Normally when I go home, all I want to do is schlub around in my pajamas, gorge myself on delicious food, and hang out with my spectacularly cool parents. Today I didn’t get to be a pajama slob, which means that I only got through two of my three weekend goals. Normally, I may be upset about this. This weekend, though, not only did I get to gorge myself and hang out with my parents, I also got to spend time with some of my favorite extended family members. And so I’ve decided that two out of three isn’t too bad, especially considering my reward for all of this non-pajama socializing was my mom’s incredible Easter dessert: pastiera.
Pastiera is a traditional Italian wheat berry pie made with ricotta that is only eaten around Easter time. It’s a shame, really, because pastiera is one of my favorite desserts. It’s not really something you would expect a child to love as much as I always did: it’s not terribly sweet, it doesn’t have fruit or a traditional pie crust, and it’s made with wheat berries, which, though they actually add an incredible texture and flavor to the pie, sound… well, wheaty. And what kind of kid wants healthy stuff like wheat in their desserts? I’ll tell you: I did.
I ate slices and slices of pastiera, and I wanted it more often than just for Easter. It probably helps that I didn’t know it was a wheat berry pie until later in life, long after I had learned to appreciate it for the delicious springtime treat that it is. And if it helps you open your mind to this recipe, I wouldn’t mind if you pretended that you didn’t know this small detail, either. Just so long as you recognize pastiera for being the beautiful, strong, delicious, and perfect dessert that it is. Because I promise you: making this dessert may involve leaving your comfort zone, but you will not regret it.
A note about wheat berries: the recipe below calls for canned, cooked wheat berries, which you can usually find in Italian markets and some health food stores. They may even be labeled “per pastiera.” If you can’t find this, you can definitely cook your own wheat berries, though it will require more planning ahead. Live Love Food seems to have a good guide to cooking your own berries, which you can find here.
A note about orange flower water: this can also generally be found in Italian groceries and some health food stores, though Middle Eastern groceries may carry it, as well. If you cannot find it, substitute orange zest.
My mother’s recipe. Please note that the pasta frolla recipe makes enough for two pies with lattices, while the filling recipe makes enough for three pies.
Pasta Frolla (the crust)
Makes enough for two pies.
1 lb flour
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla, limoncello, or other liqueur
If using an electric mixer, add the flour to the mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and add while the mixer is turned on. If mixing by hand, cut the butter into the flour with two knives. In both cases, mix until small, pea-sized beads form, then add the eggs and vanilla or liqueur. Mix the dough well to combine, then knead it into a ball. Flatten the ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour. Note that the dough is easier to work with when chilled, as the butter in the dough will soften as it comes to room temperature.
Pastiera Filling & Assembly
Filling recipe makes enough for three pies.
2 cans soaked and cooked wheat berries (see note above)
1 cup milk
3/4 cups sugar
2 lbs ricotta
7 eggs, separated into whites and yolks.
1 tsp lemon extract
Zest from 1 whole lemon
1 tbsp orange flower water (see note above)
1/2 tsp vanilla
Add the canned wheat to a pot with the milk and cook until most of the milk is absorbed and the wheat is soft. Set aside to cool. Add vanilla, lemon zest, orange flower water, and lemon extract.
Meanwhile, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix ricotta and sugar. Once combined, add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each yolk is added. Add the wheat mixture to the bowl and combine thoroughly. Fold in the beaten egg whites.
Separate the dough into three portions. Roll out two for the pie bottoms. Place each in a 9″ pie pan and add 1/3 of the filling to each. Roll out the remaining dough and cut into 1/2″ wide strips. Arrange the strips over the top of the pies in a lattice and brush with egg, if desired.
Bake pies at 350o for 1-1/2 hours until the pie filling is set or until knife inserted into the center comes out clean.