Learn how to make the traditional Neapolitan dessert and find out how the laborious process of making this sweet can change your perspective.
Pastiera is everything, especially this time of year. This Neapolitan wheat berry dessert dates back centuries. In your pie plate, under your fork, you find history, culture, and resurrection. It is the traditional Easter sweet, and all the Italians you meet will insist you take a bite, or 500 bites, of their version during the spring.
Spitting into Plants
The year was 2004, and I was taking my grandparents on what would be their last trip to Italy, the motherland. It was a bittersweet journey both literally and figuratively. Pastiera took centerstage. My grandfather’s nieces and nephews offered up a slice as soon as we arrived in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors on both sides of the family.
Some of my earliest holiday memories in the United States consist of the men sitting around the table playing Scopa or Briscola, Italian card games, while digging into pastiera, and sipping espresso spiked with a shot (or two or three) of Sambuca. The women would be making said espresso, doing dishes, and complaining about the men. It was all very 1950s Italy; only it was 1985 America. Despite our geography, we lived in another place and time. True story.
So, I thought pastiera was the dessert of old people. They ate it while I was off with my cousins searching for eggs. I never realized how much work my grandmother did to get that wheat cake on the table. It took weeks with the painstaking soaking of the wheat berries. Fast forward to 2004, and I was about to be educated.
I tried to decline that first slice offered up to me in Italy. L’Americana didn’t want that dessert. There was an eye roll, and my grandfather nudged me to take the piece in a way that made me understand that I had to eat the dang thing. That was the beginning of pastierapalooza. Every day meant eating another slice (or four) of pastiera. Have you noticed that these people have never heard of moderation?
Well, I ate pastiera every time a relative or friend offered it to me. Some of the slices were full of candied citrus, which is something I hate. I tried not to gag. I’m pretty sure I spit a few pieces into nearby plants and tried to clear the table, so no one would notice the half-eaten slice on my plate.
Change of Life
A few of the pieces weren’t so bad. They were without candied citrus. Or they had more ricotta. Or they seemed like cheesecake. The pastiera made me realize I was open to new experiences, even if it meant there would be some unpleasantness. At the time, I was a twentysomething trying to escape my disillusion at the realization that life does not turn out as we planned.
Coming to terms with the future is never easy, but the pastiera spoke to me. My grandfather took my grandmother and me to all his old haunts in Ischia. Everywhere we went, we visited an elderly, and usually sick, relative. They would be in bed, barely able to sit up. A few of them had dementia and babbled endlessly. Before this trip, I had never given much thought to the end of life. I was just starting out, and it had seemed so far away. Now, I had to look it right in the eye.
My grandparents could feel the end was near. This would be their goodbye to Ischia. Although they would go on to live many more years in the United States, they would never get to return to their youth in quite such a tangible way. With each visit to a loved one further down the path toward Heaven, the heavier our hearts, not to mention the heavier our slices of pastiera. I was already lost in thought before the pastiera. Afterward, my brain was as heavy as my heart.
If I believed there was such a thing as a quarter-life crisis, I would have been smack in the middle of mine as we arrived in Ischia. I was almost 25 years old, and the trip would change the course of my life in many ways. I had quit my job and decided to give freelancing a serious go. It was terrifying, so a jaunt to the homeland with my Nonni seemed like a good escape.
Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Who will I love? Who will love me? Why am I here? What value do I bring? I was in a panic. It felt as though I was in a race to answer these questions or be doomed to a life terribly lived.
As if he could sense my anxiety, my cousin, who brought along his charming, handsome friend Antonio, invited me to dinner. We had a delightful meal of pizza and baba pastries with whipped cream and strawberries. In the background stood Castello Aragonese, a grandiose castle that is connected to Ischia by a bridge. With a pleasant ocean breeze passing through the restaurant, Antonio asked me when we would get engaged.
At the time, I just laughed. Another day, another Italian playboy is trying to live up to the Latin lover hype. But the actual answer was that we would get engaged and then married about four years later. We’ve been married since 2008 and have two sons, Enzo, 9, and Pasquale, nearly 17 months. But I never would have predicted our fate in that restaurant on that night.
Before my love and life could unfold, I had to eat my weight in pastiera and confront the greatest health challenge of my life so far. Shortly after that meal with my future husband, I was interviewing someone on the street in Ischia for a story I was writing when I fell and injured my knee.
To make a long story short, I had torn a peach-sized piece of cartilage. It moved to the back of my knee and cut off my circulation. Within a couple of days, I found myself in the hospital in Ischia, facing possible amputation of my foot and part of my leg. I managed to save my foot and leg, get in a cast, and get back to the United States. But it would take three surgeries and two years of physical therapy to walk normally again. Before my grandparents and I got on that plane, I wolfed down many more slices of pastiera. My visitors were bringing it to me now.
Since then, I hadn’t taken a bite of pastiera. During all my trips back, our wedding in Ischia, living on the island for nearly a year, other Easters with my grandparents, I couldn’t even tolerate the sight of pastiera. So, I never ate it again. I rejected the pastiera and certainly offended many people I love. The taste was too bitter, too wrapped up in lifelessness.
Taste of Evolution
Then, 2020 happened. For the first time, I felt like an island. Sure, I had my loving husband and our two beautiful sons, and we made the best of what was happening. But all the things on which I had come to rely — the government, education, job security, that actual island in Italy, and the embrace of my extended family — were gone. In an instant, the world crashed on my head. It was all adrenaline, all the time.
