Popping my cherry and a Pastiera Napoletana recipe for traditional Italian Easter cake.
My next big travel and food experience happened in Belgium.
It was during the Easter holidays of 1996 when I was 15 years old. I was shipped (well flown) off to my aunt Laura who lives in Brussels. I went over to babysit my three cousins for a few days as my aunt and uncle were going away. As much as I try to be a crazy adventurer, deep down everyone knows I am quite responsible and mature. This is why at 15 my aunt allowed to supervise three young children in a country where I didn’t speak the language. My aunt married an Italian from Naples and they settled in Brussels. So there was a mix of Italian, English, French and a bit of Flemish being spoken all around me. I truly was in a foreign land. As Brussels is a very multicultural city, I was also exposed to foods from many different cultures.
I picked up the food a lot easier than I did the languages.
It was on this trip that I first tasted traditional Turkish flatbreads stuffed with chicken and chips. It was like the most exotic chip butty I ever did have. I also had authentic homemade Neapolitan pizza that my uncle just whipped up in the kitchen. Until then I thought that pizza came out of the freezer and I didn’t know that men could cook. This trip was such a revelation. It was also here that I had my first lustful experience.
In Brussels I began my first ever love affair, it was with gaufre. Gaufre was so sweet and such a softie and we kept a regular breakfast date every morning. I particularly liked gaufre’s kinkier side. There was such pleasure in smothering Nutella all over those lumps and bumps and running my tongue around those grooves. I loved licking off that ‘crack in a jar’ as it melted and dripped off the sides. Ok, Ok, so gaufre is a Belgian waffle, but it was still a very sensual experience that I was having. This babe of batter pleased me in more ways than most of the men I have licked stuff off (but I’ll save that for another time).
I believe it was also here that my disgust of anything in red sauce began to take hold.
I have a foodie confession: I’ve never had baked beans or spaghetti hoops or anything that comes in a can of red gloop. Whilst babysitting my cousins, I had to make their meals and this one time they requested ravioli, which came in a tin. Quelle horreur (see? I speak French, my trip was educational). I can still vividly recall opening the tin and the stodgy pillows of orange mess plopping out in slow motion into the pot. It made such a vulgar gurgling noise and the smell of stale old lady violated my olfactory senses. This triggered a wave of spasms in my belly, which caused me to heave over the bowl before quickly slamming the lid shut on the pot to trap the noxious odour. To this day, I still heave a little when I see or even think of those types of food.
But less of that, more of the pleasant memories; cherry beer.
Yes, cherry beer. This was very exciting to me, even though at 15 years old I was, unfortunately, no stranger to alcohol (by the age of 12 I had my stomach pumped due to too much neat Bacardi. A whole litre bottle too much! But, again, that’s another story not for another time). This encounter with alcohol, however, was a much more civilised affair. Here I was sitting al fresco (notice how I can effortlessly switch between English and Italian now?) in Brussels’ main square, surrounded by the most opulent buildings I had ever seen, and my aunt was allowing me to drink kriek, a wonderful cherry-spiked craft beer.
My only experience of drinking up to that point was chugging bucket loads of cheap booze in dodgy parks with my so-called mates or spending long boring Sundays in dodgy pubs watching adults chugging bucket loads of cheap booze with their so-called mates. Based on the amount of Sundays sat in pubs as a kid, and the negative impact that alcohol had on me growing up, I do not drink nowadays. However, sometimes, if I see kriek on the menu at a restaurant I will order it, linger over it, and remember that wonderful evening spent in De Grote Markt feeling all grown-up and not a stomach pump insight.
Like most European countries, Easter is a big deal in Belgium.
But, when you come from an Italian family as my uncle does, Easter food is an even bigger deal. We were having Easter Sunday dinner with my uncle’s family, and oh my does he have a big family. I lost count at how many people were sat around that long table. I was dizzy from all the cheek kissing. In Italy, you give a kiss on each cheek to strangers but you kiss friends and family thrice. I was like a mobile kissing booth. Thankfully, as I have gotten older my kissing stamina has improved, greatly!
