How to Make Pastiera Napoletana, the Italian Easter Dessert

“It took me 10 years to finally understand pastiera,” Letitia Clark tells me over Zoom.

In 2012 the chef and cookbook author had just started working in a restaurant that focused on classic Italian dishes. She was charged with making pastiera Napoletana, but the recipe gave her pause. What was this thing? Whole, cooked grains suspended in a ricotta filling, all poured into a pastry shell? It didn’t sound right. It did sound like a project, and though she gave it her best try, it didn’t come out well.

As Clark mentions in her new book La Vita e Dolce, traditional recipes for this Easter dessert take a week to prepare. “The elaborate ritual of preparation made the final eating on Easter Sunday that much more special,” she writes. And perhaps the ritual—and the dedication of time required—was part of the point: “Pastiera was likely born in a convent by nuns, who would have dedicated their lives to learning cooking, or sewing, these sort of domestic tasks, in addition to daily prayer.”

Like many dishes that go back centuries, the history of pastiera Napoletana is a little bit murky. “No one can really decide on when the recipe was born,” Clark explains, though she suspects the dish originated in the late 18th or early 19th century, as sugar became more readily available and an influx of Swiss immigrants—who already had a tradition of sweet dishes—arrived in Naples. Clark says that it’s very likely that pastiera Napoletana was first made around this time, along with many of the “more elaborate, big-project types of dolci served at special occasions.”

Pastiera Napoletana is a carb-lover’s dream. The recipe features cooked farro or wheat berries, mixed with a sweet, orange-scented ricotta filling, baked in a shell of a sweet shortcrust pastry called pasta frolla, with more pastry latticed over the top. “You see a lot of this sort of ‘carbs on carbs’ thing in Italian cooking,” says Clark. “Grains are, historically, cheap and filling, so it would be quite common to include them.”

She mentions timballo, a dish with many variations, that’s essentially a savory version of pastiera Napoletana—a pastry (or sometimes pasta) base, and a filling of meat and/or vegetables mixed with pasta, rice, or potatoes. “Rather than using lots of nuts, which could be quite expensive, or cheese or cream, grains would be used to add body and substance to a dish without adding much cost.” The inclusion of grains in a dish like this carries some deeper meaning, too: “It sort of symbolizes the bounty of the earth, growth, and rebirth, hence its association with spring and Easter,” Clark explains.

The grains are the most time-consuming part of the dish, but fortunately, they don’t require much hands-on attention. In Clark’s recipe, you soak the farro for three days, changing the water once a day, before cooking it with milk, lemon zest, and a cinnamon stick. “The soaking helps tenderize the farro—simply boiling it first will leave it too chewy in the final dish,” she explains. She mentions that many markets in Italy sell canned and jarred precooked grains called grano cotto around Easter, specifically so people can save a little time when they make pastiera Napoletana at home. But there’s something to be said for soaking your own grains. “If you’re a geek like me, you can also candy your own citrus peel for even more bragging rights,” she says. “It just makes it that much more special, really.”

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