Pastiera Napoletana (Neapolitan Wheatberry and Ricotta Easter cake)

By • April 9, 2014 • 29 Comments

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Author Notes: Whole wheat berries are cooked in milk until creamy, then mixed with ricotta, sugar, eggs, candied citron and a heady mix of spices and scents -- cinnamon, vanilla and orange blossom water. The filling is poured into a pie crust and covered with a lattice top and baked. It's sort of like a crazy, perfumed cheesecake crossed with rice pudding in a pie crust. And it's insanely addictive.

Don't be alarmed by the list of ingredients and steps. It's an easy dessert to make but it takes time and planning and you cannot be in a rush. The most dedicated of pastiera bakers insist that it should take three days to make a pastiera (six, if you start with uncooked wheat berries, which need three days of soaking before you begin). This means that signore in the know all over Naples begin making this on the Thursday (or at least the Friday) before Easter.

The process looks a little like this:

On Maundy Thursday you cook the boiled wheat berries with milk and lemon to make a creamy oatmeal-like mixture, which needs to cool overnight.

On Good Friday you prepare the pastry and the ricotta filling and let this, too, rest overnight – they say that freshly beaten eggs will ruin a pastiera when it has that “soufflé effect”, making the filling rise while cooking 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 and the pastiera must be cooled in its tin before removing it. It's also always better the day after it's been baked. 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.

This is a very traditional recipe but I do use a smaller proportion of wheat berries (some recipes add up to double the amount) and sugar so it's not overly sweet. Some pastiera recipes also call for many more eggs - one recipe I dug out of a Neapolitan cookbook calls for 10 eggs in total - 7 in the filling and 3 in the crust! It's not unusual for Easter recipes to use a large amount of eggs - a way of using up the surplus of spring eggs that your chickens are laying. Another variation of the recipe is to use a mixture of candied fruits (including candied orange and candied melon, for example) but I prefer the mellow flavour and colour of candied citron. The important thing is not to exclude any of the ingredients as they are all vital to the balance (and the tradition) of the pastiera.

In Italy, you can buy jars of pre-cooked, whole wheat berries (known as grano cotto in Italian – “cooked grain”) made for the sole purpose of preparing this dessert. If you can't find this, then you'll need to prepare uncooked wheat berries three days before you need to start cooking with them, otherwise pearl barley makes a good substitute. And if you need a good source that explains all these different grains, check out this article: http://food52.com/blog/6442-a-range-of-grains-and-what-to-do-with-them
Emiko

Serves 10

For the pastry:

  • 1 stick (125 grams) unsalted cold butter
  • 2 cups (250 grams) of flour
  • 1 whole egg, plus one yolk
  • 3/4 cup (100 grams) of powdered sugar
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  1. Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Chop the cold butter into small pieces and pulse together in a food processor until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg and lemon zest and knead just until the mixture comes together. If you find it a bit dry, add some cold water, a tablespoon at a time until it forms a dough; if it's too wet, add a bit of flour. Cover in plastic wrap and rest at least 30 minutes or overnight.

For the filling:

  • 10 ounces (280 grams) of cooked wheat berries or about 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of uncooked wheat berries
  • 1 cup (230 milliliters) milk
  • 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of butter
  • 12 ounces (350 grams) of fresh ricotta (a combination of cow's milk and sheep's milk ricottas are traditionally used)
  • 1 3/4 cups (320 grams) of fine sugar
  • 2 whole eggs, plus two yolks
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence (or 1 vanilla bean pod, scraped)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
  • 3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) candied citron, finely chopped
  • Powdered sugar for dusting
  1. If you're using uncooked wheat berries, then you first need to cook them by soaking them in water for 3 days (change the water twice a day), then draining and cooking in a large pot of at least 4 cups of fresh water. Simmer for 1 ½ hours without stirring, until soft. Drain and reserve until needed (this will keep well in an air tight container the fridge for 1 week) then carry on to the next step. If using pearl barley as a substitute, leave the uncooked barley to soak in a large bowl of fresh water overnight, then the next day cook it in plenty of water for 30 minutes or until soft. Drain then follow the rest of the recipe.
  2. Place the cooked wheat berries in a saucepan over medium heat with the butter, milk and lemon zest. Bring to a boil gently, stirring occasionaly until it becomes very thick and creamy like oatmeal, about 15 minutes. Let cool until needed.
  3. In a bowl, beat the eggs and extra yolks with the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and orange blossom water until creamy. Leave this mixture to rest several hours (better if overnight) in the fridge.
  4. Fold the cooled wheat berry cream and the rested ricotta mixture together with the finely chopped candied citron.
  5. Roll out about two thirds of the pastry and place in a 10 inch (25 centimeter) greased springform tin. Cut off any overhang and add to the remaining pastry, roll out again and with a pastry crimper wheel, cut long strips about ¾ an inch wide.
  6. Fill the pastry base with the ricotta mixture and even out the borders of the pastry to the level of the mixture. Lay the long pastry strips gently across the top to form a a criss-cross diamond pattern (not square), pressing the strips on the edge of the pastry very gently. If desired, you can brush the lattice gently with some egg wash to make it shiny.
  7. Bake the pastiera for 1 hour at 390ºF (200ºC) until the pastry is golden and the pastiera is amber-brown on top.
  8. Allow to cool completely inside the springform pan before removing or chilling. Ideally serve the pastiera the next day (remove it from the fridge at least 30 minutes before eating to take away some of the chill) with some powdered sugar sifted over the top. Store any leftovers in the fridge.
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Comments (29) Questions (0)

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about 1 month ago joyce

Nothing on the package of wheat berries (Bob's red Mill Soft white wheat berries) indicated whether they were skinned/hulled or unhulled.

