Messing with Tradition

Posted on April 22, 2011

I open today’s blog with a nod to the Academia Barilla representative who, upon hearing through the Twitter grapevine I was considering baking Pastiera Napoletana (the traditional Neopolitan Easter Pie) with chocolate chips, shouted back loud and clear that I should do no such thing.  Tradition dictates certain ingredients, and not one of those traditional ingredients is a chocolate chip.

There was a time, though, when I had no idea what ingredients went into Easter Pie.  I can remember once walking into Modern Pastry in Boston’s North End for our annual Easter time ricotta pie and asking my father about the handwritten signs advertising the price of Easter Pie.  “What’s that,” I asked, pointing to the sign.  “It’s ricotta pie, only different,” my father answered, “and made just for Easter.”  “If it’s made for Easter, why don’t we get that pie then?”  “We just don’t.”

My father had spoken, and that was the end of that.  But because we are usually most intrigued by what is being denied to us, I couldn’t stop thinking about Easter Pie – wondering what it looked like, wondering why it was only made at Easter time, wondering what set it apart from ricotta pie.

I did a little digging and got my answers.

As my father had said, Pastiera Napoletana is essentially ricotta pie; it really doesn’t look much different.  The pie is traditionally made at Easter  because its collection of ingredients celebrate and honor the awakening of the land after a cold and barren winter.  And those ingredients?  The ones that make it ever so different from the standard ricotta pie?  The list starts with wheatberries.

Or einkorn, if you’re a stickler, close to what we know today as farro, although wheatberries, the kernels of whole grain that get ground into flour, are now more common and commonly substituted.  (So is rice sometimes, but that’s hardly traditional.  I wonder what Academia Barilla thinks of that?)

Pastiera Napoletana has staunch advocates among Neopolitans, and something close to a cult following among some Italian Americans who may or may not harken from Naples.  To all these folks, Easter Pie is the stuff of legends symbolizing spring, something the website dedicated to Pastiera and the people who love the dessert makes clear:

“The legend narrates that Partenope the mermaid lived in the gulf which stretched from Posillipo to the Vesuvio enchanted by its beauty. Every Spring she would emerge from the water to greet all the happy people who lived there, and brighten their days with intonating love call.

One day her voice was so melodious so pleasant that all the people were fascinated and rapt: they all ran towards the sea, moved by the sweetness of the song and the words of love the mermaid had dedicated to them. To thank her they decided to give her the most precious gifts they had.

Seven of the most beautiful maidens were picked to bring Partenope the gifts: flour, strength and richness of the land; wheat boiled with milk, symbol of the two reigns; ricotta cheese, a present of the shephards and sheep; eggs, symbol of a new life; water with orange flower fragrance; spices, which represented people who lived far away in other continents; sugar, which best gave the idea of the sweetness of Partenope’s call profused in the sky, on Earth and in the universe.

The mermaid was happy of these gifts and decided to bring them to the gods and goddess who lived in the sea. They were all carried away by these gifts, and decided to mix them all together with heavenly art. the result was the first Pastiera which exceeded the sweetness of the Mermaid’s call.”

Magic and mermaids, humans and the appeasements we make to otherworldly beings: Pastiera is first and foremost pagan food, a sweetmeat for those who will celebrate spring separate from one of spring’s religious holidays.  And yet, owing to the calendar, Pastiera has become synonymous with the Easter celebration as well.  This year, I decided I had done enough pining to try the dessert.  It was time to make my own for the holiday.

Sticking close to Partenope’s original offering, modern Pastiera includes ricotta, sugar, eggs (in the form of an egg-enriched pastry cream), wheatberries, cinnamon, and all kinds of orange flavoring – zest, orange flower water, candied peel.

It doesn’t include mini chocolate chips.

Off to the market, then, with my list.  Good ricotta?  No problem.

Wheatberries?  Same.  Zesting oranges?  Ditto.

Eggs and sugar and flour and butter for both filling and pasta frolla crust?  Already at-home staples.  But you try finding decent orange peel up here, I dare you.  I usually order mine online, but there was no time to do that this year, given how little time I had given myself between planning and execution.  And orange flower water without a 45-minute drive?  Wasn’t going to happen.

