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)
5 Vanilla packets
4 bottles Fiori d’arancio (Orange blossom essence)
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