Celebrate the season with this strange pie from southern Italy
The Neapolitan pastiera is not your typical pie. Instead of jam or fruit, the pastiera contains a ricotta crème interior. This chewy, dense filling is so soft that it melts in your mouth and yet solid enough that it blends with the flaky crust to create one harmonious bite. It almost has the texture of raw cookie dough.
Somehow dense and rich while remaining light and delicate, the pastiera is guaranteed to make everyone at the table smile. In fact, according to Neapolitan legend, the first time King Ferdinand II saw his wife smile was when she tasted a pastiera. The king was so delighted to see the infamously dour Maria Theresa of Austria actually look happy that he ordered his chefs to make the Easter specialty year-round.
So how can you make this antidepressant pie? First, you need the ingredients, most of which are impossible to find outside of Naples, let alone Italy. The original recipe calls for cooked grains (grano cotto), orange blossom water (or something called aroma torta millefoglie), sheep- or cow-milk ricotta, and lard, none of which are easily accessible in your average American grocery store.
But with some creative substitutions, we can create the same flavor profile and texture with an American twist. Will it be the same thing as you’d find in a Neapolitan pasticceria? Never in a million years. But it’s often when I’m forced to substitute the traditional recipe with the local ingredients I have on hand that I strike culinary gold. When it comes to cooking, the secret ingredient to my best recipes is a combination of necessity and mistake.
So let’s work with what we’ve got. Here’s what we can call a pastiera alla americana with lots of flexibility for substitutions.
Pastiera alla americana
Total time: 2 hours
Servings: 8–10 (makes 1 pie)
For the pudding filling: 2 cups cooked wheat berries* 1 cup of milk ½ tsp vanilla extract Tsp cinnamon Lemon zest 1 1/3 tbsp orange blossom water** For the ricotta filling: 1 cup ricotta*** 1 cup sugar 3 eggs For the pie crust (This is to make the crust from scratch, but if you buy it pre-made I won’t report you to the baking authorities.): 2 eggs 2 cups pastry flour ½ cup white sugar 1 ½ sticks butter (3/4 cups)**** 1 tsp active dry yeast ½ tsp baking powder
*If you can’t find wheat berries, you can use 4 tbsp of cream of wheat
**If you can’t find orange blossom water, grated orange peel will do the trick
*** If you can’t find ricotta, try mascarpone or cream cheese or crème fraîche, or a creamy, thick yogurt, or even silky tofu
*** If you prefer oil instead of butter, try 1/3 cup + 1 tbsp sunflower seed oil
Let’s start with the “pudding” that will go inside the pie:
1. Mix all the “pudding” ingredients (cooked wheat berries, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, lemon and orange zest) in a pot and let it simmer on the stove for 15 minutes or so until it becomes thick and almost like a porridge.
2. Once the pudding is cooked, transfer it into a mixing bowl and let it cool down.
As you wait for the pudding to cool, go ahead and prepare the pie dough:
3. Set aside a few spoonfuls of flour. You’ll need this later for when you knead the dough in step 7.
4. Mix all the dry “pie crust” ingredients (i.e. flour, sugar, yeast and baking powder) together in a big mixing bowl.
5. Now work in your butter or oil, mixing until the ingredients are uniform. It should feel like wet sand.
6. Now work in your eggs. The dough should start to feel a bit smoother as you work it with the eggs.
7. Did you set aside a bit of the flour? Excellent. Sprinkle a generous amount of flour on your counter (or whatever surface you prefer) and gently knead the dough. Keep adding in the flour until you’ve used it all.
8. By now you should have a beautiful ball of pie dough. Cover it up (I use a silicone lid, but you can also use plastic wrap) and leave it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
As you let your dough set, let’s add the ricotta filling to our pudding:
9. Take your 3 eggs and separate the yolk from the whites.
10. Mix the yolks into the pudding.
11. Beat the whites with a whisk or electric hand mixer until they’re what pastry chefs call “soft peaks.” They should look like fluffy clouds. Then mix them into the pudding as well.
12. Mix the ricotta and sugar into the pudding. If you have orange blossom water, now is the time to pour some in!
Now we have our dough and our filling ready! It’s time to make the pie:
1. Roll out the pie dough until it’s about 1/8 inch thick.
2. Butter or oil a pie pan and sprinkle with a thin layer of flour
3. Line the dough onto the pie pan and set aside any excess dough (you will use the leftover dough for the top)
4. Pour the filling into the pie pan
5. With the leftover dough, roll it out and cut strips to line the top of the pie in a classic crisscross pattern
6. Bake the pie in the oven at 340 F for about 1 hour
Now you’re ready to enjoy the taste of Easter in Naples! The eggs, ricotta, and milk represent the abundance and fertility of Spring, while the spices and citrus evoke the sweet perfumes of a seaside garden along the Amalfi coast.
This is definitely not a quick “weekday” recipe, but I promise it will make your holiday extra special. Also, this pie actually tastes better the longer you leave it out. Traditionally, nuns would make the pie on Thursday so that by Easter Sunday all the flavors would have had time to blend together and be even more harmonious. So enjoy your Easter pastiera and Buon appetito!