Marco’s Mother’s Pastiera – Day 2

I was so exhausted from all my culinary efforts – and you will notice there are no photos of the disaster area that was the kitchen or the pastry that had to be scraped off the walls – that though this was meant to be posted yesterday (Friday) I only got around to it today.

In the old days, back when I was an acolyte, I would have been at church by 0900 this morning if not earlier. This morning I was up at 0900 attempting to make short crust pastry for the next step in Marco’s Mother’s Pastiera. I was using lard rather than butter – good old fashioned pork fat that they sell in the stores here not the “vegetable” shortening that we get back in Canada. I had forgotten that it does have a “porcine” smell until it has cooked. That was my first surprise of the morning.

Once the pastry was made and set in the fridge to chill it was time to pick up Marco’s Mother’s recipe where I left off yesterday. The Good Friday portion of the process if you will.

The ingredients for the fillings: 6 eggs – separated; 2 bottles of fiori d’arancia; the ricotta/sugar mixture and the boiled grano prepared yesterday; candied fruit and 4 packets of vanilla powder.

Preheat the oven to 180c. Remove the ricotta-sugar and boiled grano mixtures from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.Separate 6 eggs.Beat the yolks and incorporate them into the ricotta-sugar mixture.

Whip the egg whites with an electric mixer – surprise #2: I couldn’t find our electric mixer, I’m sure we have one but… so I used the whisk – until they form soft peaks. (It only took 7 or 8 minutes with the whisk and actually did wonders in releasing a few aggressions I’d built up.) Fold them well into the ricotta-sugar-yolk mixture. Add the boiled grano-cream and mix well.

Add 4 sachets of vanilla, 3 bottles of fiori d’arancia – surprise #3 just before I started this step a blast of Robin Hood’s horn on my iPhone announced that I had a message from Marco.  He had seen yesterday’s post and noticed I was using the large size of fiori d’arancia and hold off on 3 bottles – just make it 2 and see how strong the smell of orange blossom was.  If I felt it needed more than add the 3rd!!!! Mix well.  Then add the candied fruit and mix well. Note to self:  next time maybe toss them in a bit of flour so they don’t sink to the bottom!  Mix well.

Roll out the pastry (thin) and fit into a baking dish that has been buttered and floured lightly. Make sure you have enough pastry to cut the decorative strips that are essential for a proper Pastiera. Pour the batter in – during cooking the pastiera will grow so it’s important not to overfill the pan. Surprise #4 – I had a whole lot of batter left over!!!! A quick message to Marco to ask exactly how big a pastiera his mother’s recipe makes? The reply: one or maybe two pans of normal size. Thank you Marco! Thankfully I had made enough pastry for two but ended up making another lot as its seems that maybe just maybe Mother Marco’s recipe can make three!!!!

Cut 6 strips of pastry and make a diamond pattern – if they sink in a bit don’t worry it is okay!

Bake in preheated oven for two hours (more or less). Do not open the oven – surprise #5 he tells me this in an e-mail after I’ve opened the oven twice to look!  Once they are cooked – you can tell because the filling will be puffed up and golden brown, mine only took about 90 minutes – turn off the oven and do not – repeat – do not remove until the oven has completely cooled down!  Surprise #6 – this came in a message just before I was going to remove them.

By this time the entire apartment was filled with the smell of orange blossoms, Lionel and Laurent said they could smell it in the lobby downstairs.  Surprise #7 – they came out looking like pastiera!

Now of course they have to be left for 48 hours – covered but not in the refrigerator – NEVER in the refrigerator!!!!! – and presented at pranzo on Easter Sunday.

That will be surprise #8 – will it actually taste the way it should???  And the tasters will be a table of Italians including at least two Napoletani!!!!!!

23 aprile – San Giorgio

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)
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