Just a few weeks ago I gave a ‘masterclass’ in our beautiful Botanic Gardens for Diggers Heirloom Seeds, on Olives and Grains - Essentials of the Mediterranean Kitchen. One of the recipes I demonstrated was for a traditional pastiera napoletana using soaked wheat grains. Everyone thought it was delicious, but their eyes glazed over as I described the two days of soaking, the sixty minutes of the first cooking, then the forty minutes of the second cooking of the grains in milk.
Then, as if by magic, I produced a jar of purchased precooked wheat that simply has to be combined with ricotta, sugar, eggs and aromatics. I felt the wave of relief.
Photo Credit: Pastiera di Grano per Pasqua, Botanic Gardens. 2019
Amedeo Colella, who writes for the blog, Culinary Backstreets, recalls a legend that explains the pastiera’s origin. In his story, the grim faced Queen Maria Cristina of the House of Savoy, was mollified by the palace pastry chef when he produced this wonderful pie to celebrate Easter. Unhappily, her good humour, dependent on this cake, could happen only once year.
Sig. Colella tells the story brilliantly, but sadly I cannot agree with him. Pastiera, in its various incarnations, surely predates grumpy Queen Maria Cristina.
Our pastiera shares elements of spring and other cultural festivities with the many grain recipes from Greece, Turkey and the Levant. In these areas, we find many grain pies for weddings, grains in salads and the symbolic Koliva that Greeks prepare for funerals. Indeed, originally, the Romans threw wheat over a married couple, but soon afterwards, rice became a universal symbol for fertility.
Grain is a staple of life and as such it assumes figurative and physical importance. Without grain, a family is indeed poor. So many grains are needed to make life sustaining bread, that grains came to represent wealth and plenty.
Winter wheat is planted in early autumn, it survives through winter and is harvested in the spring/early summer months. Harvest is a time for celebration, a time to take stock and to give thanks for enduring a harsh, dark European winter.
Modern people have no need to celebrate the arrival of spring, no need to rejoice in the fact that they are wealthy enough to enjoy life giving grains that give us so much – bread and cakes, fabric, beer and other beverages.
I offer my two recipes for pastiera - one for grain, the other using rice - with the understanding that these are my family’s versions. Nowadays, we too have succumbed to the more genteel rice version but every year, I make a small ruoto with grains just to appease the ancient gods. Of course, it’s no problem now that we can import a jar of precooked wheat which takes the sweat out of the preparation.
Photo Credit: Grano Cotto per pastiera. Bought from Foodland, Prospect, also available from Mercato, Campbelltown.
A family friend whose family comes from Caserta (one of the five provincial capitals of Campania) makes her pastiera using angel hair pasta, another friend makes migliaccio instead – a semolina and ricotta cake. So, I have learned to climb down from my high horse of criticism and appreciate that almost every family has its own cherished version.
Before the advent of modern ovens, the pastiera was made by the nuns in their convents, then more widely by the local baker who could more easily obtain the citron and orange blossom water from the Amalfi coast.
Sometimes, in some hilltop towns, cocozzata (candied pumpkin) replaces the citron. Some modern individuals add crema pasticcera to the mix but I thoroughly disapprove since it is hardly necessary. The double cooking of the grain or the rice makes it creamy and the buffalo ricotta makes it rich. Cow’s milk ricotta is a good substitute but buffalo ricotta is wonderful. I bought mine from Schinella's Fresh Fruit Market on Prospect Road.
Photo Credit: Vannella buffalo ricotta and Lucindale paddock eggs both from Schinella's Fresh Market on Prospect Road.
Pastiera Di Grano
300g plain flour
150g cold butter, cut into cubes
zest of 1 small orange, finely chopped
Bring together the flour and butter, working quickly with your fingers. Add the other ingredients and knead together. (You can bring all the ingredients together in a food processor, but knead gently by hand.) Allow to rest for an hour. Cut off one third and set aside to make strips for the top. Roll out the larger piece to fit sides and bottom of 25 cm round flan tin, about 4 cm deep. (Line first with paper). Allow to rest again. No need to bake blind.
300 g ready cooked wheat
300 g ricotta, buffalo for preference
3 large free range eggs, separated, plus one extra for glazing
zest 1 orange, finely chopped
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp orange blossom water
150 g cubed citron or home made candied peel
Photo credit: an ancient bottle of orange blossom water - finished at last, and my own candied orange peels..can't bear the waste.
Tip ready cooked wheat into a bowl. Add the well drained ricotta, mixed with a fork to make smooth. Add the egg yolks (reserve the whites), finely cut zest of one orange, one teaspoon each of vanilla and orange blossom water, 150g cubed citron (or good quality mixed peel). Mix well. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks and gradually add to the wheat/ricotta mixture. Pour into base.
Roll out remaining pasta frolla and cut into strips. Arrange in lattice pattern over the pie. Brush with beaten egg wash and bake at 180C until golden brown, approx 45 minutes. Leave in the turned off oven for an hour, with the door ajar to allow the pie
to dry a little more. Serve sprinkled with icing sugar.
Rice Filling for the Pastiera
(the pastry remains the same)
300g already cooked arborio rice
200 g full milk
200 g sugar
30 g butter
300 g ricotta, buffalo or cow's milk, well drained
3 large, free range eggs, separated plus one extra for glaze
zest 1 orange, finely chopped
1 tsp each vanilla paste and orange blossom water
150 g citron or candied peel, finely chopped
Bring to the boil the already cooked rice with the full milk, stir frequently until the rice is almost creamy and the milk has evaporated. Add the sugar and butter and continue to cook gently until super creamy and thick. You may need to top up with water or milk if your flame is too high but make sure the rice is thoroughly cooked and at the stage where it almost collapses and the milk has evaporated . Allow to cool. Add the ricotta, mixed with a fork to make very smooth. Add egg yolks (reserve the whites), finely cut zest of one orange, one teaspoon each vanilla and orange blossom water, citron (or good quality mixed peel). Mix well.
Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks and gradually add to the rice/ricotta mixture. Pour into base.
Roll out remaining pasta frolla and cut into strips. Arrange in lattice pattern over the pie. Brush with beaten egg wash and bake at 180C until golden brown. Leave in the turned off oven for an hour, with the door ajar to allow the pie to dry a little more. Serve sprinkled with icing sugar.
Buona Pasqua - a time for reflection and renewal. And peace.