In the Neapolitan tradition, the Easter dessert par excellence is certainly the Neapolitan pastiera, which is also a symbol of spring. With its fresh and sugary taste, flavored with orange blossoms, this tart brings to mind the beautiful spring days when flowers bloom and the air is filled with sweet and light scents. In ancient times, the pastiera was prepared during Epiphany and Easter, when its main ingredients (ricotta and wheat) were more available.
The legend of the Neapolitan Pastiera and its historical origins
The pastiera was born in the 16th century. However, since it is not known where exactly the idea and recipe of this magnificent Neapolitan dessert came from, there are many legends linked to its tradition.
A tribute to the singing of the Siren Parthenope
The first legend has a divine origin. It is said that there was a Siren, named Parthenope, who lived in the Gulf of Naples and who used to emerge every spring to greet the inhabitants and sing for them. One of these performances was so appreciated by the Neapolitans that they commissioned seven of the most beautiful girls of the people to offer the siren the best gifts of their land: flour, ricotta, wheat, eggs, orange blossom water, spices and sugar. So the mermaid presented those offerings to the gods who, mixing the ingredients, created the first Neapolitan Pastiera.
A gift from the sea
According to another legend, however, the pastiera would have been born thanks to the sea itself. It is said in fact that some fishermen's wives left at night baskets filled with ricotta, wheat and orange blossoms as offerings to the sea, worried about the destinies of their husbands. In the morning of the following day, the women returned to the beach and here they not only met their husbands, but also found in the baskets some pastiere that the waves of the sea had made by mixing the offerings left by the women.
King Ferdinand and the smile of Queen Maria Theresa
Then there is the story of king Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies and his second wife, Maria Theresa of Habsburg-Teschen, nicknamed “the Queen who never smiles”. After having tasted the pastiera, king Ferdinand insisted that his wife also tried a slice. After tasting it, the queen unexpectedly smiled, and from here originated the Neapolitan phrase “magnatell’na risata” (literally: eat a laugh!) which encourages us to feel cheerful.
The pastiera beyond Naples
Tradition has it that in Massaquano, on the day of the Feast of the Madonna (the Tuesday of Pentecost), there is a pastiera in every house. This dessert in fact, being a symbol of Easter and Spring, was also used to celebrate the last day when it was possible to eat it: with the arrival of the heat, in fact, you could preserve the pastiera no more because at that time there were no refrigerators.
In Giambattista Basile's fairy tale "Cinderella the Cat," the sixth story of the Pentameron describes the pastiera among the delights of the final banquet.
The pastiera in the Neapolitan tradition
The pastiera is certainly one of the best known agri-food products of the Campanian tradition. This Neapolitan dessert is made with a base of a particular sweet pastry dough enriched with lard and filled with a cream of wheat and ricotta, flavored with essence of orange blossom and candied fruit. However, each family hands down its own traditional recipe and has refined its version of the classic pastiera through several personal tricks that make it even tastier and more varied. There are many exquisite variations that enrich the tradition with that extra touch derived from the culinary experience of the Neapolitans.
Although, as we said, it is a dessert that is traditionally cooked at Easter, there are many free or paid events organized in Naples throughout the spring period, where you can get to taste the best recipes of this exceptional Campanian dessert. Moreover, if you are in the Piazza Mercato area, you will find the pastiera on many bar counters, besides obviously the notorious Scaturchio bakery. Festivals, exhibitions and events, as well as Neapolitan bars and bakeries, are a unique opportunity to taste all the existing variants of this delicious and particular tart of the Neapolitan tradition.
The classic Neapolitan pastiera
The original recipe of the Neapolitan tradition requires that the sweet pastry dough is prepared with lard. This is the secret ingredient that makes the pastry elastic and crumbly at the right point, and that differentiates it from the base of a simple tart. This trick will guarantee a more decisive and characteristic taste to the pastiera.
The base is then stuffed with a cream of whole wheat cooked in milk, ricotta, and eggs. The cream is enriched and flavored with chopped candied fruit, lemon and orange zest and an ampoule of orange blossom essence, as well as a pinch of cinnamon. In some variants of the classic pastiera, the wheat is half or completely passed, in order to make the cream more homogeneous and smooth.
The chocolate pastiera
If you do not like candied fruit or the classic oriental flavor of cinnamon, the chocolate pastiera is the right variant for you! It is prepared following the same steps used to make the classic recipe, except for the dark chocolate added to the ricotta and wheat filling. Other families prefer to use cocoa, while others simply replace the candied fruit with pieces of dark chocolate. Finally, there is another variant with chocolate and hazelnut: the base is a cocoa and hazelnut pastry, while in the filling the pieces of candied fruit give way to dark chocolate.
The gluten-free rice pastiera
The rice pastiera is a gluten-free version of the Neapolitan one, specifically designed to be suitable for celiacs. The sweet pastry dough is made with a rice and corn flour, while the cream includes rice cooked in milk (instead of the wheat cooked in milk required by the traditional recipe). This is a delicious version suitable for everyone to prepare during the Easter holidays.
The almonds and custard pastiera
Another version suitable for those who do not like the strong taste of lard is represented by the pastiera with almonds and custard. It has a different taste given by the addition of flour and almond aroma to the dough. To compensate for the lack of lard while still achieving the soft and crumbly consistency that is typical of the pastiera, this version uses condensed milk. This ingredient is also added to the ricotta and wheat cream to give the custard a unique taste and make it sweeter and creamier.
The salty pastiera
Finally, the last variation of the classic Neapolitan pastiera transforms this dessert into an exquisite savory tart to serve as an appetizer. The tradition is preserved through the use of wheat and ricotta, but including them in a very good and original salty variant. The savory pastry is made with flour, butter, parmesan and an egg, but it is also possible to use a faster shortcrust pastry. The filling is made of wheat, parmesan and butter cooked in milk, combined with a mixture of ricotta, eggs and pecorino cheese which create a perfect base to accommodate diced salami and provolone. Definitely different from candied fruit and orange blossoms!