The most fascinating side of an enlarged family is usually the one which lives far from the rest. My family is no exception. As a kid, among the whole lot of aunts and uncles all born and raised in Veneto, I have always been intrigued by that aunt who chose the alternative path, married a man from the South during her graduate years and left the native soil to follow him in his social and professional climbing.
They lived in Palermo, Reggio Clalabria, Naples, Udine, Varese, Florence and who knows where else in Italy. My aunt would follow her professional, upscale engineer husband wherever his career would take him without objection, even after the birth of their (only) daughter. They would show up sometimes at my grandma’s house for a weekend over Christmas or Easter or some other public holiday, have lunch with the rest of us, and then leave right after in their shiny new company car.
What was most striking was how much she had changed and moved on from her Venetian country origins. Far from using any dialect, her way of speaking had a strange inflection, a mixture of accents and local usages that made her even more singular before my eyes. She would discuss literature, philosophy, religion, art and music with her very puzzled mother and sister –all subjects that she probably had time to dig in her long days at home alone, with her husband away for work, pressured by the idea of pleasing him and be presentable at one of the many social events they had to attend.
A way of detecting in which city they were living at the time of their visit, besides paying attention to my aunt’s acquired accent, was looking at what food she had brought for us. Usually sweets, often purchased in the best local pastry shops, they would either be some sort of almond delight from Sicily, or Florentine cookies, or some Neapolitan sugary treat. To the young version of myself, her foodie presents seemed the most foreign thing on earth.
The only home-made thing she would bring with her, and only over Easter, would be pastiera. Proud of having grasped the recipe for the best, authentic version of this traditional Neapolitan cake while living indeed in Naples, she would proudly showcase and share her creation with us during the big family Easter meal at grandma’s house. Being used to the more cross-regional Easter cake out there, colomba, having anything else for dessert seemed fairly unique to us. Welcoming my aunt’s exotic cake meant welcoming this new bit of culture in our family, one that didn’t belong to it originally but had become part of it in time.
As I was biting my very first piece of pastiera, I remember my first impression being stricken by the aroma more than the flavor. It was like I was eating a smell. The powerful scent of citrus and orange blossoms, which I couldn’t detect as such back then, reminded me of the smell of the beauty section of a department store rather than the sugary scent coming out of a pastry shop. I just knew immediately I hadn’t eaten anything with such a strong flowery note before. At first, it was hard for me to get it. But then, after one more bite, and another, the creamy, sugary sweetness seduced me subtly, with no chance for second thoughts. The texture was pretty novel to me as well. Never before had I eaten a cake whose filling was creamy and slightly chewy at the same time, and so dense and heavy to barely hold within the edges of the cut slice. I asked what was inside it, and she answered, to my surprise: ricotta and cooked wheat. Wheat in cake, I thought, must be some kind of Southern culinary eccentricity I wasn’t familiar with. Yet, I had already surrendered to its goodness, and not quite sated, I helped myself with a second small slice, digging in the moist filling all the way to the crumbly and buttery crust.
Year after year, whenever she would come for Easter, she would gift us with this cake that we all learned to love more than any other. The odd had become familiar, in cake as much as my aunt’s personality. Until one year, for some reason, she skipped her Easter visit and all of a sudden we were left deprived of our beloved pastiera. So I thought I would make it myself instead, using her or some other trusted recipe. As in time I found out that just like many other Italian traditional dishes, there is no ultimate version, only multiple good ones. However, it seems like the one I know and make is the most authentic and old one, which doesn’t contain any custard in the filling –a modern twist to make it creamier.
This is how this Neapolitan cake, typical of Easter, became part of our otherwise very Venetian family. Although not an expert in the art of making pastiera, it entered my life at a young age and it is now part of the flavor I long for and miss and try to recreate to feel closer to home during this time of the year. What I learned about it, visiting Naples a few weeks ago, is that no matter how good the store-bought version is, the real deal is just home-made. And that although you might be able to find it all year round now, it remains a dolce di Pasqua (Easter cake) filled with symbolic ingredients (eggs, flower essence, wheat) representing spring, fertility and re-birth in pagan symbolism as much as in the Cristian metaphorical language.
icing sugar for dusting
Day 1. Soak the grains and let them sit overnight.
Day 2. Start preparing part of the filling.
Drain the soaked whole wheat and place in a large pan with plenty of cold water. Bring to a boil and cook at low heat for 3 hours. Drain and set aside. In the same pan, pour the milk with the lemon zest. When hot, add the wheat and simmer for 3-4 hours over a very low heat, stirring from time to time to avoid burning the bottom. When the grain is tender, add the ground cinnamon and the vanilla. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Cover and place in the fridge until the next day.
Day 3. Assemble and bake the cake.
For the pastry, place the sugar, butter, and yolks into a food processor and pulse until smooth. Alternatively, cream the butter with a wooden spoon, add sugar and then yolks. Add the flour and pulse until it comes together in a ball, or stir to make a smooth pastry. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap it in cling film and set it in the fridge for at least one hour. Remove the wheat from the fridge. Beat the ricotta in a large mixing bowl with the egg yolks and the orange blossom water. Add the candied zests and the cooked wheat to the ricotta mixture. In another large bowl, beat the egg whites with the sugar until light and fluffy. Fold them gently into the ricotta mixture using movements from the bottom to the top. Preheat the oven to 190C (375F). Grease and flour a large pie tin, about 28-30 cm diameter. Save one-third of the pastry for the lattice that will go on top of the cake. Roll the other two-thirds of the pastry into a circle that will cover both base and sides of the tin, then transfer it to the tin and press it slightly using the fingers. If it breaks a bit there’s no problem: stick a piece of dough on top of the crack and press to make it even. Pour the filling mixture over the pastry shell. Roll out the remaining pastry, cut into long strips and use these to make a lattice top for the cake (it is very fragile, don’t worry, stick bits and pieces together). Bake for about 40 minutes. Allow to cool completely, then set in the fridge or a cool place to set.
Day 4. Wait.
Day 5. Remove from the fridge and bring to room temperature. Dust with icing sugar, slice and serve.Print recipe