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For centuries, special dishes containing grains, seeds and eggs, symbolizing fertility, rebirth and renewal, have been prepared in the springtime. Although today Pastiera Napoletana is only made at Easter time, it actually dates back to Pagan times when it was prepared to celebrate the arrival of spring.

After today, I have a funny feeling that the Goddess of Spring has completely forgotten Montreal. So I thought I’d offer up this centuries-old pie with the hope that she would finally come. You know that old adage… If you build it, he will come? All right, it isn’t so much an adage but rather Kevin Costner and all that Hollywood stuff. But I think you get the gist of it. If I offer it, she will come.

Every ingredient in Pastiera is symbolic. They are associated with ancient Roman celebrations of the rite of Spring: flowers to announce its arrival, eggs for new life, ricotta from the ewes, wheat and flour from the awakened land.

One of the many legends associated with the dish involves Partenope, a mermaid from Greek mythology who lived in the Gulf of Naples. To celebrate the arrival of spring, she would approach the land and sing to the inhabitants. One year, to thank her for the gift of song, they offered her local gifts – ricotta, flour, eggs, wheat, perfumed orange flowers and spices. So delighted was she with these gifts, she brought them to her kingdom under the sea where the Gods mixed them together into a cake. And thus, the Pastiera was born!

Pastiera Napoletana, also known as Pastiera di grano or Neopolitan Easter Pie. The grano, or grain, is the wheatberry, which is the entire wheat kernel excluding the hull. It comprises the bran, germ and endosperm. Basically, if wheatberry were to be milled, we would have whole wheat flour. The classic version of this pie is a pasta frolla, short-crust pastry, filled with wheatberries, ricotta, citrus zest, and scented with orange flower water and cinnamon.

As a child, this was my favourite Easter treat and I couldn’t wait to fill my mouth with this sweet delicacy. I think it was special to me because it was so short-lived. An ephemeral joy of my childhood! Or perhaps I loved it so because of the rich creaminess of the ricotta, the slight crunch of the wheatberries, the aromatic scents and flavours of lemon and orange zest, the cinnamon, and the ultra-fragrant orange flower water, all wrapped up in a sweet, buttery short-crust pastry.

This Pastiera Napoletana is something quite special and shouldn’t be enjoyed just at Easter. It should become a yearly celebration of the rite of spring!

Ingredients

slightly adapted from The Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts

Wheatberries

2 cups/16 oz Grano Cotto (ready-to-use wheatberry), or 2 cups of soaked wheatberries

1 cup of whole milk

1/4 cup of sugar

1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

2 strips of fresh lemon peel

You can find wheatberries in health food stores. Or you can use already prepared hulled soft wheat, called Gran Pastiera, which is imported from Italy around Easter time and can be found in Italian grocery shops. It does save lots of time!

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If using dry wheatberries, soak 1/2 cup into 2 cups of water. Cover and soak overnight, draining and rinsing with fresh water. Combine the grain with the milk, sugar, cinnamon and strips of lemon peel in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower and simmer, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes or until most of the milk has been absorbed. Remove lemon peels and refrigerate the wheat mixture to cool.

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Pastry

2 cups of flour

1/2 cup of sugar

pinch of salt

1/2 cup of unsalted butter

2 eggs

1 tablespoon of ice water

Combine flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Separate one of the eggs and keep 1 egg yolk aside for brushing the pastry. Lightly beat the whole egg and the egg white, along with the ice water. With a fork, stir the egg mixture into the flour until the dough holds together. Shape into 2 balls, one slightly larger than the other. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

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Filling

16 oz of ricotta cheese

1 cup of sugar

4 eggs

freshly grated zest of 2 lemons

freshly grated zest of 1 orange

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons of orange flower water

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

With an electric blender, whip up the ricotta, sugar, eggs, lemon and orange zest, salt, cinnamon, orange flower water and vanilla until smooth. Stir in the wheatberry mixture.

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Butter a 10 inch pie dish that is 2 or 3 inches deep, or a springform pan. On a lightly floured surface, roll the larger ball of dough into a circle that is slightly larger than the pan. Fit the dough into the pan and trim any excess. Pour in the filling.

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Roll out the smaller ball of dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut out some wide strips and arrange in a lattice over the top. Crimp the outside edge and gently brush with the reserved, beaten egg yolk.

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Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree F/175 C oven for 45 to 55 minutes. The pastry should be golden and the centre no longer jiggles. Cool on a rack at room temperature. Allow to cool completely, which could take a couple of hours, allowing the pie to set.

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