the Thursday or at least the Friday before Easter – and this is for those using pre-cooked grains (grano cotto) that you can buy in a jar in Italian supermarkets. For those cooking their own grains, you need to begin that at least three days earlier. The grains are soaked in water, which is changed often over three days, and is then boiled in milk.
Ingredients for pastry:
- 125 grams unsalted cold butter
- 250 grams of flour
- 1 whole egg, plus one yolk
- vanilla essence
- 100 grams of icing sugar
Ingredients for the filling:
- 250 grams of cooked whole grains*
- 200 ml milk
- 30 grams of butter
- 350 grams of fresh ricotta (from sheep and cow’s milk, if you can get a mixture of both)
- 350 grams of caster sugar
- 2 whole eggs, plus two yolks
- 100 grams of mixed candied citrus fruit (such as citron or orange), finely chopped
- grated rind of one organic lemon
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla essence (or 1 vanilla bean pod)
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon of orange blossom water
* If you cannot get your hands on a jar of whole cooked grains for Pastiera, you can substitute with cooked barley or even short-grained rice, though with the rice this will come out significantly different. The grain has a slight bite to it that the rice won’t have.
For the pastry:
Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Chop the cold butter into small pieces and rub into the dry ingredients (if you have a food processor, you can pulse this all together). When you get a mixture that resembles breadcrumbs, add the egg and vanilla essence and knead until the mixture comes together. Don’t over do it. Wrap in plastic wrap and set aside to rest while you prepare the filling.
For the filling:
Start on Thursday night. Heat the whole grains in a saucepan over medium heat with the butter, milk and lemon rind. Bring it to a boil gently and stir for about ten minutes or until it becomes thick like porridge. Turn into a large bowl and let cool. If you are using uncooked grains, you will need to cook them first in water before doing this step.
On Friday, you can make the pastry and the rest of the filling. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and orange blossom water. It should be creamy but liquid, with no lumps. If you can, leave this mixture overnight to rest – the reason for this is that the freshly beaten mixture put straight into the oven often creates a “soufflé effect” where the filling rises, then once cooled sinks in the middle. To create the perfect looking Pastiera, Neapolitan housewives in the know, leave their mixture to rest for a night. It also allows the mixture’s many flavours and spices to mingle nicely.
Roll out about two thirds of the pastry and place in a greased springform tin (about 28cm diameter). Cut off any overhang and add to the remaining pastry, roll out again and with a pastry wheel (a crimper, the one that makes ruffled edges is best), cut long strips about an inch or 2cm wide.
Once the grain mixture is cooled and the ricotta mixture is rested, fold these together with the finely chopped candied citrus. Fill the pastry base with this mixture and even out the borders of the pastry to the level of the mixture. Now add your lattice top – it’s really important that the criss-cross of your lattice creates a diamond shape, not a square – it just won’t look right! Press the lattice strips to the edge of the pastry very gentle, they will be floating delicately on top of the filling at this stage. You can brush the lattice gently with some egg to make it shiny.
Ideally it should now be the night before you need the Pastiera and you’re ready to bake. Pop the whole thing into a pre-heated oven of 200 degrees Celcius and bake for about 50-60 minutes. You are looking for perfectly done, crispy pastry and a beautiful amber-brown top. The whole house will smell amazing at this point.
Allow to cool completely inside the springform pan. By now it should be Sunday morning. Before serving, some like to sift icing sugar over the top but others like the pastry lattice top to be more evident. Once cooked, the Pastiera can be stored in the fridge for 4-5 days, if the entire household doesn’t eat it all well before that!