In search of the
Text by Maria Garcia
Photos by Maggie Soladay
A New York City writer tries to recreate the
grain pies of her childhood.
If lard and ricotta make your mouth water,
you probably buy your dessert at an Italian bakery.
These are basic ingredients in many Italian pastries, including cannoli and St. Joseph’s
Day sfingi. Add grain and a few aromatics, and the result is a traditional Neapolitan pie —
la pastiera, what some Italian-Americans call “grain pie.” If, like me, you were lucky
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enough to have grown up with a relative who baked, you remember these golden, latticed
pies served after Easter dinner, chilled and straight from the pie pan. La pastiera, often
thought of as Italian cheesecake with grain, is actually a unique dessert with a storied past.
My first pastiera was my grandmother’s, a dense, (Demeter to the Greeks) is often depicted clutching
semi-sweet deep-dish pie. Its subtle, flowery aroma stalks of grain; her name is derived from the Latin
distinguished it from the breads and sweet breakfast ¯
cerealis, the origin of our word, “cereal,” which orig-
rolls that emerged from nonna’s oven during my inally referred to grain.
early childhood. When we left Brooklyn for the A Neapolitan legend recounts the genesis of la
desolation of suburbia, I had learned many of her pastiera, the pie we serve today, made from fruits
recipes for everyday soups and sauces, but not the and grains common to Southern Italy. “A mermaid,
one for la pastiera, made only once a year. Nonna La Sirena di Partenope, made her home between
died before I graduated high school. She had taught Posillipo and Vesuvio,” Magnaguagno says, “which
me many of her culinary secrets, but there had not are two regions in the Neapolitan Gulf. She would
been time for la pastiera. surface in order to sing to the people. One day, she
Over the years, my quest for la pastiera led me sang a song that was so sublime that the people
to Court Street Bakery in Brooklyn, the lone decided to pay her tribute. Seven virgins brought
survivor from the days when my family lived and her seven fruits of the land: egg, fruit of the orange,
worked in South Brooklyn. It is owned by the grain, sugar — for the sweetness of the song —
Zerelli Brothers, whose father founded the bakery flour, ricotta and the spices or aromatics.” La sirena
in 1948. A casual conversation last year with one of carried the gifts to the gods of the sea who mixed
the brothers, Gasper Zerelli, made me think that them together; upon her return, the mermaid gave
perhaps I could discover a few professional secrets the people la pastiera.
for making the pie. In Italy, la pastiera is baked in deep, round pans
Zerelli agreed to an interview but was ambivalent called ruoti. “Even in the most formal homes, la
about providing a recipe for la pastiera. I turned to pastiera is served straight from the ruoto,”
the Italian Culinary Institute (ICI) in Manhattan Magnaguagno explains, “because the frolla dough,
and was introduced to Chef Guido Magnaguagno. made with lard, is friabile. It breaks down and crum-
His teaching schedule proved difficult, so, in the bles.” While lard is a traditional ingredient in the
end, neither man was able to demonstrate the dough and in the filling, other ingredients vary from
preparation and baking of la pastiera. place to place. “For instance, near the coast,”
After completing my interviews with them, I Magnaguagno observes, “the cake contains candied
realized that the search I had begun for the history fruit but as you go inland, you don’t find fruit.”
of my favorite dessert might lead me back to my Bakers in the United States sometimes add cream
own kitchen. cheese to their recipes, but this is a departure from
the classic dessert. It produces a pastiera with a taste
An evolving tradition and consistency unlike the authentic Italian pie. In
my family, the pie filling was made with sheep ricotta,
Magnaguagno is from the Veneto, yet la pastiera
which Magnaguagno says is a traditional ingredient,
was part of his family’s Easter tradition. “My father
but even in Italy, sheep ricotta is now difficult to find
owned a pasticceria in Vicenza,” he says in a tele-
and more expensive than cow ricotta.
phone conversation this winter, “and of course he
Many types of grain may be used in the making
baked at home where I learned his recipes.”
of the pie. At ICI, Magnaguagno uses farro (“spelt”
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Magnaguagno teaches techniques and authentic Ital-
in English) because it requires less preparation time
ian recipes at ICI, but he also encourages his students
than wheat berry, the traditional ingredient. At
to research the history of the dishes they prepare.
