Pastiera is a classic dessert dish in Neapolitan Cuisine (cooking originating from Naples). It is sometimes called wheat pie or wheat cheese cake, since it utilizes some unusual ingredients in the filling, semolina wheat and ricotta cheese. Like many Italian desserts, the result is not overly sweet, but the combination of flavors is thought by many to be exceptionally delicious.
Though pastiera can be called a cake, it is really more of pie, made with a pastry crust. The crust is rich, usually a combination of butter or lard, flour, eggs, and sugar. Typically the dessert is cooked in a springform pan and the crust has to be sturdy enough to stand on its own once removed from the pan.
The filling for pastiera represents a combination that may be unfamiliar to American palates. Ricotta cheese, cooked semolina (Cream of Wheat® can be used instead), eggs, lemon juice, butter, sugar, crystallized orange peel, citron, cinnamon and vanilla are mixed together to create the typical filling. The semolina should be allowed to cool before being mixed with the other ingredients, so the eggs don’t cook and the bottom pastry crust is not heated. Generally, the top crust is latticed, which takes a little extra time to make, but creates an attractive appearance.
Though pastiera is now most associated with Easter, and may even be called Easter pie, food historians believe the first versions were made to celebrate pagan rites of spring, and especially in honor of the goddess, Ceres. Another legend associated with pastiera was that it was created to celebrate the beautiful singing of the mermaid, Partenope. She would emerge each spring and her music delighted the villagers. They created a dish to honor her lovely singing, one as sweet as her voice, or in alternate versions, Partenope gave the ingredients of the pastiera to the God and Goddess of the sea and they created the Neapolitan dessert.
As Catholicism swept Italy, many of the pagan rituals were reinvented and incorporated into Christian beliefs. Easter in particular, the celebration of Christ rising from the dead, is connected to the earlier ideas of rebirth and renewal brought by each spring. Thus pastiera was still quite welcome by Christians, though in its present form it may have been created closer to the 8th or 9th century by nuns at the San Gregorio Armeno monastery and convent.
A newer version of the pastiera, invented by Starace, combines most of the ingredients with a pastry cream, which makes the filling lighter. You may find both versions in Italian bakeries a few days before Easter. Allowing the dessert to sit for a few days so the flavors develop more depth is considered traditional and highly desirable.