In terms of Italian celebrations, there are the Big Two: Christmas and Easter. I don't hesitate to to say that Easter's importance is on a much larger scale, even if it doesn't necessarily feel that way. It lacks the commercial frenzy of Christmas and includes the solemnity of Holy Week, so the buildup is gentle. But the food traditions that accompany the celebration of Pasqua run deep, rooted in history that dates back to pagan times and based on the profoundly regional nature of Italian cooking. After the observance of Palm Sunday, preparations for an important, symbolic holiday feast swing into a steadier hum.
Across Italy, the foods served at Easter are symbols of rebirth and spiritual renewal. Their origins lie in the rituals of spring once celebrated by ancient civilizations and eventually adapted by early Christians to represent the resurrection of Christ. The most perfect representation is found in the consumption of eggs at Easter, from the elaborately decorated chocolate eggs found in every pasticceria to the eggs that are tucked into baked pasta dishes, nestled into breads or used to enrich soups and sauces for roasted meats and vegetables.
Lamb is the symbol of Christ himself, and the placement of lamb on the Easter table is just as important as eggs, whether it be in the form sweet butter molded into a sleeping lamb, lamb-shaped candies and cookies, or a grand roast of spring angello, bathed in herbs. The dove is another image you'll see at this time of year; it represents the presence of the Holy Spirit through the suffering of Christ’s crucifixion and as a symbol of the everlasting hope of the resurrection. In the north of Italy, the Colomba di Pasqua is a dove-shaped, sweet bread similar to panettone that originated in Lombardia and makes its way into every local household during the Easter holiday.
As with most traditional Italian holiday foods, the menu varies not just from region to region or town to town, but from house to house. Beyond the requisite eggs and lamb, every family has a lineup of rich and often labor-intensive dishes that celebrate the end of Lenten austerity, including sweet and savory cakes made with fresh cheese, a multitude of baked and stuffed pastas, and the tender spring vegetables that are just coming into season, including artichokes, fava beans, chard and asparagus.
In my family it wouldn’t be Easter without my mother’s Easter Bread, or Pane di Pasqua, sweet and buttery with a sugary icing, decorated with colored Easter eggs. I gave you my recipe with some step-by-step pictures last year. This year I’m leaving the bread to Mom, and my contribution to the dessert table will be my traditional Neapolitan Pastiera, the iconic sweet ricotta cake encased in pastry, enriched with cooked wheat grains and perfumed with candied fruit and orange flower water.
I’m going to warn you right now, if your idea of sweet Easter perfection is a box of peeps and a big ole’ chocolate bunny, you might not be ready to embrace the idea of cooked wheat in your dessert. But if you relax and give this indulgent treat a try, pastiera will reveal itself as a marvel of intricately woven flavors and textures. In a word, it is divine.
The two major players are ricotta and cooked wheat berries, and while creamy, fresh ricotta is widely available these days, the granocotto might be a tougher find. In Rome and parts southward, granocotto is found in cans and jars in every supermarket year-round; its even labled “per pastiera,” but in the U.S. a good Italian deli or market in Italian neighborhoods is your best bet. The other option is to soak your own wheat berries for days in advance and then cook them for an eternity, until they burst and turn gooey. It is an epic task, so tracking down a can or jar of granocotto is well worth the effort.
Orange flower water is another super-traditional ingredient that is worth the hunt and readily available online if you can’t find it in a specialty market; freshly grated orange zest makes a fine substitute. As for the embellishments, I prefer to use a mix of candied orange and candied citron, but either one is acceptable. Whatever you choose, try to make your Pastiera one or even two days in advance to allow the flavors of the candied fruit and orange flower water to intensify and perfume the entire cake.
One more note: I use a 9 x 2 inch layer cake pan for this recipe, because this is a dessert that needs depth in order to fully enjoy the play between the crust and creamy filling. A pie pan just doesn’t cut it for me, but if you have an exceptionally deep one, give it a try. You can also use a springform pan, but don’t work the dough all the way up the sides, just far enough to encase the filling when the top lattice is applied.