Court Street Bakery, the Zerelli Brothers make la
“The origin of this cake is lost in time,” he
pastiera with hulled wheat berry and lard. For the
explains, “but we can connect it to the pre-Roman
aromatics, which give la pastiera its distinctive taste
period when celebrations were held for Ceres, the
and aroma, the Zerellis bake with orange blossom
goddess of nature. Her gift was the egg, which
water, as well as lemon and orange oils. Court Street
symbolizes rebirth and the spring season.” Ceres
Bakery remains one of the few places in New York Then, it was time to go shopping.
City where la pastiera can be had every weekend, If you live in the New York Metro area, you can
and for as little as seven dollars. buy all of the uncommon ingredients for la pastiera
Both Magnaguagno and Zerelli buy from whole- locally. Most can also be ordered on the Internet. I
sale bakery suppliers, and generally have a wider shopped at Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue in Brook-
choice of high quality ingredients than those who lyn, where orange blossom water and hulled wheat
shop retail, yet they complain that it is difficult to berry are always in stock. I also found sheep ricotta
find well-produced candied fruit. The two men there, which was not in any of the specialty cheese
agree that the best candied fruit comes from stores I visited in Manhattan.
Naples, but the price and uneven supply has often Most butchers in the city sell lard, but be
led Zerelli to make his own. It’s what Magnaguagno prepared for a surprisingly expensive price of five
recommends for anyone preparing la pastiera at dollars or more a pound. For the candied fruit, I
home. Zerelli warns that candying the fruit adds used a recipe from the only Southern Italian cook-
prep time to an already time-consuming task. “Lots book I know of in English, Arthur Schwartz’s
of Italian Americans of a certain generation remem- “Naples at Table.” The sole alteration you may wish
ber their mothers or grandmothers making la to make to Schwartz’s recipe is the addition of a few
pastiera for Easter,” he says, “but more women were tablespoons of lemon juice, which will provide more
at home then. Now, even people who bake, they of the desirable tartness than the recipe yielded.
haven’t got time to make la pastiera.”
As a writer who works at home, I make most of
our meals so that my husband and I can avoid the Adventures in baking
New York City diet of prepared foods — and On a chilly Friday evening in January, I set out
because I love to cook. I felt confident that with the the ingredients for the frolla dough and candied
help of Magnaguagno and Zerelli, I could recreate fruit, but it was Saturday afternoon before I
nonna’s la pastiera. completed my first la pastiera. Altogether, it took
about seven hours, including the making of the
Preparing for a culinary adventure candied fruit.
Having no recipe, I turned to Magnaguagno who I had asked Zerelli and Magnaguagno to
faxed me an Italian recipe to translate, as well as describe pitfalls that a first-time baker of la pastiera
another in English, which is used at ICI. After exam- might confront. Here’s what they said:
ining both, I opted for the more traditional Italian • Avoid over-working the dough. “The crust has to
recipe for the filling, and melded ingredients and be crumbly,” Magnaguagno explained. “There is
techniques from each of Magnaguagno’s recipes for an ingredient in ricotta called gluten. If you
the grain and the ricotta. For the frolla dough, I knead the dough too much, the gluten is
used his ICI recipe. released and the dough will not be right.”
When collecting my baking equipment, I remem- • Cook the grain thoroughly. Otherwise, says
bered Magnaguagno’s remark about ruoti, and Magnaguagno, “it will be the wrong consistency
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bought a disposable aluminum pie pan, 2-inches in for the pie.” The grain should be al dente.
depth. Since the recipes were written for a standard • Avoid using shallow pans, as they yield overly dry
1 1/2 inch depth (and in European measures), my grain pies. “In fact,” says Zerelli, “when you make
first task was to recalculate all the measures to it at home, the deeper the form, the better.”
account for the additional volume, both for the fill- Two of the ingredients in la pastiera, the ricotta
ing and the frolla dough. and the grain, require additional preparation time.
Many recipes suggest that the ricotta be hung over a a dish. Then, moving it to a tabletop a few feet away,
bowl overnight in order to remove the liquid. I did not they tasted the pie and conferred in hushed voices.
take this step because the Italian recipe did not call for A few moments later, Magnaguagno declared my
it, and my pie turned out to be very moist. The wheat pastiera suitably moist, with the crust at the right
needs to soak overnight so that it is easier to cook. consistency, although he found the pie a bit salty.
