The first time I came across Naples’ famous Easter dessert, pastiera, I wasn’t entirely sure how to react — except that I knew I needed to have more. It’s a rather unusual, unique pie made with an array of ingredients that seem almost to have accidentally ended up together but are each in their own symbolic and traditional to Naples. And as a whole, they create an absolutely delicious concoction.
Whole wheat berries (known as grano cotto in Italian) are cooked in milk until creamy, then mixed with ricotta, sugar, eggs, candied citrus and a heady mix of spices and scents — cinnamon, vanilla, orange blossom water. The filling is poured into a pie crust and baked until golden and firm. It’s hard to describe but the result is like a crazy, perfumed cheesecake crossed with rice pudding in a pie. It’s surprisingly delicate, though, and incredibly addictive.
The tradition of the pastiera is an ancient one and one that was originally pagan, a celebration of spring’s abundance and renewal. Each individual ingredient is said to be symbolic, the most important one being the whole cooked grains, so although the list of ingredients looks long, try not to skip out on anything in this recipe.
Pastiera is a surprisingly easy dessert to make but, I’m not going to lie, it takes a bit of time and planning and you cannot be in a rush to make this. In fact, tradition says it takes three days to make. It sounds like a long time but it’s actually small things done over three days that make it very easy to work around (attending to the pie just after work, for example).
These days it’s the thing to have on your table 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 wheat berries (grano cotto) that you can buy in a jar in Italian supermarkets. For those cooking their own raw grains, you need to begin cooking those at least three days earlier. The grains are soaked in water, which is changed often over three days, and is then boiled in milk until tender. If you can’t find wheat berries, pearl barely would be a good substitute (and won’t take as long to prepare – just boil them until tender, about 40 minutes!).
The ideal pastiera-making process looks a little like this:
On Maundy Thursday you cook the pre-cooked wheat berries with milk and lemon to make a creamy oatmeal-like mixture, which needs to cool overnight (and this also gives time for the flavours to infuse).
On Good Friday you prepare both the pastry and the ricotta filling and these too rest overnight – they say that freshly beaten eggs will ruin a pastiera as during baking the “soufflé effect” of the freshly beaten eggs will make the filling rise then sink when cooled. A pastiera has to be perfectly flat on top. Resting time also allows the mixture’s many flavours and spices to mingle nicely.
Saturday is baking day (the house will smell amazing at this point) and the pastiera must be cooled entirely in its tin before removing it. Also, pastiera is undoubtedly always better the day after it’s been baked, when the flavours have all come together and the filling is firm but light and fluffy. Sunday lunch is the moment of truth, when a little powdered sugar is dusted over the top and slices are liberally handed out.
You can also do this all at once, naturally. But do keep in mind it tastes better the next day, so begin this at least one day in advance if you can.
Ingredients for shortcrust pastry:
- 125 grams unsalted cold butter
- 250 grams of flour
- 1 whole egg, plus one yolk
- zest of 1 lemon
- 100 grams of icing sugar
Ingredients for the filling:
- 250 grams of cooked wheat berries (or pearl barley – you will need about 100 grams if using uncooked)
- 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 – my preference – 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
- icing sugar (powdered sugar) for dusting, optional
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 lemon zest 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:
Heat the cooked wheat berries 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 boil them first in water before doing this step.
The ricotta mixture should be made the night before baking. 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.Leave this mixture overnight (or a few hours at least) to rest.
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 3/4 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 gently, they will be floating delicately on top of the filling at this stage. You can brush the lattice gently with some beaten egg to make it shiny.
Bake in the oven at 200 degrees Celcius for about 50-60 minutes. You are looking for perfectly done, crisp pastry and a beautiful amber-brown top. Allow to cool completely inside the springform pan — and ideally, leave it to rest/cool overnight.
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!