The table itself was a huge long wooden barn style table and stretched across the whole room. Two big windows opened out onto wrought-iron balconies filled with noisy Italians smoking and drinking wine from tumbler glasses, no fancy stuff here. The whole place was alive with boisterous shouting, exaggerated gesticulating, glasses clinking, children playing and the football blasting from the TV.
The sun beamed through the wooden shutters and the men on the balconies yelled to others on the street below.
It was a cacophony of festive cheer, Italian style, and I loved every chaotic minute of it. I sat back and just watched the whole scene, taking it all in and wishing that I were ‘foreign’ like these lot. Then la matriarca (I’m tri-lingual now) summoned us all in for lunch. A thunderous roar of footsteps echoed around the apartment as 16 or more of us clambered for a seat around the table. Comfortingly squeezed in close to one another everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ and applauded as wave upon wave of dishes poured out of the kitchen and washed up on the table. I lost count of how many dishes were brought out. Not a centimetre of the table was visible beneath the spread.
I remember trying a bit from every dish that passed by me.
I remember getting so excited seeing things that I had never tried before. One of the main tastes that I recall is that of a small orange fruit. You pulled out of its paper-lantern cover and popped in your mouth. I never had this fruit before and I never tasted anything like it before. It was sweet but slightly tart at the same time, it confused my taste buds, and I liked it. It was a physalis – a schizophrenic fruit that thinks it is a cherry, tomato and a grape all at the same time. It was the most unusual fruit I ever did see. Such a pretty one too. I think I munched the whole bowl before the main course arrived.
As usual, I can’t remember what the main course was but for sure I remember every single detail about the dessert. Well, one of the desserts as there were many different desserts that danced upon my taste buds that day.
The dessert I remember most was a traditional pastiera Napoletana.
An Easter cake made with wheat berries and ricotta, but of course, I didn’t have a clue what was in it at the time. All I remember is the texture. It was such a mishmash combination of crisp buttery pastry, creamy zesty ricotta filling and berries with a slight bite to them. It was the most sophisticated food that I had ever eaten, and probably still is in terms of complexity and layers of texture and taste. The mouth sensations that the cake produced still stay with me today 18 years later. That’s how impressive this cake is.
So, when I was researching this pastiera Napoletana recipe, I didn’t have to look too hard or far.
I just emailed my aunt and asked her how to make it. The only deviation that her pastiera Napoletana recipe took from all others’ online was that she left out the cinnamon. Therefore, as I wanted to recreate what I had on that glorious Easter Sunday, I followed my aunt’s pastiera Napoletana recipe and I also left out the cinnamon. I wanted to use wheat berries in my recipe as I had heard loads their health benefits but my aunt said that she uses barley. Making this recipe again, I would use barley as the wheat berries are slightly too hard for my liking.
This cake is a ritual in itself and like all traditional bakes, there is a back history and celebrated method of baking.
This pastiera Napoletana recipe is supposed to take three days to make.
You soak the berries on Easter Thursday. Then you make the filling on Good Friday. You don’t bake the cake until the Saturday and then you eat it on Easter Sunday. As I really enjoy the whole ritual of food, I took a whole three days to make this cake, and I enjoyed every single minute of it. But if you are short on time, you can make it over the course of one day. Up until I made this cake, I really only appreciated the ritual of eating certain types of food but now I am really loving the whole creative process of making food too. I hope you will give this cake a go. It really is worth the time and effort and it is spectacular when it is all finished, both in taste and in looks, just like the Italians themselves.
Also, fear not about all the ingredients because I have created loads of recipes to use up the leftover ricotta, lemons and egg whites, including my lemon yoghurt cake, lemon yoghurt scones, lemon ricotta cookies and lime and coconut macaroons.
