Pastiera Napoletana

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.

pastiera napoletana

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 napoletana - Easter dessert

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.

pastiera napoletana recipe

Pastiera Napoletana

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!

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17 Responses to “Pastiera Napoletana”
  1. Valeria says:

    I wanted to make pastiera for my newly-acquired American family that I am going to visit for the first time this week and this recipe is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks –especially for suggesting to use barley in case I cannot find wheat. Hope to find it at whole foods, though. Will see :) I brought the orange blossom essence and candied citrus from home –Italy.

    • Emiko says:

      Valeria, farro/barley is I think the closest substitute that may be easier to find, though it may be a bit denser and have a bit more bite to it. I also just saw today a pastiera made with bulgur instead of cooked wheat – it may be worth a try! Good luck!

  2. Sissy says:

    Does this have to be refrigerated. If it’s left out, is it still safe to eat?

    • Sissy says:

      Oops, forgot the question mark…does it have to be refrigerated?

    • Emiko says:

      Hi Sissy! It’s best conserved (and eaten!) at room temperature in a cool, dry place and don’t wrap it in plastic – something loose like tin foil is better to allow it to “breathe” a bit and keep the pastry short and crisp. If you think it’s going to last a lot longer than several days, you can also cut it into slices and freeze the slices – bring to room temperature to serve.

  3. Regula says:

    Hello Emiko,
    I just found this recipe browsing in your ‘baking’ category. It’s my favourite Italian dessert and I am now very happy to have found this recipe!
    Now finding all the ingredients… cooked whole grains might be hard to find and I want to use just what you used to have the exact flavour.
    Thanks for sharing this x

    • Emiko says:

      Hi Regula, this is such a great dessert, isn’t it? The cooked grain might be difficult to find, maybe you can try farro or barley instead? They also cook a lot quicker if you are doing them from dried grains!

  4. austendw says:

    What are “whole cooked grains” that come in jars??? What sort of grains are they?

    • Emiko says:

      They are whole wheat grains that are almost exclusively sold/prepared for making pastiera napoletana! As mentioned, if you can’t get these, you can subsitute whole cooked barley, which would be the next best thing, or even short grain rice (although this will result in a bit of a different consistency).

  5. Tanusree says:

    Hi Emiko, found your blog while searching for a recipe for Pastiera. yours looks gorgeous and i wanted to follow your recipe. but i do not have whole grains, barley or farro. can i substitute it with arborio ?

    • Emiko says:

      Hi! You could try it, though you’ll end up with quite a different result as rice is so much softer and starchier (and I tend to think you could risk a ‘gluey’ problem) than the grains. Health food stores for raw form that you cook yourself or Italian delis/supermarkets for the jars of ‘grano cotto’ would be the place to look for the whole grains that you need, but if you absolutely have to go for the last option, give the rice a try! I’d love to hear how it works out!

  6. Ori says:

    The recipe looks delicious – im going to try it this week!

    Do you think i can use candied pineapple instead of citrus ones as i prefer them?

    Thanks formthe blog,


    • Emiko says:

      Great! I’ve never tried this with any other candied fruit but why not give it a go, even if the flavour profile will be quite different – just keep in mind that candied pineapple will be much sweeter too than candied orange so you may want to scale back the sugar a little bit. Good luck!

  7. Riiick says:

    I’m not clear about your suggestions to leave the filling overnight to rest and let the Pastiera to cool in the pan until Sunday morning. Do you mean without refrigeration? Is it safe to leave these out for so many hours?

    Thanks for the recipe and for the great tips and advice.

    • Emiko says:

      This suggestion is of course the traditional way to make Pastiera, you can by all means adapt to easier, modern timing, but it’s just a matter of a little common sense! The filling in the first step before cooking rests in the fridge, of course. After cooking, when you are waiting for the Pastiera to cool, I have left it out of the fridge overnight (because it’s usually too hot to put directly in fridge), covered with tin foil and in the morning put it in the fridge. It’s been done this way for centuries and no one’s worried about it not being safe! ;) It is made around Easter time when temperatures are still fairly cool at night but maybe if you’ve decided to make this in the middle of a scorching hot summer night, you might want to put it in the fridge overnight. Also if you’ve made it at a convenient time of the day/evening (and not right before going to bed like I do!) you can of course put it in the fridge when it’s cooled down. Note that it does take a while to cool as it’s a very dense, heavy cake. Hope that helps!

  8. Ilana says:

    My Neapolitan grandmother made pastiera every Easter, but I had never tried baking it because I was always a bit intimidated by the amount of work required (and because someone else always prepared it, I never had the need to). Sadly, I never watched her technique and the family recipe that my mother has is difficult to follow.

    I now live in Germany and wanted to incorporate this family tradition into the Easter celebrations I partake in here. After searching all over the internet for a recipe, I came across your beautifully photographed pastiera, and decided this year I would give it a try. Finding the ingredients took some time, and my first attempt at cooking the wheat revealed I had bought the wrong kind – but I knew this because I was already familiar with what the wheat should look like. For anyone in Germany trying this recipe, I successfully used Ebly Sonnenweizen, which is a wheat marketed as “pasta in its natural form.” It took less than fifteen minutes to prepare without being soaked.

    I was happy with the outcome and most importantly, the taste of this pastiera had the essence of my grandmother’s dessert, bringing me back in time to when we celebrated Easter together.

    • Emiko says:

      Thank you for mentioning this! It’s very useful. Some readers have had problems where they have bought the wrong wheat berries (apparently you need hulled or skinless wheat berries) and they’ve ended up with hard wheat grains in their pastiera! I also think rice or pearl barley would make good substitutes too.

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