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
- For the pastry:
stick (125 grams) unsalted cold butter
(250 grams) of flour
whole egg, plus one yolk
(100 grams) of powdered sugar
lemon, finely zested
- For the filling:
(280 grams) of cooked wheat berries or about 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of uncooked wheat berries
(230 milliliters) milk
(30 grams) of butter
(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
whole eggs, plus two yolks
lemon's zest, finely grated
vanilla essence (or 1 vanilla bean pod, scraped)
orange blossom water
3 1/2 ounces
(100 grams) candied citron, finely chopped
powdered sugar, for dusting
- For the pastry:
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Fold the cooled wheat berry cream and the rested ricotta mixture together with the finely chopped candied citron.
- 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.
- 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.
- Bake the pastiera for 1 hour at 390ºF (200ºC) until the pastry is golden and the pastiera is amber-brown on top.
- 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.