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La Pasqua Napoletana: La Pastiera Napoletana, Neapolitan Grain Pie

La Pastiera Napoletana

La Pastiera Napoletana

Neapolitan Cuisine has many dishes identified with one festival or another, which in the past were made only then: le lasagne del Carnevale, for Carnival, struffoli at Christmas, and a several Easter pastries, the most important of which is the Pastiera, a centuries-old dish that appears in innumerable versions, each made according to a closely guarded family recipe.

“Nobody escapes its allure,” writes Caròla Francesconi in La Cucina Napoletana, “an allure due not so much to its goodness as to a subconscious love that’s transmitted from generation to generation.” One has to remember that she’s writing for Italians here; the ingredients are particular and this is something a non-Neapolitan might find quite strange. However, anything that can burrow into the regional psyche, bearing with it the “perfumes of spring,” is powerful stuff. The major variations are in the amount of acqua di arance, a non-alcoholic somewhat oily orange essence (if you cannot find it use orange extract) and the use of crema pasticcera (pastry cream), which some families include and others do not.

As I said, this is particular; it requires presoaked grain, which takes time to prepare (In Italy one can find canned presoaked grain, and you may be able to find it near your house). To start from scratch, purchase 1/2 pound whole grain and soak it in cold water for two weeks, changing the water every two days (this is Caròla Francesconi’s soaking time; another cookbook suggests three days, changing water daily). Come cooking time, drain it and cook the amount indicated. The pastiera is traditionally served in a 10-inch diameter round metal pan with a two-inch rim; Neapolitan pastry shops sell the pastiera in the pan and it is presented so at even the most elegant table.

The pie crust:

  • 1 pound (450 g) flour
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) lard (at room temperature)
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar
  • 4 yolks

The grain:

  • 1/2 pound (225 g) well-drained soaked grain
  • 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) milk
  • The zest of a half an orange
  • A walnut-sized piece of lard
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

The filling:

  • 10 ounces (about 300 g) ricotta (purchase this fresh from a delicatessen)
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 vial (1/4 cup) acqua di fiori d’arancio — if you’re using orange extract to taste, but I would think less
  • A pinch powdered cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup minced candied citron
  • 1/4 cup minced candied orange peel
  • 1/4 cup candied squash (cocozzata, in Neapolitan)

Begin the day ahead by cooking the soaked grain with the milk, zest, lard, sugar and vanilla over an extremely low flame for at least four hours, or until the grains come apart and the milk has been absorbed, so that the mixture is dense and creamy.

The next morning make the pie crust: Make a mound of flour, scoop a well in the middle, and fill it with the lard, sugar and yolks. Use a fork or pastry cutter to combine the ingredients, handling the dough as little as possible (don’t knead it). Once you have obtained a uniform dough press it into a ball and cover it with a damp cloth.

Pass the ricotta through a strainer into a large bowl, stir in the 3/4 cup sugar, and continue stirring for 5-6 minutes. Next, stir in the yolks, one at a time, and the grain. Next add the orange water; begin with half the amount and taste. Add more if you would like it orangier, keeping in mind that the aroma will fade some in baking. Stir in the cinnamon and the candied fruit as well, then whip the whites to soft peaks and fold them in.

Roll out 2/3 of the pastry dough and line the pan. Fill it with the filling. Next, roll out the remaining dough and cut it into strips, which you will want to lay across the filling in a diagonal pattern (lift them from the pastry cloth with a long spatula to keep them from breaking). Bake in a moderately hot oven (180 C or 370 F) for an hour or slightly more. The filling should dry almost completely and firm up, while the pie crust should brown lightly. Serve the pie in its pan, and continue to enjoy it over the next few days for breakfast.

You may be wondering about the pastiera’s origin. Like the Cuccia Siciliana it’s a miracle dish, born of the arrival in port of a grain ship during famine: The people were so hungry they threw the grain directly into the pot rather than grind it and bake bread. It’s fitting that it now be used to celebrate Easter. Should Pastiera require more time than you have, you could make Teresa De Masi’s Migliaccio Napoletano (another classic spring pastry and a touching recipe) instead.

Other Neapolitan Easter Recipes

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Zuppa Inglese alla Napoletana, Neapolitan English Trifle

There are many variations on English trifle in Italy. This one is Neapolitan, and is made with Pan di Spagna rather than Savoiardi, and for ricotta instead of pastry cream. Different, but just as tasty.

To serve 4-6:

  • 8 ounces (200 g) pan di Spagna or Genoise (commercially prepared will work if you’re rushed)
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) very fresh ricotta
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
  • 1/4 pound (100 g) baking chocolate
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons Liquore Galliano (you could also use Strega or an amaretto)
  • 1/2 cup rum

Grate the chocolate into a bowl.

