As you my loyal readers know I have been on somewhat of a history kick for inane and slightly off-beat foodstuffs lately. I’m not sure if it’s because I haven’t been able to eat any proper food (only softies) since my dental event, but I’m still on a roll. Here is a very traditional Easter dessert recipe that I adapted slightly to utilize way less sugar and yet it still turned out delicious. It is homey, rich, creamy and it smells awesome while baking. It’s called Pastiera Napoletana.
The Pastiera is a tart always eaten at Easter time in Naples, Italy. It is made from a very special and centuries-old recipe which has two particular ingredients which make it unique: moisture taken from the orange tree blossom and cooke wheat berries. Also used in the recipe are ricotta cheese, candied fruit peel and classic short pastry. I added a few dates and molasses, as well as a hearty ladle-full of Fig Sue . . . just because. Making this tart does not require any great ability, just a little time and patience. And a springform pan!
The Pastiera is tied to early pagan springtime festivals and the modern version was probably invented in a peaceful and secret Neapolitan convent, Sa Gregorio Armeno. Apparently an unknown nun wanted that cake, which had come to be a symbol of the Resurrection to have the perfume of the flowers of the orange trees which grew in the conent’s gardens. She mixed a handful of wheat to the ricotta cheese & eggs, and added water which had the fragrance of the flowers of springtime. The nuns of this convent were considered to be genus in the complex preparation of the Pastiera and used to prepare a great quantity for the neighborhood families during Easter time.
Every good Neapolitan housewife considers herself to be the one and only authentic baker with the best recipe for the Pastiera. There are two different ways of preparing the Pastiera: the oldest one mixes the ricotta cheese to the eggs, the most recent and innovative one recommence to mix thick pastry cream into the ricotta which makes the Pastiera softer.
The pastier must be cooked some days in advance of Easter, no later than Good Friday, in order to allow the fragrances to mix properly to elicit the unique citrusy-sweet taste.
I adapted my recipe from the wonderful Emiko Davies‘s recipe, who writes a weekly Italian column for Food52. I did not use powdered sugar in the crust, and in place of sugar in the filling I added dates and a touch of molasses.
1 stick unsalted cold butter (I like to freeze mine)
2 cups flour
1 whole egg, plus one yolk
Zest of 1 lemon
2 Tbps sugar
Ingredients for the filling:
10 ounces (280 grams) of cooked wheat berries or about 3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) of uncooked wheat berries
1 cup cream or milk
2 tablespoons butter
12 ounces fresh ricotta
6 fresh medjool dates, soaked for a couple of minutes in warm water
1 Tbps molasses
2 whole eggs, plus two yolks
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
2 oz. candied citron, finely chopped
2 oz. candied lemon peel, finely chopped
Make the Dough:
1. Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl (I used a food processor this time, but with the dough blade; often I just mix by hand with a fork and knife). 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.
I didn’t have enough dough because . . . well I didn’t really measure (I’m terrible this way!) so I made a little more for the lattice:
Make the filling:
1. 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.
2. In a blender, food processor or mixer, beat the eggs and extra yolks with the ricotta, dates, molasses, 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.
3. Roll out about two thirds of the pastry and place in a 10 inch 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, 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.
4. 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). Store any leftovers in the fridge.