Pastiera Napoletana is one of the most delicious Neapolitan cake known for its crispy crust and its insanely addictive perfumed filling that is rich and soft like a cheesecake – thanks to ricotta – but grainy like a rice pudding – thanks to whole wheat berries – simply amazing!
Pastiera (pron. Puhss-tee-A-ruh) is a classic Easter pie, especially in Naples area, and is usually made on spring time but nowadays you can find it in restaurants or pastry shops all year around.
This cake – dated back to the ‘700 in Gregorio Armeno convent in Naples – is easy to make especially if you follow my instructions (and secrets) step by step although it takes time and planning – the most dedicated of pastiera bakers insist that it should take at least 3 days to make it (from Maundy Thursday to Holy Saturday) – but there really isn’t much “work time” – just more “wait time” and the end result is well worth every minute you spend on it, trust me!
Today’s post isn’t just a recipe. It’s a lesson.
By making this pie you may say you’re italian and you will fool even an italian – on condition that you won’t let your english accent to be heard, of course!
Every family has their own recipe and today I will share the one that my grand grand mother prepred at the beginning of 1900 for the whole family on the God Thursday and Friday.
Pie Crust or “Pasta Frolla”
◾500 gr / 4 cups all-purpose flour
◾200 gr / 7 oz / 2 sticks lard/butter at room temperature (tradition says lard for longer shelf life)
◾200 gr / 1 cup granulated sugar
◾3 medium eggs
◾1 lemon zest (only the yellow part of the lemon, not the bitter white one)
Ricotta and Wheat Berry filling
◾550 gr / 1.2 lbs cooked wheat berries* (“cooked grain” or “grano cotto“)
◾400 ml / 1+3/4 cups whole cow’s milk
◾40 gr / 3 tbsp butter
◾a pinch of salt
◾600 gr / 1.4 lbs sheeps’s ricotta (or at least a mix with cow)
◾500 gr to 600 gr / 2 to 2.5 cups granulated sugar (I use 500 gr – ≈ 2 full cups)
◾7 medium eggs
◾1 orange zest or 5-8 drops of pure Sweet Orange essential oil (organic!!!)
◾1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)
◾seeds from 1 vanilla bean or 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
◾3-4 tbsp orange blossom water or 4 gr orange blossom flavouring or 8-10 drops of pure Neroli essential oil (organic)
◾70 gr / 1/2 cup chopped candied citron** – I don’t recommend getting the waxy, artificially coloured stuff…
◾powdered sugar / icing sugar
cooked wheat berries* if you cannot find cooked wheat berries: put 200 gr / 7 oz uncooked wheat berries in a bowl covered with water for 3 days – changing water twice a day to clean them. Drain and rinse under cold water then simmer for about 1 1/2 hours without stirring, until soft. Drain and reserve until needed (cooked wheat berries can be stored in the fridge for a week).
** if you don’t like eating chopped candied fruits just leave them out or mix them along with half wheat berries. I prefer the latter because the taste of candied fruits give a boost to the pie and you won’t feel their presence.
INSTRUCTIONS - DAY 1 (Monday- Thursday) – 30 minutes
In a heavy bottomed saucepan place the cooked wheat berries with butter, milk and a pinch of salt over medium heat, stirring occasionally (to avoid the berries from sticking onto the bottom of the pan) until it becomes thick and creamy like oatmeal, about 30 minutes.
Let it cool then place in a cool and dry place covered (OUTSIDE the fridge) for about 12 hours.
In the meanwhile, mix well ricotta with sugar.
Place this creamy mixture in a clean* cotton cloth and store in the fridge for about 12 hours (*do not use fabric softener on the cloth!).
That’s the SECRET that neapolitan grandmothers always used to do to drain ricotta from water. (IMPORTANT STEP)
DAY 2 (Good Friday) – 50 minutes
To make the Pie Crust
Place in a bowl flour, sugar, butter/lard and lemon zest and combine with a fork or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal – you can do this by using a food processor for about 15 seconds.
