Pastiera di Grano
In my home, it would not be Easter without Pastiera di Grano, also known as pizza gran, la pastiera, or grain pie. Baked in a springform pan, pizza gran has a tender cookie crust wtih a ricotta and whole grain wheat filling aromatic with orange and cinnamon. Latticed strips of the delicious crust (which can be made into fine cookies) form a pretty golden topping.
Baking la pastiera calls for a trip to one of my favorite stores, Coluccio’s in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. There I can find everything I need including the hulled wheat, good fresh ricotta, candied orange peel, fresh candied citron, and orange flower water to give the cake the right flavor. It’s worth the trip because this wonderful store always has everything I need from top quality DOP canned tomatoes, pasta, olive oil, and so much more. Best of all are the owners, staff and customers. For the hour or so I spend there, I feel like I am in Italy and on a mini vacation. If you can’t get there, many other Italian and gourmet markets sell what you need, though shopping may not be as much fun.
My pastiera tradition originates with my grandparents, who all came from the Naples area. My mother’s side, the Balsamo’s, were from Afragola and my father’s family, the Scotto’s, (originally Scotto di Fasano) were from the island of Procida, near Ischia. My mother, Louise Balsamo Scotto, was a great cook and she learned a lot from my father’s mother, Antoinetta Fasonaro Scotto. Grandma was a terrific baker, who of course, never measured a thing. She made biscotti and struffoli, but I loved her Easter cakes best of all, especially La Pastiera and her casadeel (casatiello), a braided sweet bread ring studded with whole eggs in the shell.
The following recipe is my adaptation of my grandmother’s pastiera, as I learned it from my mother. The major differences between mine and my grandmother’s original are that she baked hers in a huge round tin (as they still do in Naples), while I prefer a more manageable springform pan. Also, grandma always used fresh, homemade sugna (pork lard), but I substitute butter.
PASTIERA DI GRANO
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons orange-flower water
4 ounces hulled wheat (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 pound (2 cups) whole or part-skim ricotta
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons orange-flower water
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup very finely chopped candied citron
1/2 cup very finely chopped candied orange peel
1. Prepare the dough: In a large bowl, stir together the flour, cinnamon, and salt.
2. In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and confectioner’s sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and yolks and beat until smooth. Beat in the orange-flower water. Add the dry ingredients and stir just until blended, about 1 minute more.
3. Shape one-quarter of the dough into a disk. Make a second disk with the remaining dough. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill 1 hour up to overnight.
4. Prepare the filling: Place the wheat in a large bowl, add cold water to cover, and let soak overnight in the refrigerator. Drain the wheat.
5. Place the soaked wheat in a medium saucepan with cold water to cover. Add the salt and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the wheat is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain, and place in a large bowl. Stir in the butter and orange zest. Let cool.
6. Place the rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9 x 3 -inch springform pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs, sugar, orange-flower water, and cinnamon. Beat until blended. Stir in the wheat mixture, citron, and candied orange peel.
7. Roll out the larger piece of dough to a 16-inch circle. Drape the dough over the rolling pin. Using the pin to lift it, fit the dough into the pan, pressing out any wrinkles against the inside of the pan. Scrape the filling onto the dough and smooth the top.
9. Roll out the smaller piece of dough to a 10-inch circle. With a fluted pastry cutter, cut the dough into 1/2-inch-wide strips. Lay the strips across the filling in a lattice pattern. Press the ends of the strips against the dough on the sides of the pan. Trim the dough, leaving 1/2 inch of excess all around the rim, and fold the edge of the crust over the ends of the lattice strips. Press firmly to seal.
10. Bake 1 hour 10 minutes or until the cake is golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
11. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack 15 minutes. Remove the rim of the pan and let the cake cool completely on a wire rack. Just before serving, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar. Store covered with an inverted bowl in the refrigerator up to 5 days.