Growing up, Easter at my home in the U.S. was a pretty easy and low key affair. Typically, we would wake up and go to church on Easter morning and then have a mid-afternoon meal with the requisite lamb and our homemade Easter Bunny cake decked out in flaked coconut and jelly beans. Oh, and let’s not forget the Easter egg hunt outside with us three kids racing against our dogs to find all of the hard boiled dyed eggs. Our dogs thought they had hit the jackpot it they found an egg. I think they were much more excited about eating them than we were!
Easter in Italy, however, is a much grander affair than, at least, what I am used to. Everything seems to be just a lit bit grander and, frankly, I love it! Easter with my husband’s family at their home outside of Naples is a bit like Christmas in that it is a multiple day eating and family affair. I guess it should have been obvious to me given that Christmas is much the same. The big meal, of course, is Sunday after church, but that doesn’t stop Italians from congregating with their family and friends throughout the long weekend; including Easter Monday. This day is typically reserved for going out and having a late morning aperitivo at one of the local restaurants.
During the Easter holiday at my mother-in-law’s house, it would never be complete without Pastiera Napoletana or Easter Wheat Pie on the table.
On my very first Easter at my (now) mother-in-law’s house, my husband and I had been dating about 7 months. I had spent Christmas with them, so I was familiar with all of the eating and, in fact, began looking forward to it! Just as we walked in the door, my mother-in-law grabbed my hand and led me over to the kitchen counter and proudly pointed to a freshly baked Pastiera Napoletana and asked me if we had this for Easter at my house. I could smell the warm perfume of custard and homemade short crust wafting from from what looked looked to me like a hybrid between a cake and a pie. I was instantly intrigued. I said, no, I have never seen this delightful dessert.
When I pressed her for the ingredients, it all seemed pretty straight forward except for one ingredient which seemed to be the magical ingredient. She kept saying “grano”. Still being a newbie with the Italian language, I dutifully google translated it and it said wheat. How could wheat be the magical ingredient, I thought. Still confused, I began doing a bit of research (oh, the beauty of wifi and the internet). So, grano is in fact wheat, but they are wheat berries or the entire wheat kernel without the shell. They have a sweet, nutty taste and a beautiful chewy texture. When cooking wheat berries, it is important to soak them overnight then boil the next day for about an hour so until they are soft. If you can’t find wheat berries, you could certainly substitute with pearl barley and it won’t take as long to cook; just boil them for about forty minutes or until tender.
Pastiera Napoletana is an enduring tradition and legend has it that the seven ingredients of pastiera were offered by seven maidens to the Siren Parthenope. Four and grain – the fruits of the earth, eggs signifying the renewal of life, ricotta cheese in homage to the shepherds, orange water and sugar the perfumes and sweetness of spring. A more recent story says that Pastiera was invented by a nun from the Convent of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples as a symbol of the resurrection. The significance of the ingredients is pretty much the same, with particular emphasis on the eggs for rebirth and the orange fragrance coming from the flowers of the orange trees that grew in abundance at the convent.
Before serving, you can sift some powdered sugar of the top or you can leave it off as we do. Once cooked, the Pastiera can be stored in the fridge for about 4 to 5 days, although at my mother-in-law’s we just leave it on the counter since we demolish it in just a day or two.
- For the pastry dough:
- 2 cups (300 grams) all purpose flour
- 1½ cups (140 grams) powdered sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 egg yolk
- ⅝ cup (140 grams) cold butter; chopped into small pieces
- 3 cups (580 grams) cooked (and cooled) wheat berries (to make use 1 ½ cups or 270 grams uncooked)
- ½ cup (100 mL) milk
- 7 Tablespoons (100 grams) butter
- the peel from one organic lemon (making sure to not take the white pith when peeling it)
- ¼ t salt
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
- 1¾ cup (400 grams) fresh ricotta cheese
- 4 eggs (whites only)
- 1 teaspoon orange flower blossom water (if you can't find, you can use orange extract)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- the zest from 1 large organic orange or 2 small oranges (making sure you don’t take the white part or pith from the skin as this will make the zest bitter)
- For the pastry dough: In a large bowl or food processor, mix together the flour and powdered sugar.
- Add the butter pieces and pulse or cut with a fork or pastry cutter (or your hands like I do) until it is the consistency of small peas.
- Add the two eggs and egg yolk and mix until the dough has come together.
- Put out on a floured surface and pull the dough together until it is smooth.
- Flatten the dough into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. If you want, you can make the pastry the day before and leave it in the fridge overnight.
- For the filling: The day before, soak the wheat berries overnight. The next morning drain and rinse and boil the wheat berries for about 50 to 60 minutes or until soft. Let cool before using them in the recipe.
- In a heavy bottomed saucepan or pot, add the cooked wheat berries, milk, butter, salt, and lemon peel. Over medium heat stir until well combined. When it begins to boil, reduce the heat and cook for 5 to 7 minutes making sure you stir constantly with a wooden spoon so the bottom doesn’t burn. Take off the heat and set aside.
- In a standing mixer with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer, add the ricotta and mix until softened.
- Next add the sugar, orange blossom essence and vanilla and beat until well combined.
- Add the 4 egg yolk and orange zest and beat again until well combined.
- Next add the wheat berry mixture and mix until completely combined and set aside.
- In a standing mixer or with a hand mixer, whip the egg whites until soft peaks form.
- Add the whipped egg whites to the wheat berry/ricotta mixture and fold in with a spatula until fully incorporated.
- For the pastry dough, roll out on a floured surface until about a ¼ inch thick (you don’t want it too thin or it will tear. Place the dough into a 30 centimeter (10 to 12 inch) round pan. Poke the bottom with a fork as this will help the dough cook better. If you want, you can crimp the top.
- Take the remaining dough and roll out and cut into strips with a sharp knife or a fluted pastry cutter for the lattice top. Set aside.
- Next, add the wheat berry mixture into the pastry lined pan. Next, place the strips on top of the mixture. You can place 3 or 4 strips across one way and then 3 or 4 the other way so it makes an easy lattice pattern. No need to be fancy since this is a rustic dessert.
- Bake at 170 for 80 to 85 minutes. If the crust around the edges starts to brown too much, you can cover loosely with a piece of aluminum foil.