If you ask me what my favourite cake in the world is, I have one answer: “La Pastiera”.
It is an ancient cake that goes back to mythical times. It had a religious and symbolic meaning which was incorporated into Christianity. In fact the so called modern version was created by the nuns of San Gregorio Armeno, in the old town of Naples, in 1600. Its ingredients symbolise the Resurrection and the fragrance of the coming spring.
When I was in my last year at school our class decided to spend a day in Ischia during the Easter holidays. One of our schoolmates was from this island (he commuted to our school in Naples by ferry every day). We had a great day out, the weather was sunny and warm. We had a swim in the sea and when we found a nice place to play we even manage to have a football match. We were really full of energy. While on the beach one of our mates had an incident and his underpants were torn so he couldn’t wear them. He then wore just his trousers to play football which was very uncomfortable kit and from then on was named the man without underpants. For lunch we had big sandwiches and beer. At the end of the day we were really happy and after saying bye bye to our friend we headed for the port to catch the last ferry back to Naples. The sky suddenly became overcast and strong gusts of wind started blowing. When we got to the ferry we were told that the sea was getting really rough and the ferry wouldn’t be able to leave. We were stranded, an entire class. With a strong sense of embarrassment we went back to our friend to ask where we could spend the night and we would catch the first boat in the morning. He had a brief word with his mother who happily gave us a roof. They had a restaurant and a few rooms so she put up all 15 of us. She fed us at night and gave us the best breakfast: coffee and pastiera. She had baked a few days before dozens of pastieras for the restaurant so lots of cakes appeared on our table.
My mother had her family recipe that she would do by heart, automatically. I asked one day if she would type it for me. She did it. After many years I thought I had lost it and I was really sad as she died a few years ago. Then quite recently it materialised in a cookery book. I think I had just forgotten it there many years before. So now I’ve slightly updated the recipe (for instance she used pork fat instead of butter!).
For the pasta frolla:
300 gr. (3 ¼ cups) flour + 100 gr. ( ¾ cup) for sprinkling when needed
100 gr. (3 ½ ounces) Cold Unsalted Butter, diced
100 gr. ( ½ Cup) Granulated Sugar
2 Egg yolks
A pinch of salt
For the filling:
400 gr. (14 ounces) Ricotta cheese
450 gr. (1 pound) Soaked wheat for Pastiera (Available in tins or jars in some UK and US Supermarkets and Italian Delicatessen)
450 gr. (2 ¼ cups) Granulated Sugar
70 gr. (2 ½ ounces) Candied peel or Candied Citron (Citrus Medica) if available
1 small Lemon unwaxed, untreated
Orange flower water or Orange Water (use the dose for about 1 kg - 2 pounds)
350 ml (1 ½ Cups) Milk
A pinch of salt
Icing sugar to sprinkle on top
To make the Pasta frolla:
In a mixer put the flour, sugar and the cold diced butter and a pinch of salt
Blend for a short time until the mixture appears crumbly, then add an egg and two egg yolks, until you get a ball.
Put the ball in food wrap and leave it in the fridge to rest while you’re making the filling. I often prefer to make the pastry the old fashion way by hand.
To make the filling.
Put the wheat and the milk in a saucepan.
Place on a low flame and stir it occasionally with a wooden spoon to avoid it sticking to the bottom of the pan, for 15- 20 mins to allow the wheat to absorb some of the milk.
Leave it to cool.
In a bowl place the ricotta and stir in the sugar until it is smooth.
Add 5 egg yolks and set aside the egg whites.
Grate the zest of a small lemon and add it.
Then add the orange flower water, candied peel and the vanilla essence.
Now the difficult bit as you need to line the cake tin with pasta frolla.
Take the dough out of the fridge.
Sprinkle the pastry board and the rolling pin with some flour to avoid sticking. Extend the dough to line the cake tin and keep the excess to make 10 to 15 decorative criss cross strips about the diameter of your cake tin. The dough is not really elastic (because there is only one egg white) and tends to break. It doesn’t really matter as you can join bits together.
In an appropriate bowl beat the egg whites until firm.
Add the ricotta mixture to the cooked wheat and then the egg whites. Stir until smooth.
This mix is still quite liquid.
Now with a ladle fill the lined cake tin with the mix until just below the edge.
Lay the strips on the top. Some people like to brush the strips with egg white to make them shiny. I can’t see the point as the pastiera is sprinkled with icing sugar before serving.
Put in a preheated oven 190°C degrees (Mark 5 or 375°F degrees) and cook for about 1hr. The strips should be golden and the open squares brown and firm (but not burned!)
Now let it cool down and rest.
It’s very important that the pastiera rests for a couple of days at least. Traditionally it is baked on Thursday or Good Friday and eaten obviously on Easter Sunday.
Just before serving dust it with icing sugar.
There are special pastiera cake tins. In Naples the traditional one is made of aluminium and the cake is not removed from the tin so when you buy one from the pasticceria you should get a tin (that’s how I got mine).
You can also use a spring cake tin. Make sure to open it when the cake is cold.