I sent myself on a mission last week to find all of the ingredients for a pastiera, which is a traditional Neapolitan Easter pie made with wheat berries and ricotta cheese. My mother-in-law makes a fantastic pastiera, so considering my husband’s sweet tooth and passion for Neapolitan pastries, I thought that I would give it a try to make him feel a little closer to home for Easter this year. Finding the ingredients was indeed a challenge, but I was able to find them all in the end, substituting the candied citrus peels with maraschino cherries and dried pineapple.
Most Italian home cooks, including my mother-in-law, use wheat berries that have already been soaked and cooked, you can find them in jars at the grocery store around Easter. Of course they are not available in Charleston. I was lucky to find wheat berries at the health food store near where I live, not to mention my wonderful Neapolitan cookbook, which will be in tatters by the time I pass it on to my daughter 30 years from now. The recipe that the Food Maven provides has instructions on how to soften the wheat berries, which I ended up tweaking with a longer cooking time and adding a few ingredients as per my mother-in-law’s suggestion. I think she was delighted that I was making this pie, which is such a huge part of Neapolitan culture, and enthusiastic about the fact that I was preparing the wheat berries like they did in the olden days. I am certainly proud of myself for having made this pie, I was so intimidated by it.
It wasn’t as hard as it seemed, I am not one for making desserts and the thought of making my own pastry dough was terrifying, but I did it and it really came out pretty well. I just kept the process of making biscuits in mind and remembered to not work the dough for too long. I was sorry about the candied peels though, the maraschino cherries turned the entire filling a pinkish color that wasn’t too pretty and were a tad too sweet for this dessert. A lesson for future pastiere, I will have to buy candied fruit at Christmas, or try making them myself.
It may not have turned out to be the prettiest pastiera, but its flavor was pretty close to the real thing. The wheat berries were still a little hard and the candied fruit a little too sweet, but all in all I can say that my first try came out beautifully, especially for someone who shies away from pastries.
Pastiera adapted from Naples at Table, Cooking in Campania by Arthur Schwartz
for the pastry:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ tsp salt
- 14 tbsp butter (7 ounces) butter, at room temperature
- 4 eggs yolks
- ½ tsp grated lemon zest
for the filling:
- 15 ounces whole milk ricotta
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- 1 tbsp orange flower water or 2 tsp orange extract if orange flower water isn’t available
- ½ cup finely minced mixed candied orange, citron, and lemon peel (these were unavailable here and I substituted with chopped maraschino cherries and dried pineapple)
- 6 eggs, separated (reserve 4 whites)
- 1/3 cup hulled wheat-berries or ¼ cup pearled barley, boiled until tender, about 30 minutes
- Confectioners sugar for final dusting
To prepare the hulled wheat or barley:
Make sure that you buy hulled wheat-berries, unhulled wheat won’t soften as much as it needs to for the texture of the pastiera. Soak the wheat-berries for 12 hours and boil them in slightly salted water for 40 minutes, rinse the wheat-berries and boil for another 30 minutes in slightly salted water. My mother-in-law also suggested that after they have boiled I should cook them in a bit of milk, butter and grated lemon zest to make it a little creamier, Arthur Schwartz doesn’t add this step, so it is totally optional.
To prepare the pastry:
In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Mix well.
With a pastry blender or with 2 forks, cut in the soft butter. The mixture should resemble coarse meal. Add the egg yolks and lemon rind and stir to moisten the butter/flour mixture. Clumps of dough will start to form. the dough should not be overworked. Sprinkle ice water over the dough, a tablespoon at a time, as necessary to form larger clumps.
Place the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead it just enough to form it into a cohesive, soft and yellow dough. Shape it into a loaf about 9 inches long. Wrap it in a clean, wet, and squeezed-out dishtowel. Set aside while you prepare the filling.
To prepare the filling:
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the ricotta, sugar, cinnamon, orange flower water, and candied peels. Whisk in the egg yolks. Then mix in the drained wheat or barley.
In a clean mixing bowl, beat 4 egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold them into the barley mixture.
To assemble and bake the pastiera:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place a sheet of wax paper about 20 inches long on a work surface. Dust it with flour and place 2/3 of the dough on top. Flatten it with a floured rolling pin and cover it with another sheet of wax paper. Roll the dough into a circle at least 18 inches in diameter – large enough to cover the bottom and sides of a 10- to 10¼-inch-diameter springform pan.
Peel off the top sheet of paper and turn the pastry into the pan. Peel off the remaining sheet of paper while fitting it into the pan. Trim off the excess dough with a sharp knife. The dough may break in the process, but it is very easy to patch.
Pour the filling into the pastry lined pan.
Roll out the remaining dough into a rectangle 9 by 13 inches and 3/8 inch thick. Cut it into ¾-inch-wide diagonal strips. Arrange strips diagonally and very loosely over the filling and over the sides of the baking pan. Arrange the remaining strips in the opposite direction, to form a lattice top. Again, if the strips break, they patch easily and you will be sprinkling the finished cake with confectioners’ sugar anyway.
Trim off the excess pastry and, using a table fork, pinch the ends of the lattice strips to the pastry lining.
Bake in the middle of the oven on a baking sheet for 1 hour, or until a knife inserted near the edge comes out clean. Turn the pastiera halfway through baking to ensure even cooking. The filling will puff up during baking and retract when it cools. It will turn a nutty brown, while the lattice top will turn only a shade of beige.
Let the cake cool thoroughly, then refrigerate for at least 12 hours. The pastiera should be served dusted with confectioners’ sugar and at room temperature.