There are no shortcuts to candying the fruit; it (The only salt in the recipe is used in the prepara-
takes an hour and a half. I made more candied fruit tion of the wheat. The slight saltiness disappeared
than the pastiera recipe called for because it keeps after the pie was refrigerated for three days.) Stevens
well in the refrigerator and can be used as a topping liked the saltiness, and said the pie was “very good.”
for other desserts, including ice cream. She suggested increasing the amount of zest when
Experienced bakers may be accustomed to the chal- cooking the wheat. Then, to my delight, Stevens
lenges of handling dough, but I was not, and frolla asked if they could keep the slice to “nibble on.”
dough made with lard is different than one made with Friends later asked me why I would spend hours in
shortening. It’s slick or greasy and redolent of pig fat. It a Lilliputian New York City kitchen to make a dessert
seems to crack more easily, too, although it does not stick that I could buy at Court Street Bakery every weekend.
to surfaces like pie dough made with shortening. I made I asked Magnaguagno and Zerelli the same question.
a sandwich of parchment paper for rolling the frolla “I don’t know why,” Zerelli said. “It’s so much work. If
dough, and this worked well, especially when it was time you like to bake, it’s great, but it will cost you more to
to flip the dough into the pie pan. (Parchment paper is make it yourself than to buy it.” Magnaguagno cited
expensive; if you don’t have it, substitute wax paper.) As the issue of control: “Because some bakeries take short-
experienced bakers know, a marble surface is preferable, cuts. They don’t soak the grain long enough, or they
and that’s especially important in making la pastiera don’t use lard. That’s why it’s best to make your own.”
since this lard-based dough must remain chilled. It is more expensive to bake la pastiera than to
Finally, just a note about the temptation to make buy it at Court Street Bakery — a pie that serves six
the frolla dough with something other than lard: people costs about $50 to make at home — but this
Magnaguagno and Zerelli insist that without it, la Easter, I made two pies. (As Magnaguagno noted
pastiera lacks authenticity. But what they did not tell they freeze well.) Baking and cooking bring back
me was how tasty the frolla is, even if you are accus- the happy moments of my childhood when I was
tomed to baking with butter. Lard is also added to alone in the kitchen with nonna.
the filling and here, while butter can be substituted, Magnaguagno said in our interview that “cook-
it will undoubtedly change the consistency of the pie. ing trains the palate.” Mine was trained by my grand-
Publishing a recipe for la pastiera, albeit based mother who would place a chair by the stove so that
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on Magnaguagno’s recommendations, felt risky I could put my nose over the pot. “Cara,” she would
without a taste test conducted by the experts, so I say in her beautiful Neapolitan dialect, “does the
brought a piece of my pie to ICI a day after baking. sauce smell right?”
Magnaguagno told me that Italians store la pastiera On that Saturday afternoon in January, when I
in the refrigerator for three days before eating it, was finally ready to pour the filling into the pie crust
but I had a deadline. First, Magnaguagno, accompa- of my pastiera, I put my nose near the mixing bowl. I
nied by his colleague Chef Hayley Stevens, removed thought I could hear nonna say: “Cara, does it smell
the slice from my plastic container and placed it on right?” It didn’t. I added more orange blossom water.
R E C I P E
F O R L A P A S T I E R A
Serves 6-8 people This recipe requires additional preparation for two ingredients: wheat
and ricotta, which must be prepared at least one day before the pie filling.
For a 9-inch pie plate (2" depth) It additionally requires the separate preparation of filling and pie crust. If
you choose to make, rather than purchase, candied fruit, allow an hour
Total prep time: 6 or 7 hours and a half prep time.
You will need several mixing bowls and ramekins close at hand for the
dough, grain, ricotta, egg yolks, etc.
Recipe courtesy of the Italian Culinary Institute (ICI) in New York City
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/4 cups lard*
1 1/4 cups sugar
5 egg yolks
*Vegetable shortening can replace lard, but lard is the traditional ingredi-
ent in this Neapolitan specialty and adds to the pie’s distinctive taste.
