This is the most unique, unusual and unlikely Easter cake I’ve ever made. But it is magical and delicious.
Pastiera di Grano has been baked in the Italian region around Naples for centuries. It is now a firm favourite on many Easter tables throughout Italy. Each ingredient is believed to have pagan symbolic meaning of spring and rebirth.
The filing of this incredible torte is made with wheat berries, which gives it a texture reminiscent of the Dutch and Belgian “Rijstevlaai” or rice flan. Add dreamy creamy ricotta, zesty candied citrus and the floral notes of orange blossom and you have the most amazing variation on a cheesecake you have ever tasted.
This is a labour of love.
It’s easy enough to make, but each step is left to rest for at least a few hours or preferably overnight before the next step. Pastiera is at its best when allowed to mature for a day or so. And if you cook the wheat yourself, you need to start this even longer ahead. But it’s worth it.
Thankfully you can buy pre-cooked wheat berries in jars online or in Italian deli’s. I have no idea what else it can be used for, though I successfully used leftovers from my jar to make a porridgy honey-sweetened breakfast bowl with some fresh fruit and nuts sprinkled on top.
Anyways. Back to the cake. Housewives in Naples traditionally start this cake on Maundy Thursday, when they cook the wheat in milk with lemon zest to a rice pudding consistency.
On Good Friday they make the pastry and finish the filling. It is said that you can not bake a flat cake with freshly whisked eggs. The filling would rise, but then fall to a disappointing low. So to ensure a perfectly flat top, the eggs filling should be allowed to rest overnight.
On Saturday, the cake is finally assembled and baked. Then you need to muster all your self-discipline to allow the pastiera to rest until finally, on Easter Sunday, it can be joyfully cut and enjoyed.
The torte will keep well in the fridge for up to 5 days. But I doubt you will have leftovers.
Pastiera de Grano (serves 8-10)
My recipe is adapted from Food52. You can make the cake in one day if you are short on time. But do allow it to rest 24 hrs before serving.
If you can’t find cooked wheat berries, use cooked pearl barley or a good risotto rice.
Please don’t use the little tubs of “mixed peel” sold in the UK. This deserves the best Italian candied citrus you can find. Use lemon, orange, lime or a mixture.
For the pastry:
125 gr unsalted butter, straight from the fridge, diced
250 gr flour, sifted (I used unrefined brown flour), plus a little for dusting the work surface
1 whole egg, plus 1 egg yolk (I used duck eggs)
zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
80 gr icing sugar, plus extra to serve
For the Filling:
300 gr pre-cooked wheat berries (grano cotto, skinless)
grated zest of a lemon
30 gr butter, plus a little for greasing
200 ml whole milk
350 gr ricotta
330 gr unrefined caster sugar
2 whole eggs, plus 2 egg yolks, plus 1 egg for egg wash
120 gr mixed Italian candied citrus, finely chopped
1 tbsp orange blossom water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla paste or vanilla essence
Optional to serve: Greek yoghurt, creme fraiche or cream
For the pastry:
Rub the butter together with the dry ingredients in a large bowl until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg, egg yolk and lemon zest. Lightly knead by hand until the mixture comes together. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge, preferably overnight or at least an hour or so.
For the filling:
Stir the wheat, milk, butter and lemon zest together in a small pan. Heat over medium heat and simmer for 15 mins or so, stirring often until it has the texture of rice pudding. Allow to cool and chill in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.
Beat together the egg, egg yolk, ricotta, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and orange blossom water in a large bowl until smooth. Chill in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.
When ready to bake: Heat the oven to 200 C.
Take the pastry out if the fridge and allow it to become a little malleable, as it will have gone quite hard. Grease a large springform cake tin with butter (Mine was 26 cm diameter).
Lightly flour the work surface and roll 2/3 of the pastry out to the thickness of a £1 coin (about 3 mm), large enough to line base and sides of your tin. Use the rolling pin to gently transfer the pastry to your cake tin. Tuck the pastry into the edges of the cake tin and up along the sides.
I admit my pastry was very soft and it was a bit of a patchwork job. But it worked out just fine once baked, so don’t worry. Just ensure there are no holes or gaps.
Fold the wheat mixture through the ricotta mixture. Add the candied citrus and pour the filling into the pastry case.
Cut off any excess pastry to just above the level of the filling. Knead the pastry off-cuts back in with the rest of the pastry. Roll this remaining pastry out and cut strips of about 2 cm wide with a knife (or a pastry wheel for pretty edges).
Arrange the pastry strips on top of the filing in a neat lattice pattern. Gently press the ends of each strip into the edges of the torte. Carefully brush a little egg wash over the pastry. My filling was quite runny, so some of the lattice sunk into the filling a bit. It didn’t make any difference to the end result though.
Bake for 1 hr or until set and a skewer inserted comes out clean. Allow to cool inside the cake tin and allow to rest for a few hours, preferably overnight.
When ready to serve: Release the torte from the tin. Dust liberally with icing sugar, then carefully transfer to a serving platter. Serve with some yoghurt, creme fraiche or cream if you must. For me, it needs nothing.