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Neapolitan Pastiera – Easter Wheat Pie

  • March 31, 2009

Pastiera is a traditional Easter dessert from Naples, but now you can find it all over Italy. The best version I ever tasted was at a restaurant in Milan on my trip to Italy last month. Actually, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it was so good since the restaurant is called “Frijenno e Magnanno” (Neapolitan dialect for “Frying and Eating”). It’s similar to a ricotta cheesecake, but wheat berries, or kernels are a crucial ingredient.

Stories abound as to the origin of the dessert, including one that it was invented in a Neapolitan convent. But my favorite story about pastiera involves Partenope, a mermaid who lived in the gulf of Naples. She so enchanted the people of the region when she would emerge with her melodic love call, that they thanked her with their most precious gifts: wheat berries, a symbol of the earth’s fertility, ricotta cheese, a gift from the shepherds, eggs, a symbol of new life, candied fruit and orange flower water to suggest the fragrance of springtime, spices to represent people in far away lands, and sugar to call to mind the sweetness of Partenope’s call. The mermaid was so happy with these gifts, she decided to mix them all together and thus was born the first pastiera.
Believe what you will, but believe me, it’s delicious. It actually improves with a day or two of rest when all the ingredients have had a chance to meld together. Traditional recipes do not call for mascarpone cheese, as mine does, but I was trying to reproduce the creaminess of the version I ate in Milan. I am not sure I succeeded. My version was good, as evidenced by the clean plates this week of “le matte,” friends at my Italian chit-chat group, but next time, I might double the amount of mascarpone.

By the way, I bought the wheat berries in a health food store, but if you don’t want to start from scratch, you can also buy them already prepared in a can in Italian specialty stores. Here’s what mine looked like after cooking in the milk and sugar.The candied orange and lemon peels can also be purchased, but you can make them yourself with little difficulty, if you follow the instructions on my prior post for candied orange peel. I was a little heavy-handed with them this time since I had such an abundant supply, but I think I prefer the pastiera with the lesser amounts called for in the recipe below.

1/2 cup wheat berries, or kernels
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar

Place the wheat berries in a pot and cover with water. Let the pot sit overnight. The next day, boil the wheat in the water for about an hour. Drain, then put the milk and sugar in the pan and cook for another hour or until the kernels are soft. Drain and cool.

1 pound ricotta
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbs. orange flower water
1 tsp. oil of orange
small drop of oil of lemon
dash of cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 – 3/4 cup candied orange peel, diced
1/4 – 1/2 cup candied lemon peel, diced
the traditional pastiera also includes candied citron, which I omitted

2 egg yolks
5 whole eggs

Place the ricotta in a sieve covered with cheesecloth and let it drain overnight in the refrigerator. The next day, beat the egg yolks and eggs together in a large bowl. Add the ricotta, mascarpone, sugar, orange flower water, oil of orange, oil of lemon, cinnamon, vanilla, candied fruit peels, and the egg mixture. Many recipes tell you to separate the eggs and beat the whites, but I find this is unnecessary and causes the cake to rise too much and subsequently fall and crack.

I lined a very large tart pan with pasta frolla and poured the mixture into that. My pan is 12 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep and holds nearly 8 cups of liquid. You can use two standard size pie plates instead, but you may have to make more of the pasta frolla in that case. Or you can just make one in a standard pie plate and bake the rest as a firm pudding, without a crust.

Pasta frolla is a sweet pastry similar to pie dough, but with more sugar and the addition of egg. Use your own recipe, or follow mine. It’s the same one I used in my apple strudel recipe.

Pasta Frolla:

3 1/2 cups flour
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
rind of 1 lemon grated
pinch of salt
1 egg, lightly beaten

Place flour and sugar in mixer with grated lemon rind and salt. Add cold butter in small pieces, mixing until butter breaks down into small bits. Add egg and mix just until mixture holds together in a ball. Divide the dough into two parts: 2/3 for the base and 1/3 for the lattice topping. Roll out the dough and place in tart pan or pie plate. This is a very delicate dough and it is hard to manipulate, but don’t work it too much with the rolling pin. It may crack as you try to get it in the pie pan, but don’t worry. Just patch it up by hand. No one will ever know the difference after it’s baked.
Pour the pastiera mixture into the pan over the dough. Cut remaining strips of dough and make a lattice top over the mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour.
This is what it looks like as it goes into the oven.And here’s a slice for you!