In Campania, no Easter would be conceivable without pastiera, a wonderful cake that exemplifies Southern Italy cooking at its best. It is decadent, generous, refined and simple at the same time. A rich and crumbly pasta frolla (sweet pastry), plump soft wheat berries cooked to a cream in milk, sweet snow-white ricotta, eggs, exotic orange flower water, and bright candied citrus peels that bring the sunshine of the costiera into your home. Impossible to resist – but then why should you? Everything symbolizes resurrection in the pastiera: the wheat, coming back to life after the long winter sleep, eggs – the bearers of life itself – ricotta which is at its best best in spring, when the animals can finally graze outside on the new grass. Pastiera, in Campania, can now be found throughout the year but once it was available only throughout Easter and it was traditionally prepared on giovedì santo (holy Thursday), to be ready for Easter lunch.
Ok, back now to reality and to less dreamy tones. Pastiera is a beautiful concoction but things can easily go wrong and I have lost count of the disappointing ones I have tasted, both homemade and from otherwise reliable patisseries. The most common reasons for failure are: not cooked long enough and the pastry is too soft, overly sweet and stodgy, sickly tasting because of an overindulgent use of orange flower water. After many experiments I have settled on the one by Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, from the first edition of her La Cucina Napoletana.(1965).Her recipe makes for a pastiera that is not too deep, nor too sweet, the filling is delicate and restrained because the quantities are kept under control.
A few notes on the making of pastiera:
The pastry: the pasta frolla should be made with strutto (lard), which is very difficult to come by even in Italy (I mean, good quality lard). I use butter only. Pasta frolla should always be made the day before: this makes for easier rolling the next day because the pastry has had time to relax. Francesconi makes the point that the pastry must be rather thinly rolled and actually with her exact quantities one does not have any other choice.
The wheat: you can buy wheat berries that have already been soaked and partially cooked, in tins or jars: it is called grano per pastiera and good Italian delis generally stock it around Easter time. The quality is excellent. If you want to start from scratch you need to get hold of SOFT wheat kernels and soak them for three-four days, changing the water daily. Then you have to boil it for about half an hour or until very tender and then procede with the recipe. Last year by mistake I bought HARD wheat kernels and they would never cook to the creaminess I wanted – so check the label carefully. Francesconi says to soak the wheat berries for 15 days, changing the water every two days. This is excessive in my opinion. Already after a couple of days the kernels are actually already soft.
There are old recipes that feature pearled barley or rice instead of wheat: I made and liked the one made with barley but I was not entirely convinced by the one made with rice. There is also a pastiera filled with spaghetti, you can find a version in Rosetta Costantino’s excellent Southern Italian Desserts.
The candied peels: orange, citron and cocozzata (pumpkin) should be used. Candied pumpkin is very difficult to find outside the Campania area but it can be made at home by part cooking some dense, fleshy pumpkin and then candying it in a heavy sugar syrup. I have always made my pastiera with orange and citron (or lemon) candied peels only.
The ricotta: it should be of impeccable pedigree but I have also made excellent pastiera using store-bought pasteurized ricotta – as long as its ingredients are whey, milk and some sort of acid, it is fine. Here in the UK good fresh ricotta does not exist and often resort to making my own ricotta-style fresh cheese. Of all the recipes tried over the years, I had the best results with Rosetta Costantino’s, first seen in her beautiful book about Calabrian cooking. Also the Mozza’s ricotta is good, bearing in mind the level of citric acid in lemons varies, so do not take it to the letter (or use citric acid from any chemist) Whatever ricotta one uses, it must be thoroughly drained overnight.
Orange flower water: this can be overpowering and stale or sickly tasting. Make sure to check it before using it. I use far less than what Francesconi suggests.
Italian recipe writers often say the cake should rest at least three days. I have never managed to resist that long. I think it is at its best actually after one day. Signora Francesconi says having a small bite of pastiera with your morning coffe during the Holy Week is one of the small pleasures in life.
This is signora Francesconi’s excellent recipe – in brackets I’ve added my comments.
