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Neapolitan wheat & ricotta tart

It is believed that this dessert dates back to pagan times when ancient Neapolitans would offer all the fruits of their land to the Mermaid Partenope in spring - eggs for fertility, wheat from the land, ricotta from the shepherds, the aroma of orange flowers, vanilla to symbolise faraway countries and sugar in honour of the sweet mermaid. It is said the mermaid would take all these ingredients, immerse herself in the sea of the Bay of Naples and give back to the Neapolitans a dessert, which symbolised fertility and rebirth in Greek mythology. The recipe as we know it today was realised by Neapolitan convents, and nuns would make it for rich nobles of the area.

It is traditionally made at Easter and I always remember my mum and aunts making it. It is still made at home today, as well as bought in pastry shops throughout the Campania region. In Naples, Easter wouldn’t be Easter without a pastiera di grano, however, it is delicious to eat at any time. Wheat sounds a strange ingredient, but it really is delicious, especially with the delicate flavour of orange-flower water. Precooked wheat is obtainable from Italian delis and orange-flower water can nowadays be found in supermarkets.

Make it yourself

1 x 10-inch round shallow cake tin

 

Ingredients

For the sweet shortcrust pastry:

  • 400g Italian plain flour
  • 3 x eggs
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 150g butter, at room temperature, diced
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon

For the filling:

  • 1 x 400g tin of pre-cooked wheat
  • 125ml milk
  • 1 x tablespoon lemon zest
  • ½ x teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 250g ricotta
  • 5 x egg yolks
  • 200g icing sugar
  • 2 x egg whites
  • 120g mixed candied peel
  • 11.5 x tablespoons orange-flower water
  • ½ x lemon zest
  • ½ x orange zest
  • Sieved icing sugar, to sprinkle over the top.

Method

  1. Make the pastry. Sift the flour onto a work surface and make a well in the centre. Add the eggs, sugar, butter and half the lemon zest (reserve the rest for the filling) and lightly blend everything together with your fingertips until you have a smooth dough. Wrap in clingfilm, chill for 1 hour, then roll out thinly and use to line a 25 cm loose-bottomed tart tin. Place in the fridge until ready to use. Do not discard the pastry trimmings - shape them into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge.
  2. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees centigrade.
  3. Place the wheat, milk, 1 tablespoon lemon zest and vanilla essence in a small saucepan. Mix well together and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer until the wheat has absorbed all the liquid. Then leave to cool.
  4. Mash the ricotta with a fork and beat in the egg yolk until you get a light and fluffy consistency. Beat in the icing sugar until well incorporated followed by the candied peel, orange-flower water, lemon zest and orange zest. Stir in the cooled wheat mixture.
  5. Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Then fold into the mixture and mix gently together until all the ingredients are well incorporated. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and pour in the mixture.
  6. With the remaining pastry, roll out quite thinly and cut out 1 inch strips roughly the size of the cake tin. Arrange the strips criss-cross over the top roughly 1 inch, trimming any excess pastry and pressing the edges against the lined pastry.
  7. Bake in the oven for 50 minutes. Leave to cool, then sprinkle with sieved icing sugar, slice and serve.

Visit the Neapolitan Riviera at Easter and try authentic pastiera di grano for yourself