La pastiera napoletana, an Italian Easter Tart

In his classic cookbook Made In Italy: Food and Stories, renowned Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli writes of the pastiera napoletana:

The combination of ingredients may seem strange, but they are associated with ancient Roman celebrations of the rite of spring: flowers, eggs for new life, ricotta from the sheep, wheat and flour from the land…One of the many legends associated with the dish involves a mermaid called Partenope. She lived in the Gulf of Napoli and to celebrate the arrival of spring each year she would come and sing to the inhabitants.  One year, to say thank you for her songs, they offered her local gifts: ricotta, flour, eggs, wheat, perfumed orange flowers and spices. She was so delighted she took them to her kingdom under the sea, where the gods mixed them together into a cake.  
 

More recent legend, according to Locatelli and others, attributes the origins of the pastiera to a Neapolitan nun who wanted to make a pie that symbolized the resurrection.  She added cooked wheat to fresh sheep’s milk, added eggs as a symbol of new life, and water aromatized with the fragrant orange blossoms from the trees growing in the convent’s gardens.

It’s said of the pastiera, “Non puo mancare sulla tavola di Pasqua” (It cannot be absent from Easter table), and all true Napoletani know to make it a few days in ahead of time so that the flavors develop and harmonize.  We prepared ours on Good Friday and let it rest until Easter Sunday.

Napoli
Naples, (Napoli in Italian or Napule in local dialect) is a city known, among other things, for its rich and decadent pastries.  Eggs, ricotta and candied citrus peel are frequently found in the pasticceria napoletana, but cream-filled and liquor-laced pastries are equally common.  One of our favorite bloggers, Kathy from A Food Lover’s Odyssey, captured all of the delicious details in a post called Journey through the Pastries of Naples.

Napoli is also known, of course, for its pizza.  An authentic pizza is made with  San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala, both from the Campania region of Italy where Naples is located.  The crust is a  made from a high protein flour and baked for 60 to 90 seconds at extremely high heat (485 °C, 905 °F) in a wood-burning stone fire.  The classic Pizza Margherita, with its red sauce, white mozzarella and green basil was made in Naples in 1890 as a tribute to the visiting Queen Margarita – the pizza’s colors inspired by the green, white and red of the Italian flag.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

Naples, without doubt, has an underbelly.  The city’s challenges with organized crime have been well-publicized in recent years: from the garbage crisis, to olive oil and mozzarella fraudulently labeled ‘Made in Italy, to its thriving black market.  Traffic is chaotic, some northern European and western visitors find the city dirty, and unsuspecting tourists are easy targets for pick-pockets and swindlers.

Despite all of this, Napoli exudes an undeniable charm and is well-worth a visit.  Its location, with Mount Vesuvius to its back, looking out over the Gulf of Naples, it is one of the Mediterranean’s most prominent cities.  With a population of over 4 million inhabitants in the broad Naples metropolitan area, it is the third largest city in Italy and one of its most historical.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

It’s narrow streets are vibrant with activity and energy.  Storefronts line ground floors of Renaissance and Baroque buildings, the vendors’ goods spilling out onto crates and stands lining the palazzo walls.  Drying laundry drape across clotheslines strung from  balcony to balcony, creating a colorful, pagent-like display.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

The cities residents seem to all be out on the streets at any given time, talking, laughing, and playfully arguing in the distinctive and sometimes undecipherable Neapolitan dialect.  Those who aren’t outdoors are just as likely to join in the cacophony on the street from their windows above.

Image from http://doveviaggi.corriere.it/dove-rcs/home/weekend/arte-e-cultura/2011/agosto/napoli-teatro.html

La pastiera napoletana
Our recipe was inspired by Giorgio Locatelli’s pastiera recipe in his cookbook Made in Italy: Food and Stories, as well as by a few other versions.  The pasteria begins with a crust of pasta frolla, which is found in several other Italian cakes and tarts, such as crostata and crostatine di frutta, and torta della nonna.