Add 3 medium eggs and 1 yolk and mix JUST until the dough is uniform and holds together.
Turn the dough onto your work surface and gather into a ball. Divide the dough into two pieces one larger than the other.
Cover both with plastic wrap and refrigerate before using (this will chill the butter and relax the gluten in the flour) – you can do this passage on DAY 1 if you want.
To make the filling
Put the Ricotta in a bowl. Add eggs, cinnamon (optional), vanilla and orange blossom flavouring and stir until all is mixed well – do not over beat! – freshly beaten eggs will make the filling rise while cooking then sink when cooled, presenting a hollow and some cracking on top and you don’t want that, right?
In a mixer, blend half the amout of wheat berries – this will ensure a creamier filling.
If you don’t like eating pieces of candied citron you can blend them now with wheat berries – but tradition says to use them whole.
Add wheat berries (whole and mixed) to the (yellow) ricotta mixture along with finely chopped candied citron if you don’t have mixed it before.
Preheat the oven to 325° F (165° C – gas mark 3) and place oven rack in the center of the oven.
Remove the larger pie dough from the fridge and place it on a wax/baking paper.
Put another wax/baking paper over the dough – to prevent the pastry from sticking to the rolling pin and to ensure uniform thickness – and roll the pastry into a 14 inch (36 cm) circle – about 1/8 – 1/4 inch (0,3 – 0,5 cm) thick.
Gently remove the first wax/baking paper and transfer the dough to a 12 inch (30cm) greased springform pan (you can leave the second baking paper, your choice).
remove baking paper rolled pie crust Make sure that the height of the edge has to be 2.5 inch (6 cm) – if the pie is shorter pastiera would be drier while if it’s taller pastiera would be too moist, so that’s the best height for a good pastiera.
Poke holes with a toothpick or a fork all over the pie. This will prevent air pockets during the cooking.
Put the filling onto the pastry base.
Remove from the fridge the remaining dough ball and roll out the pastry using the wax/baking paper method used before.
With a pastry wheel cut 5 long strips 1.5 inch (4cm) wide (this width is a peculiarity of pastiera) – usually narrower strips are used for fruit tarts.
If room temperature is a bit hot and it’s messing up the working of the pastry dough, you can help to chill the dough by putting some ice bags on it, before removing the baking paper.
Using an offset spatula, gently transfer the strips to the pie: lay them across the top of the pie to form a criss cross diamond pattern (not square) (2 strips under and 3 over).
Bake Pastiera for about 90 minutes at 325°F (165°C – gas mark 3) until the crust is golden and the filling is amber-brown on top.
It’s important, though, not to open the oven door while it’s baking (or at least for the first 45 minutes) as the batter may collapse.
The long cooking time at low temperature allow pastiera to cook evenly and to remain lightly moist inside – this will also ensure a longer shelf life.
When Pastiera is baked, turn off the oven, open the oven door and leave the pie in the turned off oven for about 15 minutes.
When it’s cooled, store Pastiera in its pan covered with plastic wrap in a cool place (room temperature), DO NOT refrigerate (if you’re not living in the caribbean of course).
Dust neapolitan pastiera with a bit of powdered sugar and…… here it is, the Majesty Queen Pastiera Napoletana ready to be devoured!
Pastiera can be stored at room temperature (covered with plastic wrap) for about 5 days, although I have never had one last that long.
You can even freeze it and when you want to eat it just thaw the pie out (or a slice) and leave it – well covered – at room temperature (do not microwave). It will be like fresh-made.
If you follow the recipe above, you’ll turn out to have a perfect Pastiera but if you want to make some changes you need to know several things to help you out.
You need to balance liquids and solids to obtain good results so:
◾if ricotta is too wet you need to use drier wheat berries (they need to have absorbed all the liquid when cooked in milk);
◾if ricotta is dry you need to use creamy wheat berries (not overcooked in milk);
◾the batter needs to be creamy (a bit thick) – if it’s too liquid you need to add eggs – so, when cooked, they create a retaining structure and the pie won’t droop in the middle.