We lost people and couldn’t properly say goodbye. We had video calls, but we could not get on a plane. Our baby has health problems that we had to face and increased the fear factor of potentially contracting COVID-19. We waved to my parents from the window. We wore masks and stayed six feet away from anyone else we loved. We had work and school but far too little of both. The future felt more than insecure. It felt hopeless. I felt both like the abandoner and the abandoned. Worst of all, I could see the stamp of failure on my forehead. I lost all faith in myself. And the light was too far away to see.
And 2021 was not improving as quickly as I needed. In dark times, you want to be resilient. That’s when you look back on other dark times for answers. After the rain comes the rainbow, or in my case, the pastiera. This year, I had to make pastiera, no matter how laborious, with my own two hands. I had to taste it. I had to recover my resilience. We all needed resurrection.
One With Wheat
Summoning my late grandmother, I picked up a wooden spoon and had my husband head to the Italian specialty store. Making pastiera, especially in the United States, is challenging. There are ingredients that are hard to find.
To avoid making like my Nonna and soaking the wheat berries for weeks ahead of time, I recommend buying pre-cooked wheat berries. Most people in Italy use this product to make their pastiera nowadays. You can find it in Italian specialty stores. I realize many places do not have Italian specialty stores, but you can find them online. Some Americans substitute the wheat with rice, but I do not recommend this. It just does not taste the same because wheat berries are the principal ingredient in the recipe. The same will be true for vanillina, which is powdered vanilla that Italians use for baking.
Finally, you will need wildflower extract, known as millefiori. This was impossible to find near me. It sold out at the Italian specialty store, so I used a common substitute, aroma d’arancia, which is simply orange extract. I recommend the Italian version if you can get it because it tastes more like oranges and less like medicine. But orange extract is just fine if that’s all you can get. The best news is that you might already have it on hand.
Recipe for Pastiera
2.5 cups of sifted flour
250 grams of butter (chilled)
1 cup of sugar
Pinch of salt
Zest from 1 lemon and 1 orange
2 tbsp heavy whipping cream
1 jar of pre-cooked wheat berries (580 grams or a little more than 2 cups)
2.5 cups ricotta
2 and 1/4 cups sugar
4 eggs + 2 yolks
1 tsp of millefiori (or orange extract)
1 pouch of vanillina
1/4 cup of milk (preferably whole milk)
- Sift the flour into a large bowl and use a fork or pastry blender to cut in the chilled butter. When the butter and flour are well mixed, and the texture is crumb-like, you can move on to the next step.
- Add the sugar, eggs, salt, and zest. Stir to mix. Add heavy cream and bring it together with your hands to make a dough. You may need to lightly flour your surface and work the dough to get it smooth and uniform.
- Form the dough into the shape of a loaf of white bread. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least one hour.
- Empty the contents of the wheat berries jar into a saucepan. Under a light flame, stir the berries constantly. Bring it to the verge of boiling and remove it from the stovetop. Set aside to cool.
- Drain the ricotta. I used fresh ricotta, which can be exceptionally watery. The genuine recipe calls for sheep’s milk ricotta, but that is difficult to attain in the United States. If you are using generic ricotta from your local American supermarket, the draining might not be necessary. Add the ricotta to the wheat berry mixture.
- Add the sugar.
- If you’d like to use candied citron, you should add it now. My husband and I don’t like it, so I didn’t use it in my version. We could have added more zest if we wanted more of that citrus flavor, but we kept it simple.
- Use an immersion blender to make a consistency to your liking. Some Italians leave the wheat berries and ricotta as is. I prefer less chunkiness in my filling, so I blended it.
- In another bowl, mix the eggs, yolks, and orange extract or millefiori.
- Then, add the milk to the egg mixture. Mix it well and add it to the ricotta mixture. Some add it to the mixture in two or three parts and slowly mix. I just poured it in and combined the two mixtures.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Whip out your pastiera cake pan. If you’re like me, you don’t have one of these. I used my cheesecake springform pan. It makes the pastiera higher than preferable, but it works. I could have made one and a half pastiera with the amount of filling this yields. I imagine with a traditional pastiera pan; I would have been able to make two pies.
- Take the dough out of the fridge and roll it out on a lightly floured surface. Place it in the form. If you’re using a spring form, be sure to make the dough reach about the halfway point on the pan—Reserve at least one-quarter of the dough.
- Use a fork to make holes in the bottom of the dough.
- Add the filling to the pan with the dough in it.
- Roll out the rest of the dough. Cut the dough into long strips to create a criss-cross pattern. Make sure the strips are longer than the width of the pan. Lay them on top of your pastiera and let them hang over the edge of the pan. I did not make my strips land over the side of the pan, and the pattern ended up being shorter than it should have been. It shrunk while baking.
- If you’re using a spring form, wrap the bottom of the pan in aluminum foil and place it on top of a baking sheet. You may consider using a cheesecake water bath because my pastiera did crack in the oven. I don’t know if this would have happened in a different pan. The height and the short pastry strips on top appeared to contribute to the problem.
- Place the pastiera in the oven. I started by checking on it after 50 minutes. It ended up cooking for a little more than an hour. I made sure the pastry was good and brown. Also, the filling was too loose to be done. The cooking time will depend on your oven, the size of your pastiera, and the pan you use. Mine was taller than usual, which added to the cooking time. Use your judgment.
- Serve when cooled and in the pan like you would a pie. I felt compelled to refrigerate the cooled pastiera, but my Italian family keeps it in a cool place rather than a refrigerator, and they indulge in the pie for about a week after it has been cooked.