James Beard Award-winning Cookbook Author

Neapolitan Easter Pie

Pastiera: Neapolitan Easter pie, good any time of year

  • GREG PATENT for Lee Montana Newspapers
  • Apr 1, 2020

A pie for Easter dessert.

Easter is on the horizon, and desserts for the occasion, often rich in dairy following Lent, are eagerly devoured. Symbolizing rebirth and growth in spring, sweets from all over the world at this time of year feature mass quantities of eggs, butter and cheese. A favorite pastry of mine is Pastiera Napolitana, Neapolitan Easter Pie. Its filling of ricotta, eggs and cooked wheat berries draws me back year after year.

I tasted pastiera for the first time when my family and I lived in Naples. Cooked grain in a pie was new to me, and I loved how the chewy berries contrasted with the creaminess of the filling. I also loved the sugary and buttery crust. That pastiera was enormous, at least 18 inches in diameter. The crust alone contained 18 egg yolks and the filling 12 yolks!

What is the history of this Italian Neapolitan Easter Pie?

Italian author Amedeo Colella, who writes about Neapolitan life and food, says that pastiera, as with just about all the great Neapolitan pastries, was born in a convent, specifically the Convent of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples’s centro storico (Old Town). The convent nuns were the first to bake hundreds of pastiere (plural) for the Neapolitan bourgeoisie. And that’s why the best pastiera is still to be found in bakeries near the monastery.

Wheat berries compared to hulled or pearled berries.

Old recipes for pastiera say to soak wheat berries in multiple changes of water for three days and to cook the berries for an hour or two. Today we can buy hulled or pearled soft wheat berries, without their tough outer coats, that will be chewy/tender after 40 minutes or so of cooking. Not only that, it’s now common to find pastiera made with pearled barley or farro instead of wheat. When it comes down to it, any pastiera is deliziosa.

And another thing: Feel free to make pastiera any time of the year. Neapolitan bakeries do it, and so can you. This is why I’m featuring the recipe now. As long as you’re home, you might as well have some fun baking!

What fruit substitutions can be used?

Traditionally, pastiera recipes called for candied fruits and orange flower water. Many modern recipes give these ingredients as options. I tend to leave the candied fruits out and I substitute vanilla for the orange flower water. I do like orange zest with the wheat and the ricotta filling, and lemon zest adds a note of brightness to the pastry.

Amadeo Colella ends his essay on pastiera with these words: “Pastiera is the very symbol of inclusiveness and hospitality, virtues in which the city of Naples has always excelled: the Italian wheat and ricotta play host to citron, which is Lebanese, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, vanilla from Mexico — ingredients from all over the world are welcomed with open arms by the orange flowers of the Amalfi Coast.”

I’ve adapted the recipe here from my friend, Arthur Schwartz, who has written many authoritative cookbooks, including “Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania” (Harper Collins, 1998). By pastiera standards, his pastiera is small, but big enough for 8 to 10 servings.

Pastiera Napolitana

Can other grains be used in place of wheat berries?

The traditional grain for this pie is wheat berries, but nowadays many bakers use farro or barley in place of the wheat. I’ve tried them all and they all work in this recipe. Be sure to buy the grain you decide on labeled pearled or hulled, so cooking time will be relatively brief. You can bake the pastiera in a standard 8-inch layer cake pan or in a 9-inch pie plate.

 

Neopolitan Easter Pie

Servings 8 servings

Ingredients
  

The Pastry

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour  (10 ounces)
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 lemon zest grated
  • 10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (5 ounces)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

The Grain

  • cup pearled soft wheat berries
  • cups water
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup whole milk
  • 1 orange zest finely grated
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Ricotta Filling

  • 15 ounces ricotta cheese
  • ½ cup sugar
  • cooked grain from the ingredients above.
  • 1 large orange zest grated
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla (or orange flower water)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 large egg yolks

Instructions
 

Make the pastry

  • In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, lemon zest, and sugar. Cut the cold butter into pieces and add to the bowl. Use a pastry blender or your fingertips to work the butter and dry ingredients into a coarse meal.
  • In a small bowl, beat the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla together with a fork to combine well.
  • Add to the dry ingredients and mix vigorously with the fork until everything comes together. Then reach in with your hands and squeeze the dough repeatedly until it unites into a smooth mass.
  • This is your pastry. It will weigh about 21 ounces. Divide the dough into two pieces, one about 2/3 of the dough and the other 1/3 of the dough. Shape each piece into a 1-inch-thick disk, wrap them in plastic, and refrigerate.

