"It took me 10 years to finally understand pastiera," Letitia Clark tells me over Zoom.
In 2012 the chef and cookbook author had just started working in a restaurant that focused on classic Italian dishes. She was charged with making pastiera Napoletana, but the recipe gave her pause. What was this thing? Whole, cooked grains suspended in a ricotta filling, all poured into a pastry shell? It didn't sound right. It did sound like a project, and though she gave it her best try, it didn't come out well.
As Clark mentions in her new book La Vita e Dolce, traditional recipes for this Easter dessert take a week to prepare. "The elaborate ritual of preparation made the final eating on Easter Sunday that much more special," she writes. And perhaps the ritual-and the dedication of time required-was part of the point: "Pastiera was likely born in a convent by nuns, who would have dedicated their lives to learning cooking, or sewing, these sort of domestic tasks, in addition to daily prayer."
Like many dishes that go back centuries, the history of pastiera Napoletana is a little bit murky. "No one can really decide on when the recipe was born," Clark explains, though she suspects the dish originated in the late 18th or early 19th century, as sugar became more readily available and an influx of Swiss immigrants-who already had a tradition of sweet dishes-arrived in Naples. Clark says that it's very likely that pastiera Napoletana was first made around this time, along with many of the "more elaborate, big-project types of dolci served at special occasions."
Pastiera Napoletana is a carb-lover's dream. The recipe features cooked farro or wheat berries, mixed with a sweet, orange-scented ricotta filling, baked in a shell of a sweet shortcrust pastry called pasta frolla, with more pastry latticed over the top. "You see a lot of this sort of 'carbs on carbs' thing in Italian cooking," says Clark. "Grains are, historically, cheap and filling, so it would be quite common to include them."
She mentions timballo, a dish with many variations, that's essentially a savory version of pastiera Napoletana-a pastry (or sometimes pasta) base, and a filling of meat and/or vegetables mixed with pasta, rice, or potatoes. "Rather than using lots of nuts, which could be quite expensive, or cheese or cream, grains would be used to add body and substance to a dish without adding much cost." The inclusion of grains in a dish like this carries some deeper meaning, too: "It sort of symbolizes the bounty of the earth, growth, and rebirth, hence its association with spring and Easter," Clark explains.
The grains are the most time-consuming part of the dish, but fortunately, they don't require much hands-on attention. In Clark's recipe, you soak the farro for three days, changing the water once a day, before cooking it with milk, lemon zest, and a cinnamon stick. "The soaking helps tenderize the farro-simply boiling it first will leave it too chewy in the final dish," she explains. She mentions that many markets in Italy sell canned and jarred precooked grains called grano cotto around Easter, specifically so people can save a little time when they make pastiera Napoletana at home. But there's something to be said for soaking your own grains. "If you're a geek like me, you can also candy your own citrus peel for even more bragging rights," she says. "It just makes it that much more special, really."
Clark's pastry shell isn't strictly traditional-and that's on purpose. "Traditional pasta frolla tends to be quite crumbly, which I like-never met a pastry I didn't like, honestly-but if the filling is soft, I like a crust with more snap to it." So Clark's pasta frolla recipe contains extra butter, giving the final crust a satisfying bite and crisp texture.
I love a project, so I tried my hand at Clark's recipe to see what 200-ish years of fuss was all about. Stirring tons of orange zest, candied citron or orange peel, orange blossom water, and the lemon and cinnamon-spiked farro into 12 ounces of ricotta gives the filling a citrusy fragrance that grabs your attention-Clark says she punched it up to suit her "love of all things citrus." After blind baking the pastry shell in a deep springform pan, I pour in the filling, and top with a simple lattice made from the extra pastry dough.
Once it's in the oven, the pastiera fills my apartment with a perfume of orange and butter and cream. The bake time is long, about 90 minutes-an hour and a half of pacing the kitchen, peeking through the oven window at the slowly browning pastry.
It's tempting to dig in as soon as the timer goes off and the biscuit brown color I've been waiting for signals that it's finally done, but Clark's recipe and a modicum of self-restraint sends me to another room to catch up on my stories. The second-most time-consuming part of Clark's recipe? A 12-hour resting period (in the fridge) that allows the filling to set. If you're planning on making this recipe as an Easter dessert and can't find grano cotto, start the soaking process on Wednesday morning and bake on Saturday so it's ready in time for Sunday.
It's a long haul. But as I dig in, I realize I've never eaten anything like pastiera Napoletana. The sweet fragrance of orange permeates every bite-there's even orange zest in the crust. The farro offers textural contrast in a filling that would otherwise just be soft. There's no bursting bite of fresh, ripe fruit to be had in this traditional spring dessert; we'll have to wait for sunnier days for that. But it feels special all the same, maybe because there's just so much going on. The crisp crust snaps when I bite it. The cheesecake-like filling surprises with nubs of just barely chewy farro. It's a complex sensory experience. And for me, it's an experience worth having.
Clark admits that pastiera Napoletana is quite a project. "Is it worth it?" she asks. "That's really the million dollar question here, isn't it?" This recipe will not be making it into my weekly, or even monthly rotation of desserts, but for me, the answer was a resounding yes.