Patience and Pastiera
Updated: Apr 17, 2020
Good things come to those who wait.
I’m not a plan-ahead kind of person. I try hard to be, I think I must waste about 4 hours every day making excessively detailed lists of things I need to do. The fact that I am doing these lists instead of doing the things on them is – of course – a cause for further anxiety. Anyway, I’m horribly disorganised. That means that if a recipe asks me to start preparing it four or five days in advance, I’m probably just not going to make it. Except if that recipe is Pastiera Napoletana. Another product of a convent (like so many of the best Italian sweets) and a traditional celebratory tart for Spring, now eaten mostly after lunch on Easter Sunday.
Nuns know much about patience, much more - I’m sure - than me. This tart and I have a chequered history. I first made it 10 years ago at the first restaurant I ever worked in, and I misunderstood it. I rushed it and I made it claggy and sad and insipid. I’ve since tried the real thing in Naples and this year, finally, I decided to get myself organised enough to make it, and to make it well. It’s not difficult, but it does, like so many things, take time.
Traditionally, this tart would have taken the entire week preceding Easter to prepare. A ritual which made the final eating on Easter Sunday that much more special. I’ve narrowed down the process to about four days, which seems about the maximum I can manage. However arduous the process may seem - trust me - this tart truly is worth the wait.
Pastiera, for those of you who haven’t tried it, is utterly unique and not a little eccentric. It’s a sort of orange-and-spice-scented ricotta cheesecake baked in a pastry case, topped with a pastry lattice. The thing that makes it really unusual, though, is that the filling is flecked with plump little cooked wheat grains. There are numerous legends surrounding this tart, each more whacky than the next, but essentially each ingredient is said to be typical of Naples and symbolic of Spring and of re-birth, specifically the nutty little nuggets of grain. The whole assembly is truly bizarre, but addictively delicious when made well - carefully, and over time. The assembly itself is fast but the cooking of the grain is slow, and then once baked the tart must rest overnight for the flavours to really settle and develop.
Once this tart is baked it is an exercise in willpower to sit looking at its shining golden glory, inhaling its spiced and orange-scented goodness, and not to slice immediately into it. A true lesson in patience, which has always been my least favourite virtue, because I possess none. Time to take a leaf out of the nuns’ book.
The candied fruit in this tart is traditionally Cedro, but I had home candied orange so that’s what I used (I’ll be uploading the recipe for candied orange soon).
3 days before baking:
Soak 100g of farro, or wheat berries, in plenty of cold water, changing the water daily.
Make the pastry: (this is a two tart quantity because if I’m making sweet pastry I always make a double batch and keep half in the freezer for the next time. If you halve the recipe you will make enough for one tart)
500g plain flour
200g icing sugar
Zest of 1 orange
Put the flour, icing sugar, salt, zest and butter into a processor and blitz well until a fine breadcrumb consistency is formed. Add the yolks to the mixer and blend again, briefly, until the mixture comes together as a dough. Take out the dough and form it into two equal rounds with your hands. Wrap in cling-film and leave in the fridge or freezer, depending on when you want to use it. It needs to rest for at least half an hour in the fridge before you roll it.
Grease a 9 inch, springform cake pan with butter and then dust it lightly with flour. After your dough has rested roll it out to a rough 2mm thickness and line your cake tin, pushing it into the edges and trimming any overhang (this tart is pretty rustic so don’t worry too much about perfectly thin, even pastry – it has a thicker crust than many finer tarts). Reserve any remaining pastry for the lattice.
Prick the pastry base well with a fork to prevent it rising when cooking, and place it in the fridge to chill for another half hour.
Preheat the oven to 180.
Remove from the fridge and bake for 10-15 minutes, until golden all over (if the pastry starts to slip down the sides, remove the tin after a few minutes and, using a fork, press it lightly back up to re-form the sides).
Remove the case and leave to cool.
Prepare the wheat element of the filling:
Cooked wheat (see below)
1 cinnamon stick
Peeled zest of 1 lemon
After your wheat has been soaking for three days, drain it and cook it in slightly-salted boiling water until tender (about 40 minutes). Drain it again, and then add it to a saucepan and cover with 350 ml of milk. Add the cinnamon stick and the strips of peeled lemon zest and cook covered, over a low heat, for around 30-40 minutes until all of the milk has been absorbed and you are left with a sort of thick wheat porridge. Remove the strips of zest and the cinnamon stick and discard them. Allow the grain to cook completely by spreading it out on a plate and leaving it somewhere cool to, erm, cool.
For the rest of the Filling:
Zest 2 oranges
100g finely chopped candied orange/cedro
1 tbsp orange blossom water
Vanilla (half a tsp extract or seeds scraped from 1 vanilla pod)
3 egg whites
Whisk or beat the ricotta until smooth, then add the orange zest, sugar, salt, candied fruit and vanilla and orange blossom water. Stir into this the cooled cooked wheat. In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites to form soft peaks, then fold them gently into the ricotta mixture.
Pour the whole lot into the prepared pastry case. Using your leftover pastry dough, cut strips about 2 cm width, and arrange them over the top in a diagonal lattice. Press the edges of each strip into the pastry case walls to seal them using your fingers.
Bake at 170 for around 90 minutes, until biscuit brown all over.
Now, let the tart cool and the filling ‘settle’, for at least 12 hours before slicing into it (this allows the flavours to develop and the texture to amalgamate).
Serve, finally, with coffee and relief.