If you celebrate holidays with Italian family members, you probably associate Easter time with a lot of delicious foods, including a golden, creamy, almost-cheesecake-like pie called pasteria or pasteria napolitana or “wheat pie” (which is what my family always referred to it as). It’s made with a sweet pastry dough, and the filling includes the yummy flavors of ricotta and orange along with the texture of cooked wheat.
The legend that explains the pasteria’s origin says peasants in Naples were so hungry that when the grain ship arrived, they couldn’t wait to grind the grain and make bread. Instead, they boiled it and ate it. Every year, we similarly remember how desperately the world needed Christ as we celebrate Easter. Other traditional ingredients of the wheat pie represent the season in different ways—ricotta is a gift from the shepherds that welcomed Jesus at his birth, and orange flower water is the sweet scent of springtime and new life.
Orange flower water can be found in Indian grocery stores or sold in little bottles at an Italian specialty shop. It’s perfume-y like rosewater but tastes of orange. This ingredient can be hard to get if you don’t live close by these types of foreign grocery shops, so what I did was soak orange zest in Madiera wine and use the infusion to flavor the pie. If you just used orange zest in place of the liquid, the flavor would be in little pieces throughout the pie rather than evenly throughout the filling.
You can actually use any sweet white wine, light rum, or even Grand Marnier for a really orange-y tasting pie. I let my orange zest infusion soak for an hour.
To make Italian sweet pastry crust, called pasta frollo, I whisked together flour, powdered sugar, and a little salt. Whisking is the cheating version of “sifting” flour with other dry ingredients—it incorporates air for lighter, fluffier baked goods.
I added cold butter
And mixed them in by pinching them into pieces with my fingertips until the flour-butter mixture looked like crumbly sand:
The more thoroughly you crumble the butter in, the less flaky the pie crust will be, because the little pieces of butter are what create the “flakes” in pie crust. This is why it’s important not to over-mix or over-knead at any time when making pie crust.
I beat an egg with a little of the liquid from the orange zest liqueur, and poured it into the mixing bowl.
Then I used a sharp knife to mix it in and form a dough (using a knife is better than using something flat like a spoon, which might crush all those little pieces of butter and then the pie crust would be gooey instead of flaky).
I pushed all the crumbly dough pieces together just enough to make them into a ball, and wrapped it in plastic wrap. While it was chilling in the fridge, I made the filling.
I mixed cinnamon into sugar
And then mixed in eggs, vanilla, and the rest of the orange liqueur mixture (including the zest pieces) until it was kind of foamy on the top.
I stirred in the ricotta and cooked grain
Before grano cotto was sold in cans or jars, like it is today in Italian specialty stores, cooks who wanted to make this pie would have to start soaking wheat kernels days ahead of time (some recipes even say that the wheat should be soaked for TWO WEEKS). Yay for pre-cooked wheat! And yay for the internet too, because people like me who live far away from Italian grocery stores can buy grano cotto online and have it arrive on our doorsteps before our wheat kernels would have even been done soaking.
As soon as the mixture is smooth, stop stirring it because ricotta is sort of delicate and it can get watery if you break down its texture too much.
After the pasta frollo has been in the refrigerator for an hour, you can roll it out
Then put it into a buttered pie dish
Pour the filling in and make the criss-cross thing on top by rolling the scraps of leftover dough into flat strips and placing them over the filling.
I even made a cute little decorative border, although it didn’t hold up very well in the oven :(
I cooked this pie until it was just a golden color, although a lot of wheat pies are cooked until they are brown on top. You can take it out of the oven when it is as light as this one, or wait longer if you want a more solid pie that’s easier to cut and serve.
I love to sprinkle some powdered sugar on top, too. The pie goes perfectly with a cup of coffee, and is best enjoyed at Easter time shared with family and friends!
Pasteria (Italian Easter Wheat Pie)
1 Tablespoon grated orange zest
2 Tablespoons Madiera wine
1 ¼ cups flour
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 stick cold butter
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
4 eggs (at room temperature)
1 Tablespoon vanilla
1 ½ cups whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 ½ cups cooked wheat
Make the orange-liqueur mixture by stirring together the Madiera wine and grated orange zest and letting it rest for at least an hour. You can use white wine or any sweet, light alcohol if you don’t have Madiera wine. You could also use Grand Marnier for a stronger orange flavor.
Start making the pasta frollo by whisking together the flour, powdered sugar, and a pinch of salt.
Cut the stick of butter into little pieces and crumble it into the flour mixture with your fingers. You can also use a food processor for this step, but be careful not to over-blend the dough.
Beat together an egg and a Tablespoon of the liquid from the orange-liqueur mixture, and stir into the flour mixture using a knife.
Knead until the dough comes together, then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350.
To make the pie filling, whisk together the sugar, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt in a mixing bowl.
Whisk in the eggs, vanilla, and the rest of the orange liqueur and zest. Use a spoon to gently stir in the ricotta and cooked wheat, getting all the lumps out but not overmixing it.
Roll out 2/3 of the refrigerated dough on a floured surface, and put it in a pie pan that has been greased with butter or oil.
Pour the pie filling mixture in, and then top with lattice strips made from the leftover pasta frollo.
Put the pie in the oven and let it cook for 30 to 40 minutes. Serve with powdered sugar over the top.