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Pazienza & Pastiera

I have often thought about calling my daughter Patience, because I possess none. This invaluable trait has always eluded me, try as I might to cultivate it. I am still (patience Letizia!) trying very, very heard to learn it, but there just doesn't seem to be the time. (Incidentally I also like the sound of the name, and it is the name of one of my favourite food writers, Patience Gray).

Impatience is my downfall in the kitchen (perhaps in life too) and the reason I make as many mistakes as I do. I am always trying to do too many things at once, and I am always, as the Italians say, 'in fretta', which sort of means quickly, and sort of means in a rush. Quick-ness can be efficient, rushing is less often so. The two are quite different, like that sage old English saying, 'more haste, less speed.’ Words I should live by, if only I could find the time.....

Easter this year has snuck up on me. I made a list of the things I wanted to make and do before it arrived (paint eggs, cook and write up at least four Easter recipes, both English and Italian, paint cards for family/friends, dry some wild camomile before it all dies, etc etc, not to mention the real teaching work I have to do...) but here we are the day before Good Friday and I have a long list in front of me of things, each objective written out with a neat little box beside it to tick; each box patently unticked.

Ah well. The intentions were there, and that must count for something. I wanted to make my first Colomba, a delicious buttery brioche baked in the shape of a dove traditional at Easter, having failed with the Christmas Pandoro and Panettone, but I've failed there too. My friend and dolci-maker extraordinaire Sylvia has promised to help me perfect it after Easter. Better late than never I suppose. The Hot Cross Buns got made too, which is some gratification. And then there is the Pastiera Napoletana...

I wrote about Pastiera last year, and here I am writing about it again. The years pass, the seasons change, the rituals remain. Pastiera is a wonderful Easter cake/tart/pie from Naples; a sort of rice-pudding cum ricotta cheesecake scented with orange blossom, cinnamon and vanilla, flecked with plump wheat grains and pieces of candied peel and baked in a pastry case. A mouthful to describe, and a mouthful to eat too. Each individual ingredient is said to be significant of Spring, associated with Naples, and symbolic of new life and the resurrection (familiar Paschal themes). This tart is undeniably long-winded to make, like so many festive dolce, but delicious to eat.

The candied fruit in this tart is traditionally Cedro, but I had home candied orange so that’s what I used. Home-made candied orange makes a world of difference. The recipe is here.

The wheat grain can be cooked yourself, using dry farro prepared in the following way, but this adds a significant amount of time to the process, so if you can find the ready-cooked stuff (available in delis and online) this will make your life much easier.

3 days before baking:

Soak 100g of farro, or wheat berries, in plenty of cold water, changing the water daily.

Day 3

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

250g butter

5 yolks

Pinch salt

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) if you can find ready-cooked wheat, known as Grano Cotto, use 250g

350ml milk

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. If using Grano Cotto, cook with the milk mixture only for 10 minutes or so, until absorbed. 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:

4 yolks

350g ricotta

Zest 2 oranges

120g finely chopped candied orange/cedro

Pinch salt

250g sugar

1 tbsp orange blossom water

Vanilla (a tsp extract or seeds scraped from 1 vanilla pod)

3 egg whites

Whisk or beat the ricotta with the egg yolks 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.

Cover and leave this filling at room temperature for a few hours to settle, which will prevent it 'souffle-ing' too much in the oven when baking. This step helps the filling settle and the flavours develop, too. You can leave it overnight in the fridge, if you prefer.

Now, 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 (if you can bear to wait this long, it will allow the flavours to develop and the texture of the filling to settle properly, becoming perfectly creamy and fluffy).

Serve, finally, with coffee and relief.


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