If you are looking for more ideas for your Easter dinner, consider trying this Roman Easter Soup I made for Serious Eats a few years ago; it is a light but flavorful first course. Or, you might want to make an indulgent lasagna to start things off. For dessert, my favorite Ricotta Cheesecake is quick and easy, and the lemon bundt cake I made just a few weeks ago fits nicely on the Easter table too.
Buona Pasqua to everyone, and feel free to hit me up with questions in the comment section, and tell me about your Easter traditions!
For the Pasta Frolla: (adapted from Dolce Italiano: Desserts From The Babbo Kitchen)
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
Grated zest of 1 lemon or 1 small orange
¾ cup (1½ sticks, 6 oz.) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small even cubes
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ cup milk
a few drops of ice water, if necessary
Place the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and citrus zest in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to combine the dry ingredients.
Add all of the cold, cubed butter to the bowl, and process until the mixture is sandy and there are no visible lumps of butter.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, vanilla extract and milk. Add the wet ingredients to the food processor and pulse three or four times or until the dry ingredients come together in a mass. If necessary, add some ice water, a few drops at a time, just until the dough comes together.
Remove the dough from the food processor and work it a bit with your hand to even out any dry or wet spots. Form the dough into two balls, flatten the balls into discs, wrap each in plastic and chill until firm, 1 to 2 hours, before rolling it out. You can make the dough a day in advance.
For the Pastiera Filling and to assemble:
1 can (14.8 oz. or 420 gms) of jarred or canned granocotto (if you have a larger jar, weigh out the correct amount)
¾ cup whole milk
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Freshly grated zest of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 lb. (16 oz. or 454 gms) fresh ricotta
3 large eggs
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons orange flower water, or freshly grated zest of 1 orange
¼ cup diced candied orange
¼ cup diced candied citron
1 additional egg for egg wash
Place the cooked grain, milk, sugar, lemon zest and cinnamon in a 2-quart saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon until the mixture is creamy – the grains will retain their shape, but the rest of the mixture should be soft and smooth and there should be no huge clumps of grain; it should resemble creamy oatmeal. Transfer the grain mixture to a shallow bowl and allow it to cool completely.
On a floured board, roll half of the pasta frolla into an 11-inch circle, 1/8th of an inch thick. Transfer the dough to a 9 x 2 inch layer cake pan by rolling the dough around the pin like a carpet and then unrolling it onto the pan. Press the dough into the bottom and sides of the pan, then trim the dough to leave a ½ inch overhang. Gather the scraps and save them for another use. Chill the shell while you put together the rest of the filling.
Preheat the oven to 350° and position a rack in the middle of the oven.
Place the ricotta in a large bowl and whisk in the eggs, vanilla, orange flower water or zest. Mix in the grain mixture and candied fruits, making sure all the ingredients are completely combined.
Set the filling aside while you roll out the remaining pasta frolla into a rectangle at least 11 inches long and 6 inches wide. Using a pastry cutter, make 6 or 7 long strips of dough, ¾ of an inch wide. Pour the filling into the chilled shell and carefully arrange the enough of the strips on top to form a lattice pattern and pinching the edges together with the overhang. Trim all the pastry flush with the top of the pan, then gently roll it down and inward with your finger to form a lip around the perimeter.
Use a fork to slightly beat the egg with a small splash of water to make an egg wash. With a pastry brush, glaze the pastry strips and edges.
Bake the pastiera on the middle rack of the oven for 55 to 60 minutes, rotating it 180° after 25 minutes to ensure even browning. If necessary, you can protect the edges from overbrowning with some strips of aluminum foil.
The pastiera is done when the filling is set but jiggly and the pastry is golden brown. A toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean. Remove the pastiera from the oven and set it to cool on a rack completely. Store the pastiera covered, in a cool place, or chill it overnight in the refrigerator. Bring it to room temperature before serving.