Serious Eats: Recipes
Seriously Italian: Pastiera (Ricotta and Cooked Grains Cake)
Editor's note: On Thursdays, Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma checks in with Seriously Italian. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats. Take it away, Gina!
"Pastiera is a dessert to grow into, after which it reveals itself as a marvel of balanced flavors and contrasting textures. I'm so glad my mom plugged away with this one because now I cannot imagine Easter without it."
Easter Sunday is rapidly approaching, so this past weekend was devoted to my annual hunt for a can of grano cotto, or cooked grain. Dubious as it sounds, this goopy, congealed mass of soft wheat is the essential ingredient in pastiera, and it simply wouldn't be Easter at my house without this very special and traditional dessert. Pastiera originated in the Italian region of Campania, where father's side of the family is from, and making it has always been a way to honor that part of my heritage.
I'll admit here and now that I wasn't the biggest fan of pastiera when I was a little kid, and the idea of a wheat-and-ricotta pie didn't exactly sound appealing. Why couldn't my mom just make one of those bunny cakes that always appeared on the cover of the ladies magazines, with tinted green coconut grass and a red cherry nose? It seemed that my juvenile palate was always being asked to embrace yet another bizarre combination of Italian ingredients at holiday time, and quite frankly, I just wanted Peeps and chocolate bunny. But pastiera is a dessert to grow into, after which it reveals itself as a marvel of balanced flavors and contrasting textures. I'm so glad my mom plugged away with this one because now I cannot imagine Easter without it.
Like most things Italian, there are variations on the ingredients that make it differ from household to household (and please note, your house makes the best), but grano cotto is truly the soul of the dish. Wheat is most common grain used, although sometimes corn or barley is substituted. Cans of ready-to-use wheat grano cotto are a staple in the baking section of Southern Italian supermarkets, sometimes even labeled "per pastiera."
I used to see the same cans of cooked grain in New York City and suburban supermarkets too, but as time has marched on and Italian neighborhoods have dwindled in size it is getting harder and harder to track them down. But if you can find the canned stuff it is worth the effort because cooking the wheat can be a bit of a pain in the ass. The wheat kernels must first be soaked—soft wheat takes about 24 hours of soaking, while hard wheat needs 3 days with a daily change of water. The wheat is then cooked for hours until it tender, pale and plumped.
Fresh ricotta is the other key ingredient: either cow's milk, or more common in Campania, sheep or even buffalo milk. Orange flower water is traditionally added as a key flavor component, but if you can't find it, freshly grated orange zest works just fine. The rest of the additions are entirely subjective. Some cooks prefer to leave out the candied fruits, which can be any one or a mix of orange, lemon and citron. Candied squash, or zucca candida, is a super-traditional addition that I have omitted, since it is nearly impossible to find outside of Italy.
I tracked down my grano cotto at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx, and when I last checked, DiPalo Dairy in Little Italy of Manhattan had some cans on their shelves too (it is always a good idea to call around just to be sure). If you can't find a can of grano cotto at your local Italian deli or specialty shop, barley makes a good substitute in a pinch; just be sure to cook it until it is extremely soft and tender.
If you decide to cook your own wheat, go for the soft wheat, which you can usually find in health food stores. Soak it in a triple volume of water for 24 hours, draining the soaking water and starting with fresh water, about 3 cups of cooking water per 1 cup of wheat. Cook the wheat for 2 hours, uncovered, at a low simmer, or until the grains are pale, soft and tender. Allow the entire mixture to cool, and if some of the cooking liquid congeals around the kernels that's fine—don't try to separate the goo from the grain. You can process the ricotta smooth in a food processor first if you know that your crowd isn't into the distinctive texture that ricotta brings to the dessert.
A few more caveats: I used a 9 x 2-inch layer cake pan for this recipe because I like the thick wedges it produces; pastiera is all about sinking your fork into the creamy depth of the filling. You can use 9 or 9-1/2-inch deep dish pie plate, or even a springform pan if you don't mind working the dough further down the higher sides of the pan. I have found that when using a 10-inch pan the recipe works fine, but I get a lesser depth of filling which I do not prefer.
You can use any pasta frolla or sweet, short pastry dough recipe you prefer. Mine is generous to allow for a bit of freedom in deciding your pan size, plus I like having a little extra dough in case of a flub, or just to have on hand for miniature crostate or to roll out as cookies.
Family food traditions only survive with tenacity and devotion. My wish for you is to hold fast to your own, this year and every year. Buona Pasqua!