Pastiera is the quintessential Neapolitan Easter cake.
Pastiera was purportedly invented in a Neapolitan convent. An unidentified novice wanted her Easter cake to be a symbol of the Resurrection, and to be redolent of the spring flowers growing in the convent’s orange grove.
So she mixed a handful of wheat grains (abundance) to some mild ricotta cheese (sustenance), added some eggs (symbol of new life), some orange-fragranced water, citron and a mix of aromatic Asian spices.
The ingredients used in making Pastiera closely, suggest a more pagan spring-welcoming Dionysian type ceremony rather than an enlightened nun’s experiment: wheat kernels, goat milk’s cheese, floral water, eggs, spices and candied fruit? I say definitely mundane.
Be that as it may, Pastiera is commonly consumed during Italian Easter festivities, an intensely religious moment of the calendar.
The name "pastiera" appears to come from the consolidated habit of using cooked pasta instead of buckwheat; there are still some who make pastiera using spaghetti and angel hair.
There are two different ways of preparing Pastiera: in an older method, the ricotta was mixed with the eggs; in the newer version, a thick pastry cream mixture is added, resulting in a softer amalgam. This recipe innovation was introduced by Signor Giovanni Scaturchio, a Neapolitan genius confectioner whose little shop of miracles still occupies a corner in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore.
A deli in Rome sells these mini 3.5 oz pastierine from Napoli's Scaturchio, and when I got one as a present the other day I squealed with delight. They are the best.
Here's the orignal recipe, handed down by a 100% true Neapolitan. Complex and time consuming, but oh, so worth it:
Ingredients for the shortbread/shortcrust pastry dough:3 yolks500 gr (2 1/2 cups) all purpose flour200 gr (1 cup) sugar200 gr (1 cup) lard (cough) or butterOR1 kg (2.2 lbs) frozen shotcrust pastry dough
Ingredients for the filling:700 gr (3 1/2 cups) sheep's milk ricotta400 gr (2 cups) cooked buckwheat (can be substituted with pearl barley soaked overnight and boiled for 30 minutes; or round rice boiled for 20 minutes)400 gr (2 cups) sugar1 lemon1 heaped tablespoon candied citron fruit, cubed1 heaped tablespoon candied orange, cubed1 heaped tablespoon candied pumpkin (locally called "cucuzzata") last 3 items can be substituted by assorted candied fruits100 ml (1/2 cup) milk30 gr (1 oz) butter5 eggs + 2 yolks1 packet vanillin1 tablespoon orange blossom water (if you can't find it, use the zest of 1 orange)a pinch of powdered cinnamon
If you were unable to find cooked and canned buckwheat, you'll have to cook the raw kind, or substitute it with the other grains and cooking procedures mentioned above.
Soak the raw buckwheat in water. Drain and rinse well under running water before cooking in plenty cold unsalted water. When the water boils, reduce the heat and cook at a gentle simmer for 90 minutes undisturbed (no stirring).
In the meantime, if you decide not to use prepackaged and frozen pastry dough, combine flour sugar and softened butter in a mixing bowl. Drop in the yolks one at a time, and work into an even dough. Otherwise thaw the frozen pastry.
When the ingredients are well mixed, work the dough by quickly folding it over a few times. Beware: the more you work shortbread the less it will be soft and supple!
Let the dough rest 30 minutes, covered by a damp kitchen towel.
Mix the cooked buckwheat, milk, butter and the zest of 1 lemon in a saucepan, and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Stir often, and cook until the mixture is quite creamy.
Whir the ricotta in the blender with the eggs and yolks, the sugar, vanillin, floral water and cinnamon. Once this is well blended and fluffy, fold in the candied fruits and cooked buckwheat mix, and stir until fully blended.
If you are using the frozen shortcrust pastry dough, once it is thawed soft, unroll it. Now whether packaged or homemade, the dough needs to be flattened. Use a rolling pin and work the dough to 1/4 of an inch in thickness. Line a 9-inch buttered pie shell with the pastry. With the excess dough cuttings, you can make some lattice strips for decoration.
Pour the filling mixture in the prepared pie shell, fold the brim inwards and decorate the top part with the strips of extra dough. Brush the criss cross lattice with egg yolk or melted butter mixed with sugar if you like. This will make it shine.
Bake in the oven at 180° C (= 350° F) for 90 minutes, or until amber in color.
Let the cake cool completely and dust it with confectioner's sugar before serving.
It's hard work, I know.The Pastiera should be cooked a few days in advance, in order to allow the fragrances to mix properly and result in that unique flavor, but I never manage to resist more than a few hours.
A mouthful of Pastiera, followed by a sip of dry red wine is known to bring springtime in your mouth, La Primavera in Bocca, precisely.