The pie needed flavors that I couldn’t provide.  What flavor could I give it instead, I asked myself in the middle of the grocery store?  Guess what beckoned.  Chocolate and orange, a natural.  Besides, there’s an Italian-American tradition of throwing the tiny chocolate morsels into ricotta pies and cannoli.  Who’s to say this tradition can’t lead the day in a pinch?

So, most esteemed member of the academy of all things Italian, I am sorry.  I didn’t listen to you.  (Although you’ll notice I didn’t say I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you.)

Not So Traditional Pastiera Napoletana (with traditional variation included)

This is a toothsome version of the more familiar ricotta pie.  Sinking your teeth into the chewy grains of Easter Pie is satisfying in a way that plain creamy cheese is not.  The folks at Pastiera.com recommend starting this on Holy Thursday, baking on Good Friday, and letting it sit until Easter Sunday.  They say the flavors develop and the pastry settles.  I say allow for at least two days’ preparation and one day of rest.  For the pie, not you.  Slicing will be easier.

The following version is an adaptation of one from baker Nick Malgieri and one from Gourmet magazine, with my own recipe for pastry cream thrown in because that’s the method I like to use.  And of course, the non-traditional chips, too.

Pasta Frolla (sweet sturdy pastry)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  •  1/4 sp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cold
  • 2 large eggs

Combine the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse to blend.  Cut the butter into pieces and add to the dry ingredients.  Pulse until you have fine crumbs.  Add the eggs and pulse until the dough comes together in a ball.  Remove, wrap in plastic, and chill the dough for a few hours or overnight.

Easter Pie filling

  • 1/2 cup soft wheat kernels (I used Bob’s Red Mill)
  • 1 1/3 cups pastry cream
  • 1 pound fresh ricotta
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract (Traditional: 1/2 tsp. orange flower water)
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup mini semi sweet chocolate morsels (Traditional: 1/2 cup finely chopped candied orange peel)
  • 1 egg beaten with a tsp. of water and a pinch of salt for an egg wash

Soak the wheat berries overnight in enough cold water to cover.  In the morning, drain them and place them in a saucepan with fresh cold water to cover by about 4 inches.  Add about a half tsp. of salt to the water, cover, and bring this to a boil.  When boiling, uncover the pot and let the berries boil steadily for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until tender.  Add water as necessary to keep the level constant.  Drain when tender and set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Make the pastry cream as directed (link above).  Turn the finished cream into a bowl and cover the top directly with a piece of plastic wrap.  Allow to cool and then chill in the refrigerator.

Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator.  Cut off about a third and set this aside.

Roll the remaining two-thirds into one 14-inch round.  Line a 9-inch by 2-inch cake pan with the dough.  Set aside while you make the filling.

For the filling, beat together the ricotta and the sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed.  Beat until sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes.  Add in vanilla (or orange flower water), 2 egg yolks, orange zest, cinnamon and 1 1/3 cups pastry cream, and beat to blend.  By hand, fold in cooked, cooled wheat berries and chocolate chips (or orange peel).

Turn the filling into the prepared pan.  Set aside.

Roll the last third of dough into a 10-inch circle.  Cut it into 10 1-inch strips.  Lay these on top of the filling in a mock lattice pattern:  five strips running horizontally topped with 5 strips running vertically.

Brush the lattice top with the egg wash.  Bake the pie in the lower third of the preheated oven for 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Place a piece of foil over the top after 50 minutes or an hour to prevent it from over-browning.  Transfer the finished pie to a cooling rack and let cool in pan completely.

When cooled, run a thin knife around the edges between pan and crust to loosen.  Place a plate or rack over the top of the pie and invert.  Gently remove the pan.  Place a serving platter over the bottom of the pie and invert once more so that the lattice is once again on top.  Wrap and chill in the fridge at least once night before slicing.

Enjoy dusted with powdered sugar at any spring celebration.

©2011  Jane A. Ward