So, I give you my (and my aunt’s)
Pastiera Napoletana Recipe
Prep Time: 3 days
Cook time: 60 minutes
Yield: 1 cake
For the pastry:
250 grams of plain flour
100 grams of icing sugar
125 grams of unsalted cold butter
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
Zest of 1 lemon
For the filling:
280 grams of cooked wheat berries (roughly 100 grams of uncooked wheat berries)
230 millilitres of milk
30 grams of soft unsalted butter
350 grams of ricotta
320 grams of caster sugar
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence (or 1 vanilla bean pod)
1 tablespoon of orange blossom water
100 grams of candied citron, finely chopped
If you are using uncooked berries, you need to cook them according to the instructions on the packet. I soaked my wheat berries in cold water for two days, changing the water twice a day. I then boiled the soaked berries for two hours in a saucepan of water until they were soft.
If using uncooked barley, leave to soak in water overnight, then the next day cook it in plenty of water for 30 minutes or until soft. Drain, then follow the rest of the recipe.
Day one: Maundy Thursday
In a saucepan, over a medium heat, place the cooked wheat berries (or barley), the butter, milk and lemon zest. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally until the mixture becomes very thick and creamy, like porridge. This took about forty minutes.
If you are following the three-day method, allow this mixture cool overnight. If making this cake all in one day then let it cool before use.
Day two: Good Friday
Make the pastry by sifting the flour and icing sugar into a bowl and combining. Chop the cold butter into small pieces and rub into the flour and sugar until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
In a small bowl or jug lightly beat together the egg, egg yolk, and lemon zest and add to the flour, sugar and butter mixture.
Knead just enough until the mixture comes together. Cover in Clingfilm and rest for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
Next, make the creamy filling by beating until creamy the two eggs and two yolks with the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and orange blossom water.
Leave this mixture to rest for several hours or, if doing the three-day method, leave in the fridge overnight.
“The reason we rest the mixture is twofold; it allows the mixture’s many flavours and spices to mingle and develop and tradition dictates that freshly beaten eggs will ruin a pastiera by causing a “soufflé effect” by making the filling rise during cooking and then sink when cooled. A pastiera has to be perfectly flat on top. This resting time will, hopefully, prevent this.”
Day three: Holy Saturday
Grease an 10-inch (25cm) springform tin and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Pre-heat the oven to 200°C / 180°C for fan assisted ovens / 400°F / gas mark 6.
Today is the day that you assemble the cake. You should have four components; the pastry, the creamy berries, the creamy filling and the candied citron peel.
To begin, fold the cooled wheat berries and the ricotta mixture together with the finely chopped candied citron.
Roll out about two-thirds of the pastry into a large enough circle to fit into the tin. I like my pastry thick and as it has to hold quite a wet filling, I think it best to roll it out quite thick. Carefully place the pastry in the tin. Trim any overhanging pastry and add to the remaining pastry.
Take the remaining one-third of the pastry and roll out. Cut it into long strips about 20 centimetres wide. If you have a pastry cutter use that, I didn’t so I just used a sharp knife.
Next, pour the ricotta mixture into the pastry-lined tin and fold over the borders of the pastry to the level of the mixture.
Lay the long pastry strips gently across the top to form a criss-cross diamond pattern. Gently press the strips onto the edges of the pastry.
Place the cake on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for one hour until the pastry is golden and the pastiera is amber-brown on top.
Do not open the oven once the cake is inside.
The key to getting a flat top on the cake is to turn off the oven and leave the cake inside to cool down, preferably overnight.
Once the cake is fully cooled, remove it from the tin and then place on a serving dish. Chill in the fridge.
Remove from the fridge at least thirty minutes before you are ready to serve. Dust the top with icing sugar.
This cake should be stored in the fridge and will keep for about three days.
This cake tastes so different yet looks so traditional and rustic. It is totally worth the time and the effort to make. It will now become something that I take pleasure in lingering over at Easter time, my own little food ritual. I don’t have many of these yet, but I hope to create a few more as this one gives me such pleasure. I really hope it does for you too.
So, what do you think of my pastiera Napoletana recipe?
Did you try it out? Did you like it? What improvements would you make? Share a photo of your own attempt at this recipe or leave any feedback and comments below, I’d love to hear from you.
If you liked this recipe you might also like my salted caramel chocolate cake recipe.
My Mississippi mud cake recipe is also worth a try.
If you like this pastiera Napoletana recipe, please share it with others.