Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: A symbol of the city of Naples, no Neapolitan home would be complete on Easter day without this rich, perfumed ricotta pie.
To those who have yet to come across this cake, to taste it, to inhale its incredible perfume, this is probably all going to sound quite mad. But trust me -- it all just comes together in a way that is surprisingly light, fluffy, and balanced.
Whole, pre-cooked wheat berries are simmered 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.
The pastiera is through and through a part of the city of Naples, born out of springtime rituals. It's now an Easter classic and no Neapolitan home would be complete on Easter day without this pastiera on the table.
This ancient dessert even has its own mythology. One legend attributes the recipe to the siren Parthenope, protector and symbol of the city. Another story recounts that the wives of Neapolitan fishermen left out baskets of the city's best produce -- ricotta, candied fruit, whole grains, and spring eggs -- on the beach as an offering to the sea to bring their husbands home safely. Overnight, the waves mixed the baskets together, creating the pastiera. Each ingredient of the recipe is considered symbolic, and you'll never find a pastiera missing any of these ingredients -- even now.
Don't be alarmed by the list of ingredients and steps. It's an easy dessert to make, but it takes time and planning. 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 wheatberries, 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 the night of Maundy Thursday, you cook the boiled wheatberries 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 flavors 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.
In Italy, you can buy jars of pre-cooked, whole wheatberries (known as grano cotto in Italian -- “cooked grain”) made for the sole purpose of preparing this dessert. If you can't find these, then you'll need to prepare uncooked wheat berries three days before you begin this recipe. Otherwise, pearl barley makes a good substitute. And if you need a good source that explains all these different grains, check out this article.
Makes 1 cake
Ingredients for pastry:
1 stick (125 grams) unsalted cold butter
2 cups (250 grams) of flour
1 whole egg, plus one yolk
Zest of 1 lemon
3/4 cup (100 grams) of icing sugar
Ingredients for the filling:
10 ounces (280 grams) of cooked wheat berries or about 3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) of uncooked wheat berries
1 cup (230 milliliters) milk
2 tablespoons (30 grams) butter
12 ounces (350 grams) fresh ricotta
1 3/4 cups (320 grams) caster 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
Photos by Emiko Davies