Pastiera Napoletana (Neapolitan Wheatberry and Ricotta Easter cake)

April 9, 2014

Test Kitchen-Approved

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:

Serves: 10
Prep time: 24 hrs
Cook time: 1 hrs


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
  • 1 lemon, finely zested

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
  • 1 lemon's zest, finely grated
  • 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
  • 1 handful powdered sugar, for dusting
In This Recipe


For the pastry:

  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:

  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.

More Great Recipes:
Pie|Cake|Grains|Milk/Cream|Ricotta|Cheese|Serves a Crowd|Easter|Spring|Dessert

Reviews (60) Questions (0)

60 Reviews

deb December 21, 2018
Some recipes say to pre-bake the crust. Thoughts?
lndmcleve March 31, 2018
Well, I found all ingredients but not wheat I bought Italian peraled barley.
Everything was cooked this afternoon, dough has been out of fridge for about 15 min...Ricotta mixture has been cold for about 4 hours and barley mixture has cooled for at least 3 hours. now I am rolling out the bake tonight. Once I saw this article while researching what we call Chadoon? that is how my family Cleveland based from Abruzzi-Molise, pronounce it. Basically -sweet ricotta cheese pie we serve for Easter, same piecrust and lattice top..I saw this and had to try it.
Tomorrow will be the taste and family taste test! Buona Pasqua
Nicole March 24, 2018
Is this baking temperature correct?never baked at 390 before
Author Comment
Emiko March 25, 2018
Yes it is!
Loripops March 15, 2018
I have no idea what I have done to ruin this....pie shell broken and lattice would not stay together....filling itself was thinner than cake batter after beating with mixer ans refrigerating overnight....I have made versions of this without a problem...any thoughts??
Striga March 3, 2018
I would like to try this recipe as it really looks great. I like the version using pearl barley mentioned in the description of the method, and I would like to ask how to work with it - soak the barley and if yes for how long? Thank you for your advice
Pat H. March 3, 2018
Hi Striga - Within the recipe are these directions:
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.
Kerry G. June 17, 2017
I reduced sugar by about half, followed as is for most of the rest, except used golden raisins instead of candied peel, added splash of Cointreau and subbed cinnamon with nutmeg. I really enjoyed it!
Paul M. April 7, 2017
Sounds like a lot more sugar than my mom's recipe. I checked around. Double and triple the sugar in all the other online recipes. Please confirm. Thanks.
Author Comment
Emiko April 8, 2017
Thanks for your comment, the sugar amount is correct. I'm not sure what online recipes you are checking but triple the amount would mean that the recipes you're looking at call for about 100 grams of sugar, which is not much for a dessert of this proportion. Looking at other recipes (in Italian), the amount of sugar in this recipe is quite normal (in some cases a little less than others). As an example, the Silver Spoon recipe for pastiera, it calls for slightly less sugar (70 grams) but then 50 grams more candied fruit -- so the sweetness here would be evened out. The trick to the pastiera is in the balance of all the ingredients together -- the candied fruit, the ricotta, the wheatberries, even the pastry, it's all to be considered. Hope that helps.
Paul M. April 8, 2017
I suppose it is all about how one's family made it. Thank you for replying.
Author Comment
Emiko April 9, 2017
Absolutely true!
Paul M. April 7, 2017
Sounds like a lot more sugar than my mom's recipe. I checked around. Double and triple the sugar in all the other online recipes. Please confirm. Thanks.
Pat H. March 29, 2016
Baked this exactly as written, and served for Easter... It was wonderful! I've attempted wheat pies before, but never had much luck - either too dry, or flavorless. All ingredients were readily available here in the NY tri state area. Used canned wheat berries and fresh ricotta, which gave a lovely light flavor. Your recipe is a keeper, and will become an Easter tradition!
Author Comment
Emiko March 29, 2016
So wonderful to hear this! Sometimes I worry about readers not being able to find the right ingredients so this is great news!
Susan S. March 26, 2016
Ok so I refrigerated the dough overnight and now it's hard.. Let it come to room temp before I roll it?
