Whole wheat kernels—grano, in Italian—are used for this traditional Neapolitan dessert that became a mainstay in Italian-American restaurants and bakeries. In Italy, whole wheat kernels can be found cooked in cans, if you spot some, it will make this recipe a little simpler. If you can’t find whole wheat kernels, substitute barley and cook it as described below, but for only about 30 minutes.
This pastiera and the ricotta cheesecake are sometimes thought to the same thing, especially in the fifties and sixties, when Americans were being introduced to these specialties. But in reality, they are quite different in taste and texture.
- For the Pasta Frolla Dough:
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 egg yolks
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups (1 pound) unsalted butter or shortening, cut into 1-inch pieces, at room temperature
- For the Filling:
- 1 ½ cups wheat kernels
- 4 cups milk
- 4 cups fresh or whole milk ricotta
- ½ cup candied lemon or orange peeled, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 2 ½ cups sugar
- 5 eggs, separated
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons orange water
- Confectioners’ sugar
Spoon the Ricotta into a large fine-mesh sieve or a colander lined with double thickness of cheesecloth or a basket-type coffee filter. Set the sieve over a bowl and cover the ricotta well with plastic wrap. Drain in the refrigerator at least overnight, or up to 24 hours. Discard the liquid in the bottom of the bowl.
Make the dough: Process 2 cups sugar, 4 egg yolks and the lemon zest in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade until all ingredients are blended. Add the flour and butter and process just until you have a smooth dough. Stop once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour, or up to 1 day.
Make the filling: Soak the wheat kernels in a bowl with enough water to cover by three fingers until softened, 3 to 4 hours. Drain well.
Bring the milk to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Stir in the drained grain and ¼ cup of the sugar. Return to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wheat kernels are tender, but still with some bite, about 45 minutes. Drain and cool to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 12-inch springform pan. Roll out two-thirds of the dough into a 16-inch circle. Fold the circle in quarters, place one of the points in the center of the buttered pan and unfold the dough, pressing it gently against the bottoms and sides and into the corners of the pan. Refrigerate the dough while continuing with the filling.
Process the remaining 2 ¼ cups sugar and 5 egg yolks in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade until pale yellow. Spoon in the ricotta and add the orange water and cinnamon. Mix, using quick on/off pulses, just until blended. Scrape the ricotta into the bowl with the grain, scatter the candied fruit peel over all and fold together with a rubber spatula until blended.
Beat the egg whites in a separate bowl until they form stiff peaks when the whisk is lifted from them. Scoop up one-fourth of the egg whites and fold them into the grain mixture, scraping up the filling from the bottom of the bowl and bringing it up through the mixture. When just a few streaks of egg white remain, add the remaining beaten whites and fold them into the filling in the same way. Scrape the filling into the dough-lined pan. Make a lattice top by alternating strips of the pre-cut dough in alternating directions. Join the strips of dough to dough along the sides of the pan by pressing gently.
Bake until golden brown and the center feels springy, about 1 ½ hours. Remove and cool completely before serving. The cake will keep refrigerated for up to one week. It will be better a day or two after baking. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar before serving.
VARIATION: A version of this pastiera that I made in my first restaurants was a bit creamier and lighter. To make that version, which is quite common in Campania, substitute 1 cup pastry cream for ½ cup of the ricotta, 1 egg and ½ cup sugar. Add the pastry cream to the filling along with the ricotta mixture.