When I lived in New York, Easter prep would include a trip to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to buy all the essential Italian Easter goodies: easter eggs, leg of lamb and ham at the famed Biancardi’s butcher shop, the traditional boxed Colomba cake (a dove-shaped cake covered in sugar and almonds) and the Pastiera or Neapolitan Wheatberry Pie. Being that my Mom was from the North of Italy, it wasn’t in her baking repetoire to make the cake but my Dad’s family was from the South of Italy and so the pie was de rigueur at our Easter table.
My Dad’s sister, Rosie, also made a delicious Pastiera and when I asked her to share her family recipe, she said, “I just follow the instructions on the can of wheat berries!”. Over the years, finding canned or jarred wheat berries in the US has become more difficult and I guess it is because fewer Mamme or Nonne are making the pies by hand anymore … In fact, the last time I went to the Italian food shop near my home in New York they looked at me with utter shock when I told them that I still make the cake myself — it does require a little work but it is definitely worth the effort!
Now let’s be clear, this is DEFINITELY NOT a Trieste tradition, however, there are many southerners in Trieste and quite honestly, this is a delicious cake that has gained popularity worldwide. It has sweetness, texture from the wheat berries, creaminess from the ricotta and enchanting fragrance of the orange blossom water. Few recipes call for the whipped egg whites but I think it makes the cake lighter and fluffier.
So here is my “Easter egg” to you – the recipe for Pastiera:
Before we begin, let me just say I am not a purist so since I have neither the patience nor the planning ability to work with dried grains or legumes, I opt for the canned or jarred wheat berries–That alone shaves about 4 hours off the process!
For the grain prep:
1 jar or can of cooked wheat berry or grano cotto (approx. 350gr)
2/3 cup milk
Teaspoon Vanilla extract
For the dough:
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon for pan
1/2 cup cake flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (preferably organic)
For the filling:
12 ounces whole-milk ricotta
Zest of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon orange-flower water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup finely slivered or finely diced candied orange peel and citron
5 large egg yolks
3 large egg whites
1. For grain: Pour the cooked wheat berries from one jar or can into a sauce pot and add 2/3 cup milk, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and simmer for 10 minutes on a low flame. Turn off and let cool.
2. For dough: Add 1 whole egg plus 1 egg white (keep the yolk to make a wash for the top of the pie later) and sugar to food processor and pulse until smooth. Add 1/4 cup all-purpose flour and pulse again. Cut butter into pieces and add a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. Pulse in remaining 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour and cake flour, then lemon zest, pulsing just enough to mix smoothly. Shape a third of the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.
Lightly butter and flour bottom and sides of a round 10-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Working quickly, roll out remaining dough between two sheets of waxed paper to fit bottom and sides of the pan. Fit crust into pan, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled, at least one hour.
While your crust is chilling, preheat oven to 300 degrees.
3. For filling: Blend ricotta in food processor until smooth. Add lemon zest, orange flower water, and vanilla. Add egg yolks one at a time. Transfer to a bowl and fold in candied citron and orange peel and grain.
Beat egg whites until very stiff. Stir one-quarter into ricotta mixture until smooth, then fold in remaining whites. Pour into pie crust. Roll out reserved dough between two sheets of waxed paper, and cut into lattice strips to fit the top of tart. Beat reserved egg yolk with a little water and paint top of tart. Transfer to oven and bake until the top is firm and dry and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 1/2 hours. If tart begins to brown too much on top, cover lightly with foil. When the tart is done, turn off heat but leave tart to cool in oven with door ajar. Sprinkle confectioner sugar on top and serve at room temperature or barely warm.
Yield: One 10-inch pie, 10 to 12 servings
How to Make a Cake Flour Substitute at Home
Making a cake flour substitute is easy with the following two ingredients: all-purpose flour and either cornstarch or arrowroot powder.
1 cup AP flour – 2 Tablespoons AP flour + 2 Tablespoons cornstarch or arrowroot = 1 cup cake flour
Start with one level cup of AP flour, remove two tablespoons of the flour, and add two tablespoons of cornstarch or arrowroot powder back in. Then sift the mixture together to be sure the ingredients are well distributed.
When added to all-purpose flour, cornstarch will inhibit the formation of gluten while also giving structure and “sponginess” to your cake.