This is for me the quintessence of Italian desserts. Unique, bold, crazy in its combination of ingredients. Desirable for 11 months and a half a year because it is a traditional Easter dessert – at least as a kid, now I can make it whenever I feel like it, even if I prefer to respect the calendar for seasonal food, so as to always have something to look forward to.
Traditionally from Naples, this cake was totally unknown in other parts of Italy until not so long ago. My grandfather was from Naples, and for him it was inconceivable to have an Easter Sunday without the Pastiera. Fortunately, in Rome, where we were all living when I was a kid, there was this institution called Pasticceria Napoletana, Neapolitan Bakery, in Corso Vittorio Emanuele, between the Vatican City and Piazza Argentina. He would sometimes take me on the expedition to buy the Pastiera in the only bakery in Rome capable of replicating the wonders of the recipe his family used for decades. All I could think of during the family meal was the pastiera: this kind of cheesecake made with ricotta, eggs and wheat berries, to symbolize the rebirth of all things nature. The pungent perfume of orange blossom water, that reminds me of luscious spring nights, the crunchy crust, that balances the sweetness and creaminess of the filling. I cannot think of a more intriguing dessert. The origins of this cake are intertwined with legends: probably some nuns in Naples came up with this perfect mix of ingredients, to be prepared for three days starting on holy Thursday to have the dessert ready by Easter Sunday.
But don’t be scared: you can pull it off in one day if needed, even though there is something mystic in preparing a cake that is a concentrate of symbolism (eggs for birth, cheese for richness, wheat for cycle of nature) during the three holy days of the Christian tradition.
For a 9” round mold
For the crust:
250 grams flour
100 grams of powdered sugar
Pinch of salt
125 grams unsalted cold butter
1 whole egg, plus one yolk
Zest of one lemon
2-3 tablespoons of ice-cold water
For the filling:
300 grams of cooked wheat berries (or approximately 100 grams of uncooked wheat berries)
250 milliliters milk
30 grams of butter
One lemon and one orange peel
350 grams ricotta cheese
300 grams sugar
4-5 whole eggs
Zest of one lemon, finely grated
1 tablespoon orange blossom water (or a little more if you like it!)
powdered sugar for dusting
Optional: 50 grams candied lemon or orange peel, chopped
1. Put the uncooked wheat berries to soak in water overnight (or longer).
2. Make the crust with a food processor (or by hand)
- Mix the dry ingredients together.
- Cut the cold butter in small cubes, add to the dry ingredients.
- Add the egg and egg yolk, pulse several times until crumbly.
- Add 2-3 tablespoons of ice-cold water, pulse again but do not expect the dough to come together.
- Transfer the mix in a bowl, and mix it lightly together with your fingertips until you can form a ball.
- Cover in plastic and put in the fridge to rest for one hour or longer.
3. Prepare the filling
- Boil the wheat berries in water for one hour (like rice). Drain.
- Add the milk, the butter, and a lemon and an orange peel and bring to boil. Simmer until all the milk has evaporated, and the wheat has a creamy texture. Let it cool.
- Mix together the ricotta cheese, the sugar, the lemon zest, the orange blossom water, the eggs and yolks, until creamy.
- Add the candied lemon or orange peel if desired
- Add the wheat mixture and combine folding gently
- Put it in the fridge to rest for half an hour (or longer)
- Heat the oven at 360 F convection
- Grease and lightly flour the mold.
- Roll 2/3 of the dough on a floured wooden board until you have a disk large enough to cover the bottom and the walls of your mold.
- Gently transfer the disk with the help of your rolling pin to the mold, and adjust so that you have a bit overhang
- Roll the remaining dough in a rectangular shape, and cut as many long strips as possible, approximately ½ inch wide
- Fill the mold with the ricotta and wheat mixture
- Use the strips to make a lattice style pattern on top of the ricotta filling, securing each strip to the overhanging dough.
- When the design is completed, roll the overhanging dough on itself, cutting a little bit if too much, so that the junction of the strips to the dough will disappear inside. With the help of a fork seal the dough, all around, designing a nice pattern
- Carefully transfer the mold to the middle rack of the oven, close and let cook for about 50 to 60 minutes total, until the crust is golden and the filling is firm and dark amber in color. Check after the first 30 minutes to see if you need to turn the mold halfway.
- Let cool completely, then refrigerate after covering loosely with aluminum foil.
- Sprinkle with some powdered sugar before serving.
A Few Notes:
- The Pastiera is better served the day after, making it an ideal dessert when having guests
- The wheat can be bought in Italian stores in a can, already cooked. Even if it is easier to use, it really takes away some of the magic. I generally cook more wheat than what I need, because I love to add it to salads or even to my yogurt during this time of the year. Also, I like to cook enough wheat to make two or three Pastiera at the time, to eat with friends or to give as a gift. So if you have too much cooked wheat do not worry and use it following your fantasy!
- I usually flatten the dough ball before putting it in the refrigerator: it is much easier to do so when the dough is at room temperature; when it cools down, it will stiffen and be less manageable, and you will actually have to bring it again to room temp. You can even roll it out completely, put it in between plastic film, and keep it in the fridge to rest on a pizza plate. You will just have to peel off the plastic film when ready to use it, gently put it on the mold, wait until it becomes softer, and then push it in the mold.
- In my experience it is easier to use parchment paper on the bottom and the walls of the mold. To make it stick use some cooking spray. I also add 3 long 2” wide strips of parchment paper across the bottom of the mold, so I can just lift the cake up when cold.
- Pastiera will keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator. It is actually better the day after baking.
Elisabetta Ciardullo is the founder of Think Italian! Events. As Personal Chef she is an ambassador of the Italian cuisine and culture, bringing it into the private homes of Americans, as well as to many corporate clients in Los Angeles.