Wecome to the fourth and final installment of Baking With Mom. In Part 1, I shared my recipe for Pizza Rustica , 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 using the master brioche recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Those wonderfully crispy and creamy Zeppole di San Giuseppe 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 , 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!”
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  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  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.
Buona Pasqua a Tutti!
Torta di Risi
- 1 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
- 8 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 2 tablespoons orange zest
- 2 tablespoons orange flower water
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 pounds whole milk ricotta cheese
- 8 ounces mascarpone cheese
- 2 cups cup cooked arborio rice
- 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
- 12 sheets thawed phyllo sheets
- 3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Blend 1 cup of sugar, eggs, vanilla, orange zest, orange flower water, cinnamon and ricotta until smooth. Stir in the rice and pine nuts. Set aside.
- Lightly butter a 9-inch pie plate. Lay 2 phyllo sheets over the bottom and up opposite sides of the dish, allowing the phyllo to hang over the sides. Brush the phyllo with melted butter and sprinkle a little sugar over it. Top with another 2 sheets of phyllo dough, laying it in the opposite direction as the first sheets. Continue layering the remaining sheets of phyllo sheets, alternating after each layer and buttering and sugaring each sheet until they are all used.
- Spoon the ricotta mixture into the dish. Fold the overhanging phyllo dough over the top of the filling to enclose it. Brush the top with melted butter. Sprinkle on a little sugar.
- Bake the pie until the phyllo is golden brown and the filling is set, about 40 minutes. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool completely before serving.
Mom’s Pastiera di Grano
Inspired by the Polly-O Cookbook
For the crust:
- 2 cups unbleached all purpose flour, sifted
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup cold butter, cut into small cubes
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tsp orange zest
- 1tsp lemon zest
- 1-2 tbsp milk
For the filling:
- 1 1/2 cups uncooked barley (not the quick cooking kind)
- 2-3 cups of milk
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 2 lbs ricotta
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
- 2 tbsp orange flower water
- 1 tsp rose flower water
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 8 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 8 egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks with 2 tbsp sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
- To make the dough: Pulse flour, sugar and salt in the food processor until blended. Add butter and blend until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add egg yolks, 1 tbsp milk and citrus zests, and pulse until dough comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If dough is too dry, add a little more milk. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least 1/2 hour.
- To make the filling: In a medium sauce pan, cook the barley according to the directions on the box. Make sure it still has a little “bite” to it. While still in the same sauce pan, stir in 2 tbsp sugar and 1/2 of the orange and lemon zest. Add enough milk just to cover the barley. Bring to a boil and immediately lower to a simmer. Continue to simmer until the milk has been absorbed. Set aside to cool.
- In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, sugar, remaining zest, orange flower water and rose flower water. Add the egg yolks and beat until smooth. Fold in the barley. Gently fold in the egg whites into the ricotta mixture.
- To assemble the pastiera: Roll out 2/3 of the dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured surface. Roll out the other 1/3 of the dough and cut into 1-inch strips.
- Butter a 9-inch pie plate, then line it with 12-inch round of dough, leaving at least 1/2-inch hanging over the edge of the pan.
- Pour in the pie filling. Form a lattice over the pie’s top with the dough strips and seal by pinching around the edges.
- Bake at 350 degrees F. for 1 hour or until golden brown, being careful not to overcook and dry out the pie.
- Cool, and dust with confectioners’ sugar.