A photo of a field of wheat.

Pastiera Napoletana

This week, thoughts of old school Italian Easter desserts fill my mind. From the recesses of my brain emerges a food version of connect the dots using wheat berries.

Let me elaborate. Last week, it was all about White Sonora wheat berries and that delicious fruit-studded salad. For probably 40 years, on the other side of the country in New Jersey, Aunt Lorraine makes the best Easter wheat cake (pastiera Napoletana) from a recipe handed down through her Italian family. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, of Italian lineage, brought wheat to our part of the New World.

I buy wheat berries from crops the Tohono O’odham grow, harvest and sell in the San Xavier Co-op Farm store.

Are you with me? It’s the wheat berries connecting past, way in the past to include Father Kino, all the way to today and one of this year’s Easter desserts.

Believed dating to the 1600s, what’s a good recipe without legendary tales, some taller than others? Here’s just one of them.

There seems to be some folklore agreement the mermaid Partenope, or Parthenope, is the founder of Naples and marked it with her traits of love, beauty and hospitality. Seven young girls were chosen to give Partenope thank you gifts from the residents: 
Eggs: symbol of fertility
Flour: symbol of wealth
Orange flowers: perfume of the Campania region
Ricotta: symbol of abundance
Spices: a tribute to all peoples
Sugar: to celebrate the sweet song of the mermaid
Wheat in milk: symbol of the fusion of animal and vegetable kingdoms

Partenope brought the gifts to the gods, who were impressed and mixed the ingredients to create the pastiera Napoletana. Partenope was compelled to return to where she received the gifts to pay tribute to the Neapolitan people.

Perhaps more plausible involves cloistered nuns of the Convent of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples. A nun wanted to bake a cake as a symbol of the resurrection and rebirth, with an orange scent since orange trees grew in the convent gardens. The nuns became famous for the cake and were often tasked with preparing vast quantities during Easter.

Monday, join Tucson culinary icon Chef Carlotta Flores, Charro Steak & Del Rey and Flores Concepts Corporate Executive Chef/Partner Gary Hickey, and husband-and-wife sommeliers Dale and Stephen Ott, for a deliciously fun evening, A Taste of Mexico: Wines & Cheeses. Enjoy two whites, two reds and eight Mexican cheeses part of Chef Gary’s charcuterie boards.

On April 12, beekeeper and sommelier Noel Patterson returns for the always popular What’s the Buzz – Honey Tasting. Like wine, cheese and chocolate, honey has joined the ranks as an artisanal obsession. You’ll explore and learn how flowers and terroir affect its characteristics. Noel will empower you to trust your senses and be less analytical in your approach to flavors. You’ll also learn the flora and exact Southern Arizona and world origin locations.

The April 23 Cooking with the Wildcats – Food & Football with Coach Ricky & LaMonte Hunley is sold out.

Korean fried chicken sandwiches are on the April 27 menu with Nook Executive Chef Gabriella Alba. Details coming.

Because every mother deserves the best, we’ve created a unique Mother’s Day Afternoon Tea to indulge, spoil, pamper, and show your mom just how much you love and appreciate her. If your kids don’t live here or your mom is gone, gather your friends, get dressed up, put on a hat and join us. The 1884 Savoy Opera House is the setting, along with live classical music, and three yummy courses of finger sandwiches, scones and sweets.

On May 23, it’s Italian Wines and Small Bites Tasting with Chef Devon Sanner at his restaurant, Zio Peppe. Stay tuned for the details.

I hope you consider making pastiera Napoletana, even if you don’t celebrate Easter. Just remember to make it three days before enjoying it. Let me know how it goes, snap a photo and send it to me.

Wishing you joy in the kitchen,

Pastiera Napoletana

Pasta Frolla (Short Crust)
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour + more for dusting
½ cup granulated sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold & cut into small pieces
1 large egg + 1 large yolk, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest

1. In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar and salt until combined. Add butter; pulse 6-8 times until mixture resembles coarse sand.

2. In a bowl, whisk together egg, egg yolk, vanilla and zest. With processor running, add mixture; process just until dough starts to come together. Don’t overprocess dough. Turn out onto a floured work surface; lightly knead and form dough into 2 disks – one a little larger than the other. The smaller disk will be used to cut the strips for top of pie. Wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

9 oz. uncooked wheat berries
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk
1 orange, zested
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 vanilla bean, split
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
21 oz. whole milk ricotta
6 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
4 oz. candied orange peel, diced into small pieces
4 oz. candied lemon peel, diced into small pieces
2 tablespoons orange blossom water (available at Mideastern markets)
Confectioner’s sugar

1. Rinse berries to remove any chaff or grit and drain. In a saucepan, bring berries (1 cup berries = 3 cups water) and salt to a boil, then reduce heat to low simmer. Check after 30 minutes, adding more water if necessary to cover. Taste for doneness every 5-10 minutes thereafter. When done, berries should be round, fully plump, softly chewy (beyond al dente) with no white starch remaining. It could take 45-60 minutes to finish taking up water and be fully cooked. Cooked berries can be refrigerated up to a week before use.

2. Drain berries. Add them back to saucepan, along with milk, zest, butter, cinnamon and vanilla bean. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent mixture from sticking to bottom of the pan, about 20 minutes, or until dense and creamy. Cool then remove vanilla bean.

3. Before adding ricotta to a large bowl, if it has a lot of moisture to it, drain it in a colander, then using a wooden spoon, combine ricotta, eggs and sugar until well mixed together. Add berries mixture, then candied fruits and orange blossom water, mix well.

Pasteria Assembly

1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease 10-inch springform pan. Remove dough from refrigerator.

2. Roll out larger disk on a floured surface to about ¼-inch thickness. Place in springform pan. Cut off any overhang to add to the remaining dough. Roll out remaining disk and use a pastry wheel to cut 10 strips around 1-inch wide.

3. Spoon mixture into pan. Lay 5 strips parallel and equal distance from each other on the filling, letting excess dough hang over the edge. Place remaining 5 strips on the same way, but at a 45-degree angle to the first ones. Gently press the ends of the strips to adhere to the edge of the bottom crust. Carefully remove any excess dough with the back of a knife.

4. Bake approximately 60-90 minutes until set and edges are golden brown. Remove from oven and cool for at least 8 hours in a dry place. Once cooled, wrap and refrigerate until day of use. Bring to room temperature, then dust with confectioner’s sugar before serving. It will remain moist inside.

Photo credit: Melissa Askrew on Unsplash

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