La pastiera di Jeanne Caròla Francesconi
Francesconi recommends a 24-25 cm lightweight aluminum tin which is called ruoto in Neapolitan dialect. It is four to six cm high and with slanted walls. I have never had one. I always bake my pastiera in cake tins, with a removable base, lightly buttered, lining up the side up 4-5 cm from the bottom.
flour- 250 g (Italian 00 or plain flour, any flour low in gluten basically)
sugna – 125g (butter, unsalted)
sugar – 125g (icing sugar or caster sugar powdered with a coffee grinder)
yolks – 3
a little lemom zest
(a pinch of salt: this in not included in Francesconi’s recipe but pastry always benefits from a little salt)
Francesconi makes the pastry by hand in the most traditional Italian way: she mixes flour and sugar together and make them into a mound on the pasta board; then she hollows the centre of this flour and sugar mix creating a crater. Inside this, she puts the yolks, the zest and the very soft butter; she then starts mixing all this together. Little by little, she works the flour in, kneading gently and only as long as it takes to create a coherent mass.
I prefer to make my pastry with the creaming method, using the food mixer, because I think this makes a finer result. I first cream the softened butter, then I add the icing sugar and beat until the mix is very light and fluffy, resembling mayonnaise actually. Then I add the yolks, slowly. Last goes in the flour, which is quickly incorporated. The dough is then flattened into a disc and left to relax in the refrigerator, overnight, covered in cling film.
Per cuocere il grano/to cook the wheat
soft wheat berries soaked and part cooked – 170g (from a tin, jar or cooked from scratch)
milk – 350ml
zest of half an orange
lard (sugna) – a walnut size knob (or use butter)
sugar – 1 teaspoon
vanilla – 1 sachet (Francesconi means vanillina; I always use vanilla extract or the seeds from a bean)
(a pinch of salt: again, this in not included in Francesconi’s recipe but I like it)
Mix everything in a sturdy saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer super gently until the mixture is very creamy and the milk has been absorbed, up to four hours. I use a heavy heat diffuser to let the kernels swell slowly in the milk. It is important to stir often towards the end. Cool.
Per il ripieno/for the filling
ricotta – 125g (well drained)
sugar – 170g (caster sugar)
orange flower water – 50g (I find this excessive and I stop at 25g, it really depends how strong and fresh your orange water is)
candied citron – 20g (I have used lemon peels when I could not find citron)
orange peel – 20g
cocozzata – 30g (I have never used this and I increase the citron and orange peels)
pinch cinnamon or 2 drops cinnamon extract (I use freshly ground cinnamon)
The ricotta should be well beaten and smooth. Add the sugar and mix well; add the yolks one by one, the cooled grano, the orange water. Francesconi recommends to start using only half of her recommended 50g and to keep on tasting, also bearing in mind that much of the aroma will vanish during cooking. Then the peels are added and lastly the whites, already whipped to hard peaks.
To assemble the pie
I cook my pastiera first directly on the bottom of my oven (its hottest spot) because I want a good source of heat to cook the base, then I move it towards the middle of the oven and I cook it for another hour or so, until it is deep golden, lowering the temperature if the top seems to be browning too much. I prefer this long and slow cooking to the shorter/high temperature method because I have found that the pastry cooks better and more thoroughly this way. You know your oven, you know what to do.
Roll out two-thirds of the pastry and line the tin. Prick the base all over with a fork. Roll out the remaining pastry onto a piece of parchment paper and, using scissors, cut out 6-8 strips, about 2 cm wide. Place the tin in the freezer for 30 minutes and the strips in the fridge.
Meanwhile preheat the oven to 170°C.
When the oven has reached the right temperature and the base is frozen, remove it from the freezer and pour in the filling. Lay the strips on top, creating a diamond shaped lattice.
Place the pastiera in the oven, lowering the temperature to 160° C and cook until the top is a deep golden colour (bionda/blond Francesconi says) and the filling is firm – over one hour.
I leave the pastiera to cool down in the oven, with the door ajar. The pastiera must now rest until cool, few hours.
Dust with icing sugar and enjoy your Easter day.
Out of curiosity I also tried the different version Francesconi gives thirty years later in her much smaller book La Vera Cucina di Napoli (1995), a collection of homely and personal recipes, Italian, Neapolitan and foreigner. I did not like it as much: too much pastry in relation to filling.
There are versions in which some crema pasticcera (Italian creme patissiere) is added to the filling: this is both traditional and authentic. personally I do not like it and I prefer the wheat and ricotta filling.
If you read Italian this is a gem: the recipe for pastiera to be found in 1837 Duca Ippolito Cavalcanti’s book La Cucina teorico-pratica della vera cucina casereccia in dialetto napoletano, one of the pillars of Neapolitan cooking, widely quoted by Francesconi herself (page 202).