Put the ricotta through a strainer and into a second bowl.

Put the sugar into a pot with a tablespoon of water, and heat it over a gentle flame, stirring constantly, until it becomes a pale caramel color. At this point stir it, a little at a time, into the ricotta so as to obtain a cream; next add the vanilla and the Galliano and mix well.

Thinly slice the pan di Spagna and line the bottom of a serving dish (10-inch, or 22 cm) with some of it. Sprinkle the pan di Spagna with the rum and spread two tablespoons of the ricotta mixture over it, followed by a dusting of chocolate. Continue with another layer of pan di Spagna, more rum, more ricotta, and more chocolate, and repeat the sequence until all is used up, finishing with the grated chocolate. Chill the zuppa inglese for at least 2 hours before serving it.

A Tuscan Zuppa Inglese
A Tuscan Zuppa Inglese, Illustrated

Struffoli, Neapolitan Christmas Treats

Struffoli

Struffoli

Struffoli are (they’re always referred to in the plural) now an absolute requirement at the end of a Neapolitan Christmas day dinner. However, in introducing them in La Cucina Napoletana Caròla Francesconi says their inclusion is relatively recent: Crisci mentions them several times in the book he wrote in 1634, but doesn’t include them on his Christmas menu.

The recipe is in any case quite old, as is indicated by the presence of very similar dishes throughout the Mediterranean Basin — Ms. Francesconi mentions the Lukumates of the Greeks, and there are also the Precipizi Italian Jews make for Hanukkah.

To make a batch you will need:

For the dough:

  • 3 1/3 cups (400 g) flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon grain alcohol
  • A chunk of butter the size of a small walnut
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • The zest of a half a lemon, grated
  • The zest of half an orange, grated
  • A pinch salt
  • A pot of olive oil (or the oil you prefer) for frying

For the Sauce With Which To Season Them:

  • 2/3 pound (300 g) honey
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 ounces diavolilli (tiny, variously colored candied almonds)
  • 4 candied cherries, halved
  • 2 ounces (60 g) candied orange peel, half finely diced and half cut into fine strips
  • 2 ounces (60 g) candied citron, half finely diced and half cut into fine strips
  • 2 ounces (60 g) candied melon rind, half finely diced and half cut into fine strips

Combine the ingredients for the dough to make a stiff but workable dough, knead it well, and let it sit for at least an hour, covered.

Pluck off pieces of dough and roll them out under your fingers to form snakes about as thin as your pinkie, and cut them into quarter-inch long pieces. Fry the pieces a few at a time in hot oil until brown and drain them on absorbent paper. Should the oil start to froth after a bit, and the froth overflow the pot, change the oil.

When you have finished frying the dough, take a second, preferably round-bottomed pot and put the honey, sugar and water in it. Boil the mixture until the foam dies down and it begins to turn yellow. At this point reduce the heat as much as possible and add the struffoli and the diced candied fruit. Stir to distribute everything evenly through the honey and turn the mixture out onto a plate. Shape the mixture into a wreath with a hole in the middle, dipping your hands frequently into cold water lest you burn yourself.

Sprinkle the candied fruit strips and the diavolilli over the ring and arrange the cherry halves evenly. Struffoli will keep a week or more if covered, and improves wih age.

Note: A reader wrote to say she had problems getting the dough to hold together, and wondered if the proportions were correct.

They are; Ms. Francesconi calls for 6 eggs and 5 cups of flour for her grandmother’s recipe, and Angie, SupEreva’s cooking Guide (a native Campanian) calls for 5 eggs and a little more than 4 cups flour in her recipe. The resulting dough will be stiff, and it will take a fair amount of kneading to distribute the moisture from the eggs (the eggs I’ve found in Italian markets are generally about the size of the large eggs sold in North America) evenly throughout the flour.

If the dough shows no signs of wanting to hold together, add just enough water for it to stay together and no more; it should be stiff. Why the stiffness? As Arthur Schwartz points out in his wonderful book, Naples at Table (Harper Collins), struffoli are essentially pasta dough that’s rolled out into snakes, broken into bits, and friend, at which point the pieces puff up, “forming light, crunchy dough nuts.” Pasta dough is stiff.

A final observation: Struffoli are traditionally shaped into wreathes at Christmas. The ones pictured here were instead prepared by the Azienda Molettieri (their Taurasi is worth seeking out) and served in individual portions at the close of a long and very nice dinner.  But the picture does show what struffoli look like.