Spring is my favorite time of year in Italy, not just for the fresh flowers and warm breezes, but also because it is in my opinion, the best season for desserts. Starting with traditional cookies for Lent that range from almond shortbreads, cantucci to the Tuscan “Quaresimali” which are basically oversized but thin alphabet shaped chocolate cookies.
Then as Easter approaches, the Colomba appears, a shorter, slightly denser panettone with almonds and large sugar sprinkles baked into the top and shaped like a dove. One of my absolute favorites, and very rare in New York is the pastiera napoletana, a ubiquitous dessert on the Easter tables throughout the Campania Region.
Made mostly of eggs, precooked grain and ricotta, it’s a thick hearty cake-pie filled with candied bits with a citrusy aroma. It’s traditionally eaten on the Saturday before Easter so it must be prepared on Thursday pre-Easter to make sure all of the flavors settle and show by the day of consumption.
Legend in Naples has it that the pastiera napoletana was created when wives of fishermen left the ingredients on the beach as an offering to the sea to bring their husbands home safely. The sea mixed the ingredients overnight (and somehow baked it??) and in the morning they found the first pastiera on the beach. And the peasants rejoiced!
We do know that a version of this cake was make in the 16th century by nuns at the San Gregorio Armeno Monastery in Naples where it became so popular it was prepared for noble families.
So I’m making it for Easter 2021 right here in the East Village. After some research, I’ve deemed this the best recipe. Today I went scouting for the specialty ingredients: orange blossom essence, candied citron and precooked grain. I first went to Eataly in Flatiron thinking it would be sure bet – they had none of these ingredients, the staff had never heard of them. Then I went to Buon Italia in Chelsea Market and found everything I needed in some form. Precooked grain is not a readily available item on this side of the Atlantic, so I had to Google what kind of grain, in Italian the description was “normal” or “original” grain. I got down to pinpointing the Latin name triticum dicoccum and purchased my hulled farro. For this recipe, the farro has to soak 3-5 days beforehand and simmer for 1 hour before creating the cake filling. That’s a lot to ask for “normal” grain!
There’s a lot more to this story and if you want to see the outcome, keep an eye on my IG @immerse_italy Also, the Programma Pasta page has been added my site, send me your stories, photos and recipes!