Neapolitan Pastiera: An Ancient Mermaid Tale
By Ippolita Douglas Scotti:
Pastiera is an iconic cake from Naples that takes a very long time to prepare. The recipe spread throughout the world around 1600, but the myth tells that this delicious cake was brought by the mermaid Parthenope to thank the Neapolitans for hosting her in the splendid Gulf of Naples. She sent seven young girls who offered the Gods seven gifts from the Earth—which happen to be the ingredients of pastiera:
Ricotta: a symbol of abundance
Flour: a symbol of wealth
Eggs: a symbol of fertility
Wheat in milk: a symbol of the fusion of the animal and vegetable kingdoms
Sugar: to celebrate the sweet song of the mermaid
Spices: a tribute to all peoples
Orange flowers: the perfume of the Campania earth
The Gods were impressed by the gesture and mixed all the ingredients together to create the pastiera.
Parthenope was then commissioned to return to where she had received the gifts, bringing the delicious cake and its recipe to the Neapolitans.
The reality is that pastiera was created by the industrious nuns of San Gregorio Armeno with all the symbols of the Resurrection . . . but I prefer the mermaid story!
Bottom line—making pastiera takes a bit of time, but why not make it a meditative ritual? I guarantee that as soon as you taste it, the unforgettable flavor will make you feel that it was well worth your time.
For the pastry:
8 Tbsp (125 g) cold butter
2 cups (250 g) all purpose flour
1 whole egg, plus one yolk
3/4 cup (100 g) powdered sugar
1 lemon, zested
For the filling:
2 cups (250 g) cooked wheat berries or apprx. 3/4 cups (100 g) uncooked wheat berries
1 cup milk
3 Tbsp (30 g) butter
1 1/2 cups (350 g) fresh Ricotta
1 1/4 cups (320 g) sugar
2 whole eggs, plus two yolks
1 lemon, zested
1 vanilla bean pod, scraped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon orange blossom water, called “neroli” in Italian
8 Tbsp (100 g) candied citron, finely chopped
1 handful powdered sugar for dusting
Make the pastry:
Mix flour and sugar together. Chop the cold butter into small pieces and add to the dry ingredients in a food processor, pulsing until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg and lemon zest until mixed. Take out of the processor and knead just until the mixture comes together. Cover in plastic wrap and rest overnight.
Make the filling:
If you're using uncooked wheat berries, you need to cook them by soaking them in water for 3 days (change the water twice a day), then drain and cook in a large pot of at least 4 cups of fresh water. Simmer for 1 ½ hours without stirring, until soft. Drain and reserve until needed (this will keep well in an air-tight container in the fridge for 1 week). If using pearl barley as a substitute, leave the uncooked barley to soak in a large bowl of fresh water overnight, then the next day cook it in plenty of water for 30 minutes or until soft. Drain then follow the rest of the recipe.
Place the cooked wheat berries in a saucepan over medium heat with the butter, milk, and lemon zest.
Bring to a boil gently, stirring occasionally until it becomes very thick and creamy, like oatmeal, about 15 minutes.
Let cool until needed.
In a bowl, beat the eggs and extra yolks with the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and orange blossom water until creamy. Leave this mixture to rest overnight in the fridge.
Fold the cooled wheat berry cream and the rested ricotta mixture together with the finely chopped candied citron.
Roll out about two thirds of the pastry and place in a 10" greased springform pan.
Cut off any overhang and add to the remaining pastry, roll out again and cut long strips about 1/4" wide.
Fill the pastry base with the ricotta mixture and even out the borders of the pastry to the level of the mixture. Lay the long pastry strips gently across the top to form a criss-cross diamond pattern (not square), pressing the strips on the edge of the pastry very gently. If desired, you can brush the lattice gently with some egg wash to make it shiny.
Bake the pastiera for 1 hour at 350º F (200º C) until the pastiera is amber golden on top.
Allow to cool completely inside the springform and serve the pastiera the next day with powdered sugar sifted over the top. Store any leftovers in the fridge.
Contessa Ippolita Douglas Scotti di Vigileno is a true Italian—born in Florence, Italy, from a long line of eccentric Italian aristocrats, she has traveled the world in search of adventure, romance, and magical, mouth-watering recipes. "Ippo" loves Italian history, especially as it relates to food. Author of There's a Beatle in My Soup, Curcuma e Zenzero (Ginger & Tumeric), 101 Perche Sulla Storia di Firenze (101 questions on Florence History), The Grimore, The Magic of the Moon, and Magic Herbs (all published by Newton Compton Publishers).