If you’ve been to Italy, you’re well aware that we spend a lot of time around the table eating good food, drinking good wine, and chatting for hours. On special occasions it is even more important for families to work together to prepare homemade dishes from traditional recipes. Today, I would like to give you a glimpse of a typical Easter lunch — starting with dessert. I know that’s an unusual place to start, but this special dessert, called pastiera, is typically prepared on Holy Thursday and requires three days of rest to fully blend the flavors together.
The pastiera tradition is believed to have originated in Naples and carries important symbolic meaning linked to the rebirth of nature. For thousand of years these rituals involved food offerings to celebrate the return of the fertile season. In Roman times, for example, the priestesses of Cerere celebrated the return of spring with a sacred procession where the egg was offered as a symbol of the rebirth. With the advent of Christianity, the pagan ritual of spring evolved into the resurrection of Christ but the symbolism is largely the same.
There are many stories and legends related to this delicious dessert. One claims that a long time ago during the night the wives of the fishermen left on the beach some baskets with ricotta, candied fruit, wheat, eggs and orange flowers as offerings to the sea. Their hope was that the sea would allow their husbands to return home safely. In the morning, when the wives went to welcome their husbands, they noticed that the waves of the sea mixed the ingredients together and there was a cake in their baskets.
Another legend centers on the siren Partenope who emerged every spring from the waters of the gulf between Posillipo and Mount Vesuvius to greet the locals. As a show of gratitude to Partenope, seven girls were chosen to offer her their most precious gifts. The first was flour, a symbol of the strength and wealth of the countryside. Then followed ricotta as a gift from the shepherds, eggs as a symbol of the birth, wheat boiled in milk as a symbol of the two kingdoms of nature, water of orange blossoms as a symbol of the scents of the earth, spices as a symbol of far away peoples, and sugar to express the sweetness of the siren’s song. Partnenope, pleased with her gifts, placed the offerings at the feet of the Gods who mixed all the ingredients and thus the Pastiera was made.
A final story tells of Maria Teresa D’Austria, wife of Ferdinand II of Bourbon, who agreed to eat a slice of pastiera. Having thoroughly enjoyed it, she reportedly smiled in pubic for the very first time. Ferdinand was so surprised that he famously joked: “The pastiera made my wife happy, now I’ll have to wait until next Easter to see her smile again”.
My Pastiera Recipe
The ingredients are ricotta, which gives softness to the filling, the orange blossom water, and wheat. The ideal method of preparation would be to use soft wheat grains to cook directly, rather than rely on the precooked grain that is commonly found at the supermarket.
The procedure is simple: just soak the wheat grains for at least three days, changing the water in the morning and in the evening, then rinse well and cook in water (about 2 liters per 500 g of wheat) until all of the water has been absorbed. After a 24-hour rest in the covered pot, rinse it under running water and then proceed with the normal recipe below, which normally involves cooking it again in milk. The cooking must be slow and the temperature is not very hot: the filling must almost dry, slowly to prevent the taste of the egg becoming the main flavor.
For the shortcrust pastry:
- 3 eggs
- 500 g flour
- 200 g sugar
- 200 g lard or butter
- The peel of a grated lemon
For the filling:
- 700 g sheep or cow ricotta
- 600 g sugar
- 400 g cooked wheat
- 80 g candied cedar
- 80 g candied orange
- 50 g candied pumpkin
- 1 pinch cinnamon
- 100 ml milk
- 30 g butter
- 5 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
- 1 lemon
1. Place the flour and sugar in a bowl on a pastry board.
2. In the center add the lard and the eggs, together with the grated lemon peel.
3. Quickly knead everything until you get a compact and smooth mixture, without working the dough too much.
4. Wrap the dough in the transparent food wrap and leave to rest in the refrigerator for about an hour.
Put the cooked wheat, milk, butter and the grated rind of lemon into a saucepan.
Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often so that the mixture becomes creamy.
In a separate bowl, sift the sheep’s ricotta and add the sugar, eggs, egg yolks, vanilla, a tablespoon of orange blossom water and a pinch of cinnamon.
Work the mixture thoroughly until it becomes smooth in texture.
Add the grated lemon rind and the candied fruit cut into cubes.
Mix everything well and add the cream of wheat which you prepared earlier, which will have cooled in the meantime.
Assembling the dessert:
- Pick up the shortcrust pastry from the fridge and spread it to a thickness of about ½ cm. Take a baking pan of about 30 cm in diameter, butter and flour it, then cover it with the pastry.
- Cut out the excess, and set it aside as it will be used later to prepare the decorative strips. Pour the previously prepared cream inside, level and fold the edges of the dough inwards. Decorate with the strips forming a kind of criss-cross similar to pies.
- Brush the surface of the cake with a beaten egg yolk and bake in a preheated oven at 180 ° for about 1 hour and 30 minutes. The pastiera must have an amber color.
- After cooking, take it out of the oven, let it cool completely and then sprinkle with icing sugar.