Traditional Southern Italian Easter Pie

April 15, 2014

Rosetta Costantino is an expert on the culinary traditions of Southern Italy.  In her newest book, Southern Italian Desserts, she shares recipes from the sweeter side of this Mediterranean cuisine.  Pastiera Napoletana is a traditional dessert served during Easter.  This much anticipated treat is a labor of love but worth every bite.

La Pastiera Napoletana Easter pie with wheat berries and ricotta
Serves 12 to 16 

Pastiera is typically served for Easter, but some say it originated from a pagan tradition that predates the Christian Easter holiday. Others say it reflects ancient Roman celebrations of springtime and rebirth. Still another legend suggests that the dish was created to thank the siren Parthenope, who lived in the Gulf of Naples, for her springtime songs. Whatever its origin, it is clear that the dessert is meant to celebrate spring—made with wheat, which begins to sprout at this time, ricotta made with fresh sheep’s milk, fragrant orange flower water, and eggs symbolizing fertility and rebirth. Tradition instructs us to prepare the pastiera three days in advance of Easter, symbolizing the time between Christ’s death and resurrection. But there is a better reason for the waiting period: it allows the flavors and textures to marry. Traditionally, the pastiere were baked in community ovens on the Thursday before Easter. Families would never prepare just one, but rather would bake many to share with family and friends. Nowadays, you can find pastiera in the pastry shops of Naples all year long. In Italy, this is made with the jarred cooked wheat called grano cotto, available through or in Italian food shops. To use raw hulled wheat berries instead, cover 1/2 cup (100 g) wheat berries with 2 cups cold water in a bowl. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 3 days, draining off and replacing the water daily. Drain the wheat berries, transfer them to a saucepan, and add 3 cups of water and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt. Gently boil until the wheat berries are tender and most have split, about 90 minutes, adding water if needed to keep them covered. Let cool completely in the water, then drain.

Short-crust pastry (double crust):
3 cups (396 g) All-purpose flour
3/4 cup (150 g) Granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons Baking powder
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
3/4 cup (170 g) Unsalted butter
2 Eggs (large)
2 Egg yolks (large)
1 1/2 teaspoons Finely grated lemon zest

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a food processor and pulse just a few times to combine them. Cut the butter into small cubes, about sixteen per stick, and add them to the food processor. Pulse until the butter is in small crumbs. Whisk the eggs (or egg and yolk) with the lemon zest in a small bowl. With the machine running, add the eggs through the feed tube. Mix, then pulse a few times, until the mixture comes together around the blade. When you stop the mixer and pinch it between your fingers, the dough should hold together easily. Lay out a sheet of plastic wrap on a flat surface. Transfer the dough to the plastic wrap and press it together with your hands to form a smooth ball. Flatten the dough into one or more disks (see specific recipes for instructions on dividing the dough), wrap tightly in plastic film, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up to 3 days, before rolling. Alternatively, you can place the wrapped disks into a ziplock bag and freeze for up to 1 month; thaw overnight in the refrigerator. If refrigerated for more than an hour, let stand, wrapped, at room temperature for 30 minutes before rolling.

Scorze d’Arance Candite (candied orange peel): 
5 large navel oranges with thick peels
4 cups (800 g) granulated sugar, plus more for coating
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cups (480 ml) water

Use a paring knife to cut the peel from the orange, pith and all, in wide strips running from top to bottom. They will have an elongated diamond shape, about 1 inch at the widest point. Put the peels into a large soup pot and cover them generously with cool water. Bring to a boil, boil for 2 minutes, and drain. Repeat the boiling and draining twice more. Return the peels to the pot, cover with cold water until cool enough to handle, then drain. Lay one strip skin side down on a flat surface and use a paring knife running parallel to the rind to cut away most of the white pith inside, leaving about 1/8 inch of pith along with the peel. Repeat with the remaining strips. (Discard the trimmings.) Return the peels to the pot, cover with cold water, and blanch two more times as before, for a total of five blanchings. Drain the peels and set aside. Stir the sugar, lemon juice, and water in the pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes to slightly thicken the syrup. Add the peels and cook until they are shiny and translucent, about 1 hour. Remove the pot from the heat and let the peels plump in the syrup overnight. Transfer the peels to a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet to dry. As you remove each peel from the syrup, run it between your thumb and forefinger to squeeze any excess syrup back into the pot. When the peels are no longer tacky—24 to 48 or more hours later—transfer the peels, a few at a time, to a shallow bowl of sugar, tossing to coat them well. Return the peels to the rack to dry overnight. Transfer the peels to an airtight container with parchment paper separating the layers and store in the freezer, where they will keep for at least a year.