 For the grain

  • In a medium saucepan (2-quart is ideal), combine the wheat, water, and salt. Set the pan over medium-high heat and bring to the boil, stirring a few times. As soon as the water boils, reduce the heat to medium-low — the water should be bubbling very gently — and cook, stirring occasionally for about 40 minutes, until the berries are al dente — tender but slightly chewy.
  • Important: There should be about 2 to 3 tablespoons of water left in the pan when the berries are done.
  • Take the pan off the heat and set it aside to cool to room temperature. During cooling, that bit of water may have been absorbed by the berries.
  • Add the milk, orange zest and butter to the cooked wheat.
  • Set the pan over medium-low heat and bring to the simmer, stirring occasionally. The liquid should be bubbling gently and the bubbles will be small. Continue cooking, stirring now and then, for 10 to 15 minutes more and watch the bubbles carefully.
  • Visual tip: Near the end of cooking the bubbles get noticeably bigger and the grain and milk will look like porridge. Take the pan off the heat and set it aside to cool. When cool, the contents of the pan should look creamy, not dry. If necessary, stir in a little bit of milk to restore creaminess.

Make the ricotta filling

  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the ricotta, sugar, all the cooked grain, orange zest, vanilla, eggs and egg yolks, until well blended.

 Assembly and baking

  • Take the packets of chilled pastry out of the fridge and let them warm up a bit at room temperature, 15 minutes or so. If you try to roll the dough when it’s cold, it will break into pieces.
  • Dust your work surface lightly with flour and coat the larger piece of dough on both sides. Roll the dough gently, without forcing it, in a back and forth motion with a rolling pin into an oval shape about 8 to 10 inches long. The edges of the dough are likely to crack in spots. That’s what a sugar pastry does. Just pinch the edges together to smooth them out. Flour the dough lightly, as necessary, to prevent sticking.
  • Turn the oval of dough ninety degrees and roll back and forth to make a circle. Now that you have a circle of dough, continue rolling from the center outward in all directions, turning and flipping the dough from time to time, to maintain the circular shape. Flour as necessary to prevent sticking, and pinch together any cracked edges. Stop rolling when you have a 12- to 13-inch circle of pastry.
  • Lightly butter a standard size 8-inch layer cake pan or a 9-inch pie plate. Carefully roll the pastry around the rolling pin and slowly unroll it over the cake pan or pie plate. Without stretching the dough, lift the edges of the pastry and nudge it onto the sides of your pan. If the pastry cracks at any point — and just so you know, this is likely to happen — do not despair, just pinch the edges together and patch large gaps with some of the overhanging pastry. Once your pan is lined, cut away the excess pastry with a sharp knife. Gather scraps together and wrap in plastic.
  • Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  • Roll the smaller piece of dough on your lightly floured surface to a 10-inch circle. Cut the dough into 1/2-inch wide strips.
  • Whisk the ricotta filling a few times and pour into the pastry-lined pan.
  • Carefully lay strips of dough on the filling to make a diamond pattern. Three or four strips in each direction should do it. Cut off overhanging pastry. Gather up scraps and add to the first batch of scraps. Shape into a disk, rewrap, and refrigerate. Leftover dough makes great cookies!
  •  Bake 40 to 50 minutes, until the filling is set and jiggles a bit only in the center. Cool completely on a wire rack, 2 to 3 hours.
  • If you’ve baked the pastiera in a cake pan, run a knife between the pastry and the edge of the pan to make sure it isn’t sticking. Cover the pastiera with a plate, grasp the two together and invert. Remove the cake pan, cover the pastry with a dessert plate and invert again so that the dessert’s lattice side faces up. Dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar. If pastiera is in a pie plate, leave it there and dust the top with confectioners’ sugar.

Serving

  • Pastiera is usually served plain. Cut into portions and set them on dessert plates. I usually add a few berries for color and taste.
  • Store leftover pastiera in the fridge. Bring to room temperature before serving.


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