It calls for cooked wheat, an Italian specialty product. We happily found that it can be ordered online from Marchese Italian Market; purchase the product called Valgri’ Grano Cotto Pastiera Napoletana.  It also calls for candied citron, orange and/or lemon peel, which we found online through Barry Farms.  You will also need a tart pan with a 10-13 inch diameter and sides at least 2 inches high.  We found a lovely but inexpensive white porcelain one at Sur la Table.  A round cake pan or spring form pan will work, too.

Ingredients
for a 10-13 inch tart

For the pasta frolla
200 g (1 and 1/2 cup) flour
80 g (1/3 cup) sugar
80 g (5 and 1/2 Tbsp) unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 pouch of Pane Angeli lievito per i dolci, or 2 tsp. baking powder*
1 egg
Zest of 1 lemon

For the filling
300 grams (1 and 1/2 cup) grano cotto, or cooked wheat**
250 grams (1 cup) whole milk
250 grams fresh ricotta***
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated.  Preserve 2 of the 3 whites.
115 grams (1/2 cup) super-fine sugar
60 grams (1/3 cup) candied citron, lemon and orange peel****
Zest of one lemon
4 tsp. orange extract
Pinch of salt

*You can substitute pane degli angeli with 2 tsp. baking powder.  So many Italian baked goods call for pane degli angeli, however, that we do encourage you to pick up a package of it.

**You can prepare your own grano cotto by cooking wheat berries and then letting them cool in their own water.  You can also substitute pearl barley, cooked according to instructions.

*** Sheep’s milk ricotta is preferred.  Sadly, we are no longer able to find it locally, and we substituted with cow’s milk ricotta, which works just fine.  Make the effort to find fresh ricotta, not the supermarket tubs of ricotta.

****Candied citron, lemon and/or orange peel will work fine.  It can be left out if needed, but it is worth the effort to find it.  If you want to make your own, see fellow blogger Paola’s recipe here.

Directions
Prepare the pasta frolla by placing the flour onto a firm, smooth work surface.  Add the sugar and pane angeli or baking powder, and mix.  Gather the dry ingredients into a mound and form a well in the middle.  Add the egg, cubes of butter and lemon zest, and working quickly with your fingers, work the wet ingredients into the flour mixture.  Mix by hand until the dough forms a homogenous, smooth ball.  Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Place the grano cotto, milk and 15 grams (1 Tbsp) of the sugar into a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-low heat.  Set aside to cool.  In a separate bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg yolks (set aside 2 of the 3 whites), the rest of the sugar, candied peel, lemon zest, orange extract and a pinch of salt.  When the grano cotto mixture is cool, stir it into the ricotta mixture.  Beat 2 of the 3 egg whites until stiff.  Fold the egg white mixture into the rest of the filling, and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 180° C, 355° F.  Brush your tart pan with melted butter.

Remove the pasta frolla from the refrigerator, and separate it into two pieces – one piece made up of about 2/3 of the dough, and the second piece made up of the remaining 1/3.  Sprinkle flour onto a smooth surface and roll out the larger piece of dough until it is big enough to fill the base and sides of your tart pan.  Line the tart pan with the rolled out dough, pressing it in so that it is equal thickness on the bottom and on the sides.  Trim any excess dough around the rim of the pan.  Roll out the second piece of dough and cut 6-8 strips for the tart’s lattice, using a pastry cutter to make a pretty fluted edge if you have one.

Pour the filling into the shell, and arrange the strips of dough in a lattice pattern across the top of the tart, taking care to seal the edges of the lattice with the crust.

Bake for 1 hour, and then turn the oven down to 120° C, 250° F and let it bake for 20 more minutes.  Turn the oven off, open the oven door a crack, and let the pastiera rest in the oven until cool.

Happy Easter!

Download a pdf of La pastiera napoletana

Pasta e ricotta

Really good food does not need to be complicated.