• In a mixing bowl, cut the lard into the flour until fine crumbs form.
• Make a well in the center. Add 5 yolks.
• Bring the dough together by pulling and pressing, avoiding excess
kneading. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.
• Roll out the dough and line the pan. Dough should fold over the
edge of the pie pan.
• Reserve leftover frolla to cut 3/4 inch strips for the top of the pie.
Note: Frolla made with lard is very fragile. We rolled to a little thicker than
1/8 inch within an envelope of wax paper, then removed the top layer of
wax paper and flipped the frolla into the pie pan. Frolla dough can be
17 oz. sheep ricotta (or cow ricotta)
2 cups sugar
• Crumble the ricotta and place into a mixing bowl.
Fold in sugar well by hand.
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• Let stand overnight in the refrigerator.
Return to room temperature for mixing into the filling.
Note: Some recipes call for straining the ricotta before adding it to the
filling, but this is not necessary. ➤
THE GRAIN THE FILLING FINISHING LA PASTIERA
Recipe is a combination of one Recipe is a combination of ICI’s
taught at ICI and a traditional recipe and a traditional one. Directions:
recipe from Chef Guido Magnuagno. • Roll out reserved dough to a
Ingredients: greater thickness than crust
Ingredients: Pre-prepared Ricotta/Sugar (more than 1/8 inch) in an
1 cup hulled wheat berry soaked mixture (“The Ricotta”) envelope of wax paper. Remove
in water for 12 hours (Water can 1 1/4 cups pre-prepared wheat the top sheet of wax paper and
be changed 1 or 2 times, if mixture (“The Grain”) cut four strips about 3/4 inch
desired) 4 eggs, 3 yolks* wide. (Less experienced bakers
6 oz. milk 4 teaspoons orange blossom may wish to cut more than four
1 cinnamon stick water strips so that if a strip tears in
1 tablespoon orange blossom water 1 tsp. vanilla the middle of the pie, it can be
Zest of 1/2 orange 1 1/2 tbsp. lard picked out of the filling and
Zest of 1 lemon 1/3 cup freshly made candied quickly replaced with another.)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (1 tbsp. fruit (orange and lemon) • Brush yolk and water mixture
in reserve) Dash of cinnamon over the frolla around the
1 tablespoon sugar Confectioner’s Sugar for dusting edges of the pie pan.
Water to cover • Spoon filling into the pie pan.
Hint of salt *Yolks result in a dense pie; if you • Replace the wax paper over the
wish to have a lighter consistency, strips of frolla so that only one
Directions: replace them with 2 egg whites. strip is exposed at one time.
• Drain water from the grain. Whip separately and add 2 tbs. Flip the strip diagonally over
• Place grain, zest, lemon juice, sugar right before they peak. Fold the filling carefully securing
sugar, crumbled cinnamon in at the end, after the wheat has the strip at each edge of the
stick and salt in a covered been added to the filling, and just pie. Repeat to create a lattice
saucepan under a low flame before emptying the filling into design.
with enough water to cover. the frolla. • Brush yolk and water mixture
• Cook until grain is somewhat over the strips.
softer and larger, or about 25 Directions:
to 30 minutes. • Add the following ingredients Place pie in oven pre-heated to
• Drain the water. Place the to the pre-prepared 375 degrees. Bake for 15 minutes.
wheat and all other ingredients ricotta/sugar mixture: 4 eggs Lower oven to 325 degrees and
back in the saucepan and add and 2 yolks, lard, vanilla, cook for another 50 minutes or
milk. (If the grain is salty, add orange blossom water and until a toothpick comes out
reserved lemon juice.) Stir cinnamon. Whip with a hand clean. Cool and then refrigerate
vigorously for another 10 mixer until smooth. la pastiera for an hour or more
minutes or until the mixture is • Add candied fruit and pre- before dusting it generously with
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creamy (not sticky), and the prepared grain. Blend by hand. confectioner’s sugar. Pie should
grain is al dente. • In a small bowl, whip 1 yolk be refrigerated. It will stay fresh
• Remove and place into a with 2 tsp. water. for four or five days.
Mille grazie to Pete Starkey, Joan Vennum and Chef Hayley Stevens for their indispensable advice in completing this recipe. MG.