Throwback Thursday

…. to a post from April 21, 2009 in which I recount my attempt to recreate a Neapolitan Easter Dessert.

I realize it’s a bit late for Easter but as I was decanting a cocktail recipe my friend Yannis posted on his website the smell of essence of orange reminded me of a kitchen adventure from our time in Rome. My friend Marco the Neapolitano was good enough to share his family recipe for La Pasteria and I was foolish enough to believe that it was a simple task. Oh foolish man!

This is a two parter and the link to – spoiler alert) – the IMHO “triumphant” conclusion is at the bottom of the first post.

Willy Or Won't He

I first encountered Pastiera, the traditional Napoletano Easter dolci, when we were doing an “Italian theme” Easter dinner back in 1990.  My friend John was delegated to make it using a recipe from the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Back in those days many of the ingredients were hard to find and the “wheat berries” had to be bought in a health food store and the lengthy process of cooking them followed. John wasn’t too confident that this such a great idea for a desert and made an angel food cake as well. As I recall the “pastiera” was considered to be a bit on the exotic side.

I wasn’t to encounter it again until I moved here four years ago and then only really became familiar with it after meeting my friend Marco, the Napoletano.  Two Easters back he talked about it – and how he had…

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Marco’s Mother’s Pastiera

I first encountered Pastiera, the traditional Napoletano Easter dolci, when we were doing an “Italian theme” Easter dinner back in 1990.  My friend John was delegated to make it using a recipe from the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Back in those days many of the ingredients were hard to find and the “wheat berries” had to be bought in a health food store and the lengthy process of cooking them followed. John wasn’t too confident that this such a great idea for a desert and made an angel food cake as well. As I recall the “pastiera” was considered to be a bit on the exotic side.

I wasn’t to encounter it again until I moved here four years ago and then only really became familiar with it after meeting my friend Marco, the Napoletano.  Two Easters back he talked about it – and how he had learned how to make it from his mother, whose pastiera was the best in Napoli.  Last year he snuck a piece from the family table and brought it back to Roma for me to try.  This year he shared the recipe with me and I’m attempting to make it myself.

As with most family recipes it is big on description and cautions but a bit short on details.  Measurements are by the eye, to taste and experience.  I’ve had to send him several e-mails asking for clarification about instructions such as “whip the egg whites, then incorporate them into the mixture” – good but whip them until what consistency?  Now Marco would have seen his mother do it, who had probably watched her mother do it – so the eye – and finger – had learned when the time was right.  My own thoughts were until they “form soft peaks” – turns out I was right.

Marco’s Mother’s Pastiera (sort of)

Half kilo of good quality cow’s milk fresh ricotta
Half kilo of sugar (fine but not icing sugar)
1 small jar of pre-cooked grano* or about 300 gr
1/2 litre of milk
Candied fruit (little but some is required)
6 eggs
5 Vanilla packets
4 bottles Fiori d’arancio (Orange blossom essence)
Cinnamon
A portion of short pastry (say that you will need a pound)

*Grano is whole grain that has been soaked in repeated changes of water – sometimes for as long as seven days, though 3 days is more the norm – then cooked.  It can be bought precooked in jars and cans in supermarkets here and Italian food stores in other countries.

Making pastiera is a two day job and once baked it should ideally sit – though I’ve been cautioned never in the refrigerator – for a day or two to let the flavours blend.  So it is traditional to start it on Holy Thursday, complete it on Good Friday and service it on Easter Sunday.

So this morning – Holy Thursday – I started the easiest part of the cooking.

In a large bowl mix together the ricotta and the sugar.  When it has become creamy cover and let rest in the refrigerator for a day.

Boil the grano in the milk for about 20 minutes.  During the cooking add 1 tablespoon of lard, a packet of vanilla and a bottle of orange blossom essence. Allow to cool and then cover and store in the refrigerator for a day.

So far so good though I had worried about the consistency of the grano but Marco assured me that it would all balance out and not to worry.   I’ll be making the shortbread pastry tonight – using lard not butter – though according to Marco in a pinch even frozen pastry will do!  I’m not sure but I think that may be his own addition as a bachelor cook.  As I say the recipe is passed down and its not unknown for people to make small changes for taste, availability and convenience.

So tomorrow – Good Friday – and Part 2 of making Marco’s Mother’s Pastiera.

21 aprile – Giovedi Santo

A Taste for la Pasqua

La Pasqua (Easter) is next week and as well as the observations across the river – I’m told Big Ben and boys have a real bang up series of events planned – Italian families will be celebrating the holiday gathering for traditional meals. Every region has its particular foods or dishes associated with Easter though most include lamb as a main course. Last year, at my friends Simonetta and Renato’s we began with broad beans, pecorino cheese and sausage. I don’t recall if this was a Roman tradition or just a household one, but I do know it was a traditional start to the Easter meal.

Renato is cutting the sausage to accompany the pecorino and broad beans. Simon, Simonetta, Alberto Testa (a renowned Italian dancer, choreographer and critic) and Renato enjoy the beginning of the meal.

Natale con i tuoi, la Pasqua con chi vuoi — “Christmas at home and Easter with whomever you wish” is an old Italian saying but most people still try to spend Easter weekend with families. However given distances and time it is not always possible. Take for example my friend Marco – you may recall he’s the Napoletano who was teaching us to swear a while back. His family is not able to be together this Easter so he’s heading down to Napoli this weekend. And even though he may not be getting to enjoy a traditional Napoletano Easter meal, he is going to be keeping up at least one local tradition: La Pastiera. Though many families leave the making of this Easter pastry to their local pasticceria, he tells me that his mother has always made her own and for many years its been a tradition for him to work along side her.

When I asked about her recipe he shrugged and said: About the recipe, I think every Napoletano has his own. A check on the Internet revealed the truth in his statement. The variations in preparation time and measurements are many but the basics remain the same: wheat kernels, candied citron, candied orange peel, orange flower water, and fresh ricotta.

There are several versions of how the recipe began. First there is the old legend of the mermaid Partenope and her use of the gifts given to her by the people of the Gulf. There is another story that says, like many things Napoletano, the sweet was born out of a time of want and hunger. The city had been gripped in a long famine and just before Easter a grain ship arrived. People were so hungry that rather than grind the wheat for bread they threw it directly into boiling water. Still another story suggests a nun in one of the many convents in Napoli was making a dolci for Easter and wanted to capture the scent of the orange blossoms in the cloister – thus orange flower water became a main ingredient.

Whichever story you choose to believe I have been told that it is possible to taste spring in every bite. And my friend Jolka tells me you can only get authentic Napoletano Pasteria one place in Roma. However Marco scoffs at that thought – he assures me that it isn’t Pasteria if it isn’t made in the shadow of Vesuvius and then is really only authentic if it comes from his mother’s kitchen!

Maybe I should just ask him to save a piece and bring it back for me? I just wonder what the chances are of there being any left at the end of Sunday’s dinner.

Here are a few sites that have recipes for “Authentic” Napoletano Pasteria:

http://www.eat-online.net/english/habits/easter/pastiera_napoletana.htm

http://www.dianasdesserts.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/recipes.recipeListing/filter/dianas/recipeID/128/Recipe.cfm

http://www.bakingobsession.com/2008/03/21/neapolitan-ricotta-and-wheat-berry-easter-pie-pastiera-napoletana/

And back in 1990 the New York Sunday Times published a Neapolitan Easter Menu that included a recipe for the traditional desert.

03 aprile – San Luigi Scrosoppi