Today is a goodbye day. Friends are leaving, and they asked me to bake a pastiera for them. I am leaving Wales soon as well, and this dish will be mixed with joy and tears.
It is no tragedy, life does go on, but it is the end of a lifestyle I have loved, of seeing my friends every night, of living by the sea at least for a while.
In this group of people I have become more than ever ‘the one who cooks’, and it has been really rewarding for me to have the privilege of cooking for this bunch of lovely, life hungry, glutton people. I love preparing enormous amounts of food and watching it disappear. I love a table with 15 persons on it turning silent when they start eating each and every course. I loved my house, with the dining room in the kitchen, so they had to stay there and I could prepare last minute dishes without leaving the conversation, and they could peep at the rest of the dinner and start drooling over dessert from the starters. I love the fact that many of them are vegetarian, so I can use the ingredients I love the most.
In this goodbye night I have chosen (well they have chosen) one of my favourite desserts, but funny enough, this cake tends to become one of the favorites of everybody I bake it for. It is unusual for someone who is not Italian, being homely yet classy, rich and nutritious yet not overfilling, simple yet subtle in its flavors. Pastiera comes from Naples, and it is a wheat and ricotta pudding in a sweet crust, perfumed with orange blossom water and candied fruit. The filling is pure Arabic (I found very similar sweets in Claudia Roden’s books). The result is deeply Italian, and to be the proper one, it should be cooked in the wood oven with the bread.
I always make this cake for Easter, as is tradition, even if my family does not come from Naples. My mother bakes it too. Since then though my recipe has changed a lot, thanks to contaminations, especially thanks to a friend, Osvaldo, who is a very good chef and a true Neapolitan, and spent a long time with his grandmothers discussing subtleties: I tried his, and he was kind enough to share with me some of his secrets.
I am not claiming my recipe to be the original one. I like the wheat a bit al dente, I often don’t use any candied fruit, I like my filling far less sweet, and I think that making the crust with butter instead of sugna (suet) makes it much much lighter.
I even might change proportions now and again, because I can’t rely on top quality ricotta here, and because I keep forgetting things. It is not a quick choice for a dessert, but it is a forgiving recipe (small imperfections will cause no disaster) and it can be prepared in stages, making it more manageable.
And above all it is a highly symbolic food, because it is a generous cake, because the wheat filling is a symbol of life, because it tastes like spring itself, because it is the perfect dessert to celebrate a birth.
And being a yellow dessert, thanks to the golden hue of the grain, the oranges, the baked crust, and the many eggs present, this dessert will also help to remember the ones who have gone.
Two friends I never had the chance to cook for, but with whom I did share food, alcohol and laughter. They both dearly loved life. They both fought with a courage and dignity I have no words to describe, let alone understand. They are both sorely missed. And if they were here I am sure they’ll urge us to have yet another slice, because life is so short, and it is not on us to decide when we leave.
A few notes on ingredients: you can find pre cooked wheat in tins is Italy. I cannot find it here and I don’t miss it really. I found wheat in a middle east shop, together with wonderful orange blossom water (buy the best they have, it is worth it); you can give a try to health food stores as well. What I do miss is good ricotta – if you can, go for the sheep one, and if you are lucky enough to find it really fresh, leave it to loose some of its humidity by leaving it in the fridge overnight, uncovered (make sure you fridge does not smell though!). If the ricotta is very strongly flavoured you might want to increase the sugar amount a little. If all you can find is the average watery supermarket one, go for a little more grain to give extra bite to the filling, and maybe an extra egg.
For a 24 cm round tin, serves 8-10
for the grain: (cook up to 3 days ahead and keep in fridge, or freeze)
150 g hulled wheat (available in health shop), or half a can of cooked wheat
pinch of salt
100 ml milk
zest of one lemon
1-2 cinnamon pieces
1 teaspoon of butter (optional)
for the sweet pastry: (prepare up to 4 days ahead in the fridge or 1 month in freezer)
125 g butter, soft
250 g pastry flour
100 g white caster sugar
a pinch of salt
grated zest of a lemon or half a orange, organic
for the filling:
500 g ricotta
200 g caster sugar
3-4 tablespoon orange blossom water, or to taste
grated zest of one orange, organic
optional, candied orange peel or candied pumpkin
icing sugar, for dusting
If you could not find ready made coooked grain, start by soaking the grain overnight.
Cover with fresh water and cook it either in a pressure cooker for about 30 min, or on the hob for 1 hour at least, until well tender, but still retaining its shape. Leave to cool in its water.
Prepare the pastry: rub flour and butter together, then add sugar, egg, salt, zest. Work quickly with your fingertips until it holds together. Wrap in cling film and leave in the fridge to rest.
The day before making the pastiera, or a few hours ahead, prepare the grain filling:
drain the grain from its cooking water; mix it in a non stick pot with the milk, lemon zest, cinnamon sticks, salt and cook for about half hour, stirring occasionally (it does tend to stick to the bottom), until the milk has been absorbed and the whole thing looks like a cream with lumpy grains in it. If you found not so flavourful ricotta you can add a little butter for extra richness. Leave to cool.
Prepare the cake: Turn on the oven to 200. Take the pastry out of the fridge. Work ricotta with sugar in a very large bowl until perfectly smooth.
Add a couple of spoonful or orange blossom water and the zest, Taste it, it should be quite sweet, and should have a distinctive orange blossom flavour. Add more orange blossom or sugar as needed, and the candied fruit, chopped, if using. Remove the lemon zest and cinnamon sticks from the grain cream and add it to the ricotta mixture. Add the egg yolks, mix well.
Whip the egg whites to soft peaks (most people skip this step because the pastiera will quite likely raise and break, but if you don’t overbeat them, it is not so sure, and anyway I find it does add to the overall lightness, so I prefer a broken and lighter pastiera). Fold them gently in the mixture.
Cover the bottom and sides of a sprigform round tin with baking parchment. Spread the pastry thin with a rolling pin and quite a lot of flour, then cover the cake tin with it. Save some or the pastry , and make long strips with is, cutting them zig-zag shaped if you have the tool. pour all the filling in the pastry case. Cover it with crossed strips in a thick net.
Bake for about 1 hour, until golden and quite firm. If the top tends to become too dark before the cake is cooked, lower the oven and coser the cake with foil. Dust with icing sugar. Must be eaten cold, it is better the day after.