Serves a Crowd

Pastiera Napoletana (Neapolitan Wheat Berry & Ricotta Easter Cake)

by:
April  9, 2014
8 Ratings
Author Notes

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 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.

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 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. —Emiko

Test Kitchen Notes

WHO: Emiko Davies is a longtime Food52 contributor (over 200 articles and counting!) and Florence-based food writer, cookbook author, and photographer. If you've seen her work around the site, you know that she's an expert in regional Italian food, from Roman stuffed tomatoes to hearty Tuscan bean soup.

WHAT: a wheat berry and ricotta cake from Naples that's traditionally served on Easter.

WHEN: This Neapolitan dessert is an Easter staple, but we can picture ourselves making it throughout the spring season.

FUN FACT: You won't be able to just whip this up on Easter Sunday, you'll want to start soaking the wheat berries three days ahead of time (don't forget to change out the water twice a day). This has to do with tradition, Emiko explained in the comments section, and (this is just her guess) that Italian wheat in Naples probably used to be similar to what we think of today as "ancient grains," so it may have required more soaking time than the wheat berries you'll find in the supermarket today. Another reason you can't make it at the last-minute: It tastes much better the day after you bake it. —The Editors

  • Prep time 24 hours
  • Cook time 1 hour
  • Serves 10
Ingredients
  • 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
Directions
  1. For the pastry:
  2. 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.
  1. For the filling:
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Fold the cooled wheat berry cream and the rested ricotta mixture together with the finely chopped candied citron.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Bake the pastiera for 1 hour at 390ºF (200ºC) until the pastry is golden and the pastiera is amber-brown on top.
  9. 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.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Paul
    Paul
  • Sue O'Bryan
    Sue O'Bryan
  • FrugalCat
    FrugalCat
  • Dolores DiLeo
    Dolores DiLeo
  • Vicki Dalimonte
    Vicki Dalimonte
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.

85 Reviews

Nancy April 1, 2021
This review should have been written last year, 2020, when I made this beautiful recipe. I usually had the pleasure of receiving an Easter gift of a large piece of the cake from an Italian lady that I work with. And, oh, how I looked forward to that every year. Well, last year, of course, we were all on lockdown and I knew that wasn't going to happen so I started researching recipes. And, it should be noted that when I asked her for her recipe, it was some of this, some of that. When I came upon this recipe I knew that this was the one I had to try and boy, am I thrilled I did. It came out beautifully and tasted exactly like my friends! Looked just like what you have pictured. The only think I did differently was to reduce the sugar in the filling to a cup but that is a matter of taste. The recipe is perfect. Started making it today and am looking so forward to having and sharing with my family.
Love Food 52. Every recipe I've tried has been perfection so far and have all been keepers.
Happy Easter!
 
Isobelle April 16, 2020
I made this for Easter and it was a huge smash hit, even with my Italian husband. It actually looked almost identical to the picture.

I did find it a little on the sweet side so would reduce the sugar next time, particularly in the filling. A few tips:
- yes when you do it with pearl barley, first you need to cook it according to packet instructions, then drain and (I did next day) cook it with the milk to make a kind of porridge.
- I'm terrible at rolling out dough so I used the technique of (after refrigerating overnight) cutting into thin slices and tiling the pan, then pressing them together and up the sides. Worked perfectly.
- I had a standard 23-inch springform cake pan and the mixture came about 2/3 of the way up the sides. Ie you do not need to bring the pastry all the way up the sides to the top of the tin. It's a bit of a guessing game as to how high it'll go, but ideally you just want the pastry peeking above the filling like 1cm.
- I used regular sugar for the filling and didnt have any problems.
- I turned down the heat a bit after 30 mins or so and it needed 1 hour and 10 min in total. It does very slightly puff up so you can see it's cooked when it's puffed (and not jiggly in the middle any more). Resist the urge to take it out too early, it does need to be a good bronze color not just lightly golden.
 
Paul April 14, 2020
We make one of these every year (though not this precise recipe). You soak the wheat for three days because the old-world grain with which these originated (we use farro) needs it, but also because that means you start the soak on Holy Thursday and the pie prepares for Easter throughout Triduum just like you do. The pie is as religiously symbolic as it is delicious.
 
Donnav April 12, 2020
Well it is with great disapoinment I tell you it didnt come out right ( the crust was perfect the filling was a little sweeter than I would like n I did use fine sugar bit it did not coagulate it was a river or soup when we cut into it - it asted good just had to drink it n eat the crust separate. I'm not giving up I think next time I will cook eggs with milk to make a loose custard like filling n then fill into pastry n bake
Happy Easter!
 
Sue O. April 10, 2020
Hi! Super excited to try this but very confused. Ingredient list says 100 grams uncooked wheatberries or 280 grams cooked. I took 100 grams and cooked them and ended up with over 1000 grams of cooked wheatberries. Can you please clarify why you stated 100 grams of uncooked. Or why you would state 280 grams cooked without letting us know how many grams uncooked it takes to get to 280 grams cooked? Thanks so much!!!
 
