Pastiera Napoletana – Easter Pie from Naples
There are different stories about the origins of the Pastiera Napoletana. Some believe that the pie derives from the pagan spring ritual of the eggs, long before the birth of Christ. The mix of Ricotta cream and wheat germs could be a modification of the wedding bread, “Pane di Farro”, prevalent in the pre-Christ Roman celebrations. Another story tells of how this pie was part of the ritual breads widely used during the period of Constantine by the Christians hidden in the catacombs.
The most probable, and the one I think is more likely, talks about nuns in a monastery, San Gregorio Armeno, outside of Naples. They desired to create a dish that represented the resurrection of Christ. To the white ricotta, symbolizing purity, they added wheat grains that buried in the earth grow in the coming season, the eggs, a symbol of new life, and finally the extract of wild flowers that represents the perfume of spring.
Today, every homemaker in Campania has the original secret recipe for the Pastiera and will defend jealously her recipe. In recent years the eggs have become pastry cream resulting in a smoother and lighter filling, very similar to the cheesecake, widely used here in the US. Additionally, some of the family recipes of the Italian immigrants to the US use rice instead of wheat. This change was required as wheat germ was very difficult to find on the broad market until the 1950s.
The Pastiera has its own poem in the Neapolitan dialect, praising its flavor. The poem tells of King Ferdinand and his wife MariaTeresa of Austria. She was so austere that the guards had named her the queen that never smiles. Ferdinand was just the opposite, joyful, a man who loved food and company. One Easter he convinced his wife to try the traditional Easter pie, and the song tells of how a slight smile appeared on her face. Ferdinand was ecstatic; he hugged his wife and ordered, “Chef, make this Christo dulce more often, lest I have to wait another year to see a smile on my beautiful wife’s face!”
This recipe is for a 12 inch pan however I prefer to use a 10 inch pan with a higher border. The resulting pie has more filling and my friends seem to like that better.
Ingredients for Crust:
4 cups (500 g.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup (200 g.) sugar
1 7/8 sticks (200 g.) butter
4 egg yolks
Grated zest of lemon from ½ lemon
Preparation of the Crust:
This crust is very similar to the original crust of a cheesecake before the graham cracker version. As with all piecrusts you should work this crust cold and fast. Avoid transferring too much heat from your hands and allow the dough to rest in the fridge while you prepare the filling.
Cut the butter into small pieces. Mix the flour and sugar together. Cut the butter into the flour-sugar mix with a pastry blender or with two knives until the mixture obtains the texture of small peas. Mix the lemon zest with the eggs and stir together with a fork until the yolks are well broken. Slowly add the yolks to the dough, mixing thoroughly. Bring together and knead on a slightly floured surface just until the dough comes together. Roll into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the icebox.
Note: to prepare cooked wheat. Soak the wheat in water for three days. Change the water in the morning and the evening. Before cooking, rinse and drain the grains. To cook place the wheat in about 5 liters of water, bring to a boil, turn to low heat and allow to simmer for 1 ½ hours. Never stir. Drain excess water.
Ingredients for filling:
24 oz. (700 g.) ricotta
3 cups (600 g.) sugar
400 g. cooked wheat
1/2 cup (80 g.) candied citron peel
1/2 cup (80 g.) candied orange peel
A pinch of cinnamon
3 cups (700 ml) milk
1/4 stick (30 g.) butter
5 whole eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange-blossom water
Preparation of the filling:
In a heavy pan place the cooked wheat, the milk, butter, and lemon zest. Over medium heat cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until a smooth cream is formed.
Using a mixer, blend the ricotta, eggs, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and orange-blossom water until light and creamy. Stir in, with a spoon, the candied fruit.
Mix the grain mixture and the ricotta together and set aside.
Turn the oven to 375 and allow to preheat.
Divide the dough into two parts. The first ¾ of the dough and the second the remaining ¼, roll into two balls. On a slightly floured surface flatten, with your hand, the larger ball, to about 1 finger thick. Place a piece of wax paper under the dough and a second piece over the top. Roll the dough to about ¼ inch thick and place in the pie pan. Trim the edges, add back to the smaller ball and roll the remaining dough to about 3/8 inch thickness. With a knife, cut the dough into strips about ¾ inch wide.
Pour the filling into the dough lined pan and smooth. Moisten the dough edges in the pie pan with egg wash or water. Place the strips in a lattice pattern and press the edges to the base.
Place in the preheated oven at 375 degrees (180 F.) for 65-75 minutes. The filling will set like custard and the dough should be golden brown with darker portions.
Cool on a rack.
This pie should be prepared at least 3 days before serving. This will allow the natural aromas to amalgamate and distribute evenly through the filling. Cut into triangles and just before serving dust with powdered sugar.
Arancino, orange liquor, is often served. In some areas sweet Marsala will also be used.
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