On occasion we are drawn in by the allure of a sophisticated dish,  but more often we love the challenge of creating something delicious and genuine out of humble ingredients.  Certainly, fancy kitchen utensils and advanced cooking methods are useful, but there is a lot to be said about starting with simple, quality food and knowing how to put the right flavors together.  And if we can do this in just two or three steps, all the better.

Pasta e ricotta is a simple but delicious recipe, perfect for times when a quick meal is in order.  Use a good, Italian pasta that cooks to al dente well, and fresh, quality ricotta.

Ingredients
(serves 4-6)
1  lb. short pasta, such as penne or rigatoni
1/2 lb (225 g) fresh whole milk ricotta
Salt
Pepper
Parmigiano

Directions
Bring a pot of water to boil.  Toss a heaping handful of coarse salt into the water, and add the pasta.  Cook the pasta al dente according to the time specified on the package.  Drain the pasta, preserving two cups of the cooking water.

Transfer the pasta back into the pot, and add the ricotta to it.  Mix the ricotta into the pasta, slowly adding as much of the preserved cooking water as is needed to achieve a creamy sauce.

Serve immediately with a grating of Parmigiano and, if desired, freshly ground black pepper.

Pappardelle con ricotta e fiori di zucca

We’re back to writing about zucchini blossoms.  They are just so pretty, fragrant and delicious that we couldn’t stop with just one summer dish, especially when we ran across this recipe for Pappardelle with Ricotta, Zucchini Blossoms and Basil Oil in the New York Times recently.

Usually we write about our own recipes, or those that come from our family and friends in Italy.  Every once in a while, though, a published recipe catches out attention, and we decide to try it.  The ingredient list of this recipe captivated us.  Fresh ricotta, zucchini blossoms and basil oil – what an ingenious combination!  And there isn’t a more delightful pasta to host it than loopy, ribbon-like pappardelle.

Our intuition was correct.  The pasta turned out wonderful – delicate and balanced, perfect for a late-summer dinner.   We made a few changes to the recipe, adding additional zucchini flowers and ricotta, and sautéing the zucchini for longer than called for in the original recipe, as we prefer them more tender.  We chose the sweeter and milder flavor of cow’s milk ricotta over ricotta made from sheep’s milk.  Go out of your way to find high quality fresh ricotta.

The timing of this recipe was perfect, as we have submitted it to this week’s Presto Pasta Nights, a weekly roundup of pasta dishes prepared by food bloggers around the world.  Presto Pasta Nights was created by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast, and this edition, the 226th, is hosted by Simona of Briciole, whose homemade ricotta and pasta recipes we will attempt the next time we make Pappardelle con ricotta e fiori di zucca.

Ingredients
Serves 4

For the basil oil
1 bunch of basil
1 clove garlic
Zest of a quarter lemon
1/2 C olive oil
Salt and Pepper

For the pasta
1 lb pappardelle
2 small zucchinis
1 cup fresh cow’s milk ricotta
12-18 zucchini blossoms
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Pecorino cheese

Directions

Prepare the basil oil by chopping the basil and mincing the garlic finely, and adding it to the olive oil.  Grate the lemon zest and add it to the oil.  Salt and pepper to taste, and set aside.

Place a large pot of water on high heat, and while waiting for the water to boil, prepare the zucchini and blossoms.  Slice the zucchini thinly and set aside.  Remove the stems and stamen or pistils (read here for more about zucchini flower gender) and rinse the flowers carefully under water.  Pat dry, and then cut lengthwise into strips.

When the water boils, throw a handful of coarse salt into the pot, and add the pappardelle.  Cook until al dente according to the time specified on the package.  While the pasta cooks, sauté the zucchini slices in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan, salting and peppering the zucchini to taste.

Drain the pasta when cooked, retaining 1-2 cups of the cooking water.  Return the pappardelle to the pan with the zucchini slices.  Add the zucchini flowers and the ricotta, and stir over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, adding the pasta’s cooking water as needed to render the ricotta creamy and the zucchini flowers soft.

Serve immediately with a a drizzle of basil oil and a dusting of pecorino cheese on top.