Baking: Pastiera Napoletana

The most fascinating side of one's family is usually that which lives far from the rest. My family is no exception. As a kid, among the whole lot of aunts and uncles all born and raised in Veneto, I have always been intrigued by that aunt who chose the alternative path, married a man from the South during her graduate years and left the native soil to follow him in his social and professional climbing.

They lived in Palermo, Reggio Clalabria, Naples, Udine, Varese, Florence and who knows where else in Italy. They would show up sometimes at my grandma's house for a weekend over Christmas or Easter, have lunch with the rest of us, then leave in a rush in their shiny new company car.

What was striking to me was how much she had moved on from her Venetian country origins. Far from using any dialect, her way of speaking had a strange inflection, a mixture of accents and local usages that made her even more singular before my eyes. She would discuss literature, philosophy, religion, art and music with her very puzzled mother and sister --all subjects she cultivated in the off chance she would have to attend a particularly highbrow social event.

One way of detecting in which city they were living at the time of their visit, besides paying attention to my aunt's acquired accent, was by looking at the sweets she would gift us. Often purchased in the best local pastry shops, they would either be some sort of almond delight from Sicily, or Florentine cookies, or some Neapolitan sugary treat. To the young version of myself, her presents seemed the most foreign thing on earth.

The only home-made thing she would bring with her, and only over Easter, would be pastiera. Chuffed for having grasped the recipe for the best, authentic version of this traditional Neapolitan cake while living in the hills of Mergellina, she would proudly showcase and share her creation with us during the big family Easter meal at grandma's house.

As I was biting into my piece of pastiera, I remember feeling as if I were eating a smell. The powerful scent of citrus and orange blossoms, which I couldn't detect as such back then, reminded me of the smell of a beauty parlour rather than that of a pastry shop. I just knew I hadn't eaten anything like it before. At first, it was hard for me to get it. But then, after one more bite, and then another, the creamy, sugary sweetness seduced me subtly, with no chance for second thoughts. The texture was pretty novel as well. Never before had I eaten a cake whose filling was creamy and slightly chewy at the same time, and so dense and heavy to barely hold within the edges of the cut slice. I asked what was inside it. The answer, to my surprise, was ricotta and cooked wheat. Wheat in cake, I thought, must be some kind of Southern culinary eccentricity. And yet, not quite sated, I was already helping myself to a second slice, cutting through the thick filling all the way through to the crumbly crust.

This is how this Neapolitan cake became part of our otherwise very Venetian family. This is the recipe I still make today, having received it as a precious gift from my aunt. No Easter goes by without it.

Pastiera Napoletana

Though you now find it all year round, pastiera is a quintessentially Easter cake, filled with all the symbolic ingredients (eggs, floral essences, wheat) that represent Spring, fertility and re-birth. It is crucial to make it ahead, for it has to rest for a couple of days in the fridge to settle and improve on the texture of the filling. Traditionally, it is made on Good Friday to be eaten on Easter Sunday.

For the crust:
150 g icing sugar
150 g butter, cold, cubed, plus more for greasing the pan
2 eggs + 1 yolk
350 g all-purpose flour

For the filling:
400 g pre-cooked wheatberries
Grated zest of 1/2 unwaxed lemon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
350 g ricotta
4 eggs, yolks and whites separated
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
125 g candied citrus peel (such as a mixture of citron and orange)
200 g icing sugar

 icing sugar for dusting

 

For the pastry, cream the butter and sugar, then stir in the eggs and finally the flour. Work the dough until it comes together into a smooth, malleable ball of pastry. Wrap it in cling film and set it in the fridge for at least one hour.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the ricotta with the egg yolks and the orange blossom water. Add the candied citrus peel and the wheatberries and stir to combine.

In another large bowl, beat the egg whites with the sugar until light and fluffy. Gently fold them though the ricotta mixture.

Preheat the oven to 190C. Grease and flour a 28-cm spring-form cake or pie tin. Save one-third of the pastry for the lattice that will go on top of the cake. Roll the remaining two-thirds into a thin circle that will cover both base and sides of the tin, then transfer it to the tin and press it slightly to line it. Trim the edges. Top with the ricotta mix. Roll out the remaining pastry, cut it into strips and use them to make a lattice on top of the filling.

Bake the pastiera in the middle rack for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the filling has set and the crust looks light brown.

Remove it from the oven and allow it to cool down to room temperature inside the tin, then cover it with foil and put in the fridge for at least 24 hours to set. Serve at room temperature, dusted with icing sugar.