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Baking With Mom, Part 4: Dueling Easter Pies (Torta di Risi and Pastiera di Grano)

Wecome to the fourth and final installment of Baking With Mom. In Part 1, I shared my recipe for Pizza Rustica [1], a rich and decadent eggy, cheesy and meaty deep dish pie. In Part 2, I gave you an easy peasy way to make Easter Bread [2]using the master brioche recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Those wonderfully crispy and creamy Zeppole di San Giuseppe [3]were the headliners in Part 3. I’m still drooling in my sleep, dreaming of those!

Today, my offerings for Part 4 are Italian Easter grain pies. These pies are commonly referred to as Pastiera di Grano or Torta di Grano, and are said to have originated in a convent in Naples, Italy. They are dense and moist ricotta based dessert pies filled filled with cooked grains and delicately flavored with the essence of oranges. The traditional preparation uses wheat berries, but over the years many different evolutions of this dish have emerged, using a variety of different grains, such as barley and rice. I think this is probably because wheat berries are not always readily available. Whichever grains one decides to use, they are the key component of this pie because they represent spring, rebirth and the Resurrection. In my family, we always enjoyed these delicious sweet pies, along with our Pizza Rustica, after Mass on Easter Sunday.

Several months ago, I posted about my grandmother’s Sunday meat sauce [4], where I observed that an Italian woman’s sauce is as individual as her fingerprint. Every recipe is unique in some way, no matter how small. Apparently, the same holds true for Easter pies. When my mother and I set up shop make these pies, we immediately had “issues”. Since the wheat berries aren’t available in our area, we knew that we would have to use alternative grains for our pies. I always make my Pastiera with arborio rice and that’s what I wanted to use. Mom insisted on barley. Here’s how it went:

Me: “Barley!?!? Who uses barley in Easter pies?”
Mom: “Barley is the traditional way to make it.”
Me: “No, it’s not. Using wheat berries is the traditional way.”
Mom: “Okay, but when you can’t find wheat berries, barley is the traditional way.”
Me: “You’re making that up!”
Mom: “No, I’m not! That’s the rule. Ask anyone! Besides, I always use barley in this pie!”
Me: “Um…I don’t ever remember having a barley pie. Are you sure you didn’t make it for some OTHER family?”
Mom: “Don’t be a smart ass! I always use barley and you love it.”
Me: “Yeah, well I want to use rice. I like it better.”
Mom: “Well, I want to use barley!”
Me: “Rice.”
Mom: “Barley!”
After a ten minute, stony stare-down, we compromised and decided to use both. Suddenly, “our” pies became “my” pies and “your” pies. Dueling Easter Pies, if you will.
My mother tends to be competitive by nature. When we played Monopoly [5] as kids, she never let us win. No sir! She would kick our asses from here to Sunday, buying up every property she could and then putting five hotels on each one! When we would complain, she told us that life wasn’t fair and that she was preparing us to handle disappointment. I don’t know for sure, but I think that she was full of crap. I still don’t handle disappointment well.
Our respective recipes for Pastiera have a few things in common, but are really quite different. My recipe is a conglomeration of various others that I have picked up over the years. Mom relies heavily on her tattered, dog-eared copy of the old Polly-O Cookbook that she got back in 1968. Seriously, the only thing holding that book together is scotch tape and a prayer! It is so fragile that she wouldn’t let me take it to type out the recipe. I wanted to post this last Thursday, but I had to wait for her to write it up herself!

Both recipes begin with a base of ricotta and eggs, and both are flavored with vanilla and orange flower water, but the similarity ends there. My mother uses a traditional pie crust for her pies and I make mine with a filo crust. If you’ve visited here before, you know that I’m a little doughaphobic. I never make a pie crust if I can avoid it, and this was no exception. Besides, I really like the crunch factor that the filo gives this pie. I took this inspiration from one of Giada’s [6] recipes.
I also use whole eggs in my pie filling, whereas Mom separates her eggs and whips the whites before she adds them to her filling. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the barley versus the rice. I also decided to add some mascarpone to my pies this year. I know that it isn’t traditional, but I love the creamy richness of mascarpone and I wanted to see how it would work in the recipe. I put a little cinnamon in my Easter pies. Mom puts a splash of rose flower water in hers.
The verdict? Both versions of the Pastiera looked and tasted great! When Mom tasted my pie, she generously conceded that it was delicious. The mascarpone really added to the “wow factor”, giving the pie a really silky texture. What did I think of the barley pie? Well, I have to admit, I thought that it was pretty darn good too.

[7] [8]

Buona Pasqua a Tutti!