Author Comment
Emiko March 28, 2016
This might be too late now (sorry!) but yes, let it soften a little but just enough so that it's manageable. It's still good to have the dough a little chilled/cold as it's easier to handle than when it gets warm and too soft but overnight in the fridge does make it get solid (it is largely made up of butter!).
Susan S. March 28, 2016
Thank you that's what I did and it came out delicious!! Everyone loved it!
Alexis R. March 26, 2016
Hi Emiko, first off- thank you for all the amazing recipes. I always remember a little to late to make this pie the traditional way, but am still going ahead with it. Question about the ricotta. I have only the much wetter cows milk only ricotta available to me. Should I drain it with cheese cloth/sieve or is that not necessary. If it's a good idea, I wonder for how long it would need it. I'm hoping maybe less than overnight! Thank you!
Author Comment
Emiko March 26, 2016
I tend to think that baked recipes are usually more forgiving when it comes to not having the exact right type of ricotta (flavour will be a little different and maybe the texture of the final result but it should still "work" -- I've done this with varying types of ricotta before and haven't had problems). I would just go with it!
Alexis R. March 26, 2016
Thank you!! And thanks for being so available for questions to all those making pastiera this weekend! :)
Mama C. March 26, 2016
Quick question, how long do you beat the eggs, extra yolks, ricotta, sugar, etc. until creamy?
Author Comment
Emiko March 26, 2016
Just until the mixture is well combined and smooth -- not long. The reason you leave it overnight (or a few hours) to rest is to let the mixture 'relax' and to let the air out of it after beating. Rather than have it rise in the oven, you actually want the mixture to remain flat when baking otherwise you'll ruin that beautiful criss-cross lattice on top! ;)
Susan S. March 26, 2016
Just curious.. No baking powder in the crust? Trying to make grain pie recipe for the first time!
Author Comment
Emiko March 26, 2016
No baking powder in this crust, which is a really traditional Italian sweet, shortcrust pastry base. You can feel free to use your favourite type of shortcrust pastry but this one is particularly reliable as well as nice - soft and almost cake-like!
Susan S. March 26, 2016
Thank you ?
Michele March 24, 2016
I'm in Queens, NY, so this may just be in my neck of the woods, but I found both cans and jars of cooked wheat berries (grano cotto) at my local Italian pork store. Most that I've been in stock lots of imported goods, and 'tis the season for these, so it's worth a shot in case the dry berries don't pan out!
Jo March 22, 2016
My zia (dad's sister) makes the ricotta cake with rice, rather than wheatberries. We all go crazy for it, it's just so delicious and something we all look forward to at big celebrations. Is the use of wheatberries a Florentine tradition?
Author Comment
Emiko March 23, 2016
Hi Jo! No this is absolutely a 100% Neapolitan tradition; cooked wheatberries (known as grano cotto in Italian) is an ancient preparation from Campania. I believe many who migrated from Campania to the US began using rice for this dish because it was difficult to find grano cotto (or the right sort of wheatberries -- see some of the comments below!). So you could say that rice in pastiera is now an Italo-American tradition! :)
Meredith R. November 5, 2015
A quick question--did you buy the beautiful whole candied citron or make it yourself? I have access to citrons but all the recipes I've seen have you chop it up first.
Author Comment
Emiko November 6, 2015
I did buy it -- here in Italy, you can get lovely artisan candied fruit quite easily. You can also use homemade though!
joyce April 19, 2015
Nothing on the package of wheat berries (Bob's red Mill Soft white wheat berries) indicated whether they were skinned/hulled or unhulled.
Rebecca L. April 18, 2015
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.
Author Comment
Emiko April 19, 2015
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.
Rebecca L. April 19, 2015
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.
joyce April 5, 2015
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.
Author Comment
Emiko April 19, 2015
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.
Kenna April 3, 2015
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!
Author Comment
Emiko April 4, 2015
Yes, you can just substitute equal (cooked) amounts!