Author Comment
Emiko April 11, 2020
Hi Sue, thank you for letting me know and bringing this to my attention. I live in Italy, where you'd usually use pre-cooked wheatberries in a jar that are produced industrially especially for making pastiera and this I what I measured as the cooked wheatberries. I am sure that the discrepancy is in the way these are cooked industrially -- they are super, super soft, practically mushy -- compared to home cooked (which usually remain with a bit of bite), and probably also in the type/variety of wheat. As I wrote this recipe 6 years ago I cannot remember exactly what the situation was in the instance when I tested the recipe for uncooked wheatberries but it would have been correct for what I was using. All the subsequent pastiere I usually make for Easter (it is my absolute favourite Easter treat) have been with the pre-cooked kind so I admit it has been a while.
 
Jeannemarie W. November 15, 2020
I am having the exact same problem! How did you solve it?
 
Donnav April 8, 2020
Thankyou Paul for quick response!
Mayb I will pulse the sugar and make it super fine texture
 
Donnav April 8, 2020
Hi I'm gonna try this recipe tomorrow I'm soaking my barley right now 1/2 cup barley right? Also- I'm wondering if everyone thinks it's too much sugar is it because they r using regular grain sugar and not super fine sugar - which is my question I cant find super fine sugar what do you suggest? Thank you for your help
 
Paul M. April 8, 2020
If you follow the recipe going by weight (grams) using a kitchen scale then sweetness should not be an issue. It may alter the texture.
 
Kate C. April 8, 2020
In Naples at Table by Arthur Schwartz, the recipe allows for barley to be used if you can't get the wheat berries. He says that Italian-American immigrants found the wheat berries difficult to find, and many recipes still use barley. Just to make it less daunting for those of us in more rural places with few specialty stores.
 
FrugalCat March 12, 2020
Has anyone made wheat berry pudding? That is, the wheat grains cooked in milk and sugar, much like rice pudding.
 
Jack T. January 4, 2020
Ok, amazing. Dry wheat berries will stay slightly al dente even after soaking for 3 days and cooking for 1.5+ hrs. This is typical in some Pasteria so don’t stress, Napoli native assured me. I used Meyer lemon and navel orange instead of citron because I’m in CA. Also made ricotta with local goat milk and mixed with cow ricotta 50/50. Used Meyer lemon juice for the acid in both ricottas. They were more dry than store bought and worked beautifully. Thank you. Followed all the instructions, took the time, happy I did. *****
 
Dolores D. April 28, 2019
Too much sugar in the filling...first time using this recipe...loved the pastry dough...worked beautifully...but the filling was way too sweet...second time used a scant 3/4 c and it was fine.
 
Vicki D. April 22, 2019
I’ve tried many of these grain pie recipes and all were just ok. This came out awesome. The look and flavor was right on. I used the dried wheat berries, which were more “toothsome “ than the canned, but everyone loved it. Thanks for the keeper!
 
Tara M. April 18, 2019
Hi Emiko! Would you be able to explain the reasoning behind soaking the wheat berries for 3 days? Most recipes for cooking wheat berries just require an overnight soak.

Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Emiko April 19, 2019
I'd say it's mainly because of tradition! And possibly (but this is just my guess) that Italian wheat in the Naples area centuries ago were more like what we now call 'ancient grains' and needed more of a soak than modern wheat. If you're using something like farro overnight is fine too.
 
Tara M. April 19, 2019
Makes total sense! Thank you for the explanation! :)
 
Tara M. April 19, 2019
Also, I would like to thank you for being so kind and accessible in terms of help and advice with cooking. I simply adore your recipes!
 
Tara M. April 18, 2019
Hi Emiko!

Would you be able to explain the benefit of soaking the wheat berries for 3 days? Often time, I see recipes for cooking wheat berries that just require an overnight soak.

Thank you!
 
Alejandra Z. March 31, 2019
I was so excited to try this and it did not turn out . Mostly it was my fault because I used the wheat berries with the skin and they were tough. I will make it again as I now found the grano cotto at a local Italian grocery store.
The sugar is way too much , can’t eat it that’s how bad it is . 1 cup and 3/4 it’s a lot and I did not add the candies fruit , imagine how much sweeter it would have made it .
I watched a chef in Italy make it and the ricotta mix was not left in the fridge over night . Maybe this is an old thing they used to do but it separates the eggs making it watery and not creamy
My ricotta looked chunky so I think the best thing is to use a creamy soft ricotta and first mix the eggs and sugar and add it later.
Im not giving up on this pastiera, it has now become an obsession and I know I will get it but I will use Sal del riso recipe, it’s easier to watch a video step by step for me . Perhaps you should post a video . Thanks for sharing it though.
 
Alejandra Z. March 31, 2019
By the way Is that picture of your pastiera?
 
Author Comment
Emiko March 31, 2019
Hi, thanks for the feedback. Sorry you had trouble with the grano, yes, I would highly recommend using the pre-cooked grano that is made specifically for pastiera. It should be really, really soft. The sugar is even less than what many traditional recipes use! But of course there is personal taste so by all means you could reduce it down to 1 1/2 or even 1 cup and see how you go. The leaving of the ricotta and egg mixture in the fridge overnight is an old tradition but genius when you think about it -- I make this every year and once I did it in a rush and didn't leave it overnight and the egg puffs up around the pastry lattice on the top so it looks sunken you don't have a perfect flat top like in the photo (yes, that's the photo of my pastiera!). Good luck with round two!
 
deb December 21, 2018
Some recipes say to pre-bake the crust. Thoughts?
 
Dolores D. April 14, 2019
No...this crust is never pre baked.
 
lndmcleve March 31, 2018
Well, I found all ingredients but not wheat berries...so 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 dough...to 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.