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about 1 month ago Rebecca Lucas

I've been soaking my uncooked wheat berries for two days now, and today when I went to change the water, they smelled like stinky cheese. Is this normal or did they go rancid for some reason? I've been soaking them in water on the kitchen counter in a sealed container. They smelled so strongly that now my whole kitchen smells like a strong parmesan.

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about 1 month ago Emiko

That definitely doesn't sound normal! The water should be changed frequently (twice a day) and replaced with fresh water, like you would when soaking beans.

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about 1 month ago Rebecca Lucas

Thanks for the response. I did change the water twice a day. Something must have gotten into the wheat berries to make them turn rancid. I'll have another go at it.

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about 1 month ago joyce

I had the same problem that a previous commentator had: after following the recipe exactly, the wheat berries were hard and the cake was awful. Unfortunately I served it for Easter dessert. Needless to say, it wasn't a favorite. I wish I had known there were different kinds of wheat berries before i took the effort to make this.

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about 1 month ago Emiko

I wish I had known this too! As I don't live in the US it's hard to know what is readily available -- I'm used to the ones you can buy here in Italy. Thanks to Loren below for enlightening us with the information about the skinned/hulled wheat berries.

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about 1 month ago Kenna

Please tell me how to substitute the pearl barley or rice for the wheat berries. Are they equal amounts, i.e., 10 oz. of cooked barley or 10 oz. of barley cooked?? Thanks!

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about 1 month ago Emiko

Yes, you can just substitute equal (cooked) amounts!

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about 1 month ago Ellen S

This sounds divine!

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about 1 month ago Elisabeth

This looks so good, but I have celiac so I can't eat wheat berries or barley. Would white sorghum or rice work instead?

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about 1 month ago Emiko

Rice would be the next best substitute... And I think it would work out very nicely actually!

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about 1 month ago Kristin DeRosa

I've been making this for a couple of years now, and I always run into the same problem...after baking my wheat berries become almost too hard to eat. I have no idea what could be causing this, and it's so frustrating because the rest of the pie is so delicious! I'll probably be trying it again this year anyway!

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about 1 month ago Emiko

Oh that's interesting -- I'm wondering if it's the type of wheat berry (it might be a bit different to the one that's traditionally used in Italy)? Is the process you are using for cooking the wheatberries the same as described here (soaking for three days and cooking until very soft before using in the pie?)

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about 1 month ago Kristin DeRosa

Yes, that's the crazy thing about it! I've eaten some prior to putting it in the pie, and although it's not mush, it isn't al dente either. At this point I wish I could find some already cooked!

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about 1 month ago Loren

If you're getting a hard wheat berry then your original grains probably were not skinless. You need to start with skinless/hulled wheat berries or else the cooking of the grain becomes several hours longer in the initial stage.

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about 1 month ago Kristin DeRosa

Thank you!

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about 1 month ago AK

I'm not worried about the wheat berries, but orange blossom water??

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about 1 month ago Emiko

Although you'll miss that distinct perfume, you could substitute rose water or even vanilla for the orange blossom water. It's usually sold where you can buy rose water or in specialty gourmet food stores or delis -- you can find it online too.

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about 1 month ago AK

I think I found some places in NYC that should have it - thanks!

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5 months ago Benita

So glad to find this recipe my grandmother used to make this at Easter many years ago. She came from near Naples.

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6 months ago Hiromi Motojima

Can't wait to try this!

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about 1 year ago carole

Thanks for the information Emiko and Jade

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about 1 year ago carole

what are wheat berries?

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about 1 year ago Emiko

Hi Carole, you'll find more of a description in the "notes" above the recipe (click on "more"). Also, you might find this article on whole grains really helpful too: http://food52.com/blog...

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about 1 year ago JadeTree

Emiko, this article and recipe opened up the loveliest connection! My aunt-in-law is married to an Italian man and has been cooking recipes his mother taught her for decades. I sent her the article associated with this recipe, which she loved, and she told me she's been making his family's version of it for years! In fact, she had just made three today, for Easter this weekend. She uses rice in place of the wheat berries. She's going to teach me to make it when we're together this summer. It's lovely to have this new connection thanks to this dish. I will post her recipe once she teaches it to me. Thank you for sharing this; there's nothing like the closeness you get in the kitchen.

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about 1 year ago Emiko

This is wonderful to hear, thanks for sharing! :) I do believe that many overseas Italians who found it nearly impossible to find the grano cotto they were used to began making their pastiera recipes with rice instead as it was much easier to find. Thankfully these days wheat berries are easier to find in health food shops and even jars of grano cotto direct from Naples can be ordered online, which makes it easier to make the more authentic recipes! Looking forward to seeing your recipe post too.

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about 1 year ago Amarghidan

Hi Emiko, what a nice recipe. Last weekend while watching BBC I saw Antonio Carluccio doing this cake and now i see the recipe. The thing is that i dont have wheat and by the time i find it this will not be ready for Easter but i really want to try it, i know it must be very special. Thank you for sharing. Adelina

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about 1 year ago Emiko

It's a classic! As I've mentioned in the notes, if you don't have wheat, pearl barley is a really good (probably the closest) substitute. In the first step of the instructions I have noted how to prepare the barley if you're substituting. Otherwise, if you want to still be traditional, you can find pre-cooked wheatberries in a jar (known as "grano cotto" in Italian). You can even order them from amazon! Hope that helps.

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about 1 month ago Nicole L Barry

pearl barley! THAT i always have. yeahhhhh!