1 3/4 cups (454 g) fresh ricotta, well drained
1 1/3 cups (325 g) grano cotto (see headnote), drained
1 3/4 cups (420 ml) whole milk, plus more if needed
1 1/2 cups (312 g) plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
1/2 vanilla bean, split
3 large eggs, separated
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon orange flower water
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup packed (100 g) finely chopped (1/4-inch) candied orange peel (page 193)
Confectioners’ sugar, for finishing

Prepare the pastry dough. Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other, flatten into disks, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 1 hour.

Press the ricotta through an ultrafine-mesh strainer or splatter screen (see page 14) into a bowl. Set aside.

Butter a 10-inch springform pan or deep-dish pie pan.

Put the cooked, drained wheat (grano cotto) into a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Stir in the milk, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the butter, and the zest of 1 lemon. Scrape in the vanilla seeds and drop in the pod. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the grains are very soft and the liquid forms a thick, creamy sauce, about 50 minutes for the jarred grains or up to an hour for the cooked whole grains. Stir more frequently toward the end to prevent scorching, and add a bit more milk if the mixture becomes dry. Transfer the wheat mixture to a shallow bowl and let cool. Remove and discard the vanilla pod. While the wheat cooks, roll the pastry dough. Leaving the smaller disk in the refrigerator, roll the larger disk between two sheets of plastic wrap into a 13-inch round. Remove the plastic from one side and invert the dough over the prepared pan, nestling it evenly into the bottom and sides. Refrigerate the covered pastry in the pan. Roll the second disk into a 101/2-inch round on a sheet of parchment paper. Use a fluted cutter to cut the dough into 3/4-inch-wide strips, making at least 10 strips. Slide the dough on the parchment paper onto a rimless baking sheet and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 325°F (163°C) with a rack in the center of the oven.

To make the filling, in a clean bowl using clean beaters, beat the 3 egg whites with an electric mixer at high speed until firm peaks form that are not at all dry.

In a large bowl, mix the ricotta with the remaining 11/2 cups granulated sugar at medium-low speed until smooth. Mix in the 5 yolks, the orange flower water, the orange zest, and the zest of the remaining lemon. Use a large spatula to stir in the cooled wheat and the candied peel. Fold in the beaten egg whites in three additions.

Spread the filling evenly in the dough-lined pan. Place the strips of pastry over the top, spacing five strips evenly in one direction, then place the remaining five strips at about a 45-degree angle over the top, without weaving, to form a diamond pattern. Using the fluted cutter, trim the dough around the edges to about 1/2 inch above the filling. Fold the excess bottom dough over the strips, pressing the strips and bottom dough together to seal them.

Bake until the top is deep golden brown and the center no longer jiggles when you shake the pan, 90 to 100 minutes. If the edges brown too quickly, shield them with strips of aluminum foil.

When it is ready, turn off the oven, prop the oven door open, and leave the pastiera inside until it has cooled completely.

When cool, run a knife around the edge, then release and remove the pan sides. Transfer the pastiera on its base to a plate. (If you used a pie pan, leave the pastiera in the pan.) Cover tightly and refrigerate for three days before serving. Let the pastiera stand at room temperature for 45 to 60 minutes before serving.

To serve, dust the top lightly with confectioners’ sugar and cut into wedges.

All recipes reprinted with permission from Southern Italian Desserts by Rosetta Costantino (Ten Speed Press, © 2013). 

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