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Pastiera or Easter Ricotta Tart

pastiera whole I really admire those organised food bloggers who manage to post seasonal recipes before the event. I’m not quite sure what their secret is, but when it comes to Christmas or Easter or Halloween, I need to find out because I’m posting a recipe for the classic Easter dish of pastiera a week late instead.

The good news though is that it’s only a traditional Easter dish if you hail from Naples so technically there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make it in the next few weeks if you like the sound of it. Pastiera is made from pastry filled with cooked wheatberries, eggs and ricotta flavoured with cinnamon, candied peel and orange blossom water and it tastes deliciously of springtime sunshine and light evenings. It’s also much easier to make than I originally expected.

I had difficulty getting wheatberries or grano cotto so I used pearl barley instead. Several recipes suggested using cooked rice as well and I think it would be a wonderful way to use up leftover rice pudding. You do need to make the pastiera a day in advance to allow the flavours to combine but as I am not a proper Neapolitan nonna I didn’t take the traditional three days to create mine. Make it on a Saturday night before tucking in for Sunday lunch for something a bit different. I won’t tell if you don’t.

Pastiera (adapted from this Food 52 recipe here)

  • 250g plain flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 150g cold butter
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 30ml ice cold water
  • 100g pearl barley (uncooked weight)
  • 250ml milk
  • 50ml cream
  • 100g candied peel
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 350ml ricotta
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 200g sugar
  • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • generous pinch of sea salt
  • icing sugar to serve

Begin by making the ricotta filling for the pastiera. Wisdom has it that freshly cracked eggs make it rise so you need to rest them overnight. I wasn’t that organised, but I did find that chilling the mixture for at least an hour made it easier to handle so don’t skip that stage.

Beat the ricotta, whole eggs, egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and orange blossom water together well with a fork. It will be alarmingly liquid at this stage and you’ll panic that you’ve done something wrong. You haven’t. Chill it in the fridge and it thickens nicely.

Next make  your pastry. I always always use Dan Lepard’s recipe for it and despite not being especially pastry confident, it works best for me. Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the salt. Cut the butter into small pieces and rub into the flour until it disappears well. Beat the egg yolks into the water and add to the flour, mixing it in well. Combine to make a surprisingly soft and wet dough and then wrap it and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Prepare the barley for the filling by covering it with cold water and bringing to the boil. Skim any froth off the top and cook for about 20 minutes. Reserve the cooking water to make your own version of barley water, but drain the barley well before returning it to the pan.

This time add the milk and the candied peel and simmer it gently until the barley thickens into a porridgey texture and the fruit swells slightly. This took about 5 minutes for me. Take it off the heat and add the cream and lemon zest and allow to cool for about 20 minutes.

Flour your work surface well and then roll out your pastry to fit a 9 or 10 inch springform cake tin. Don’t cut the overhang yet and allow the pastry to chill for 20 minutes more in the fridge.

Combine the barley with the ricotta mix and stir it all together well. It will, frankly, look unappetising in colour in texture. Ignore the nagging voice that tells you this was a bad idea. It wasn’t. Carry on making it and  preheat the oven to 200℃.

Pour the barley ricotta mix into the chilled pastry shell and trim the overhang on the pastry neatly. Lay strips of pastry across the top of the pastiera to make a lattice effect, sticking them on with the leftover egg whites if needs be. Mine sank a bit as I think I cut them too wide and therefore too heavy. But it was nearly midnight at this stage and I didn’t care.

Bake the pastiera for 60 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the pastry is biscuity beige. You need to turn it half way through to make sure the colouration is even on both sides if you are bothered by such things. Take it out and cool completely in the tin.

Chill until needed and then remove from the tin. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve in slices. The filling is surprisingly light in texture but is is quite rich so do what we did and start with small slices and work up to seconds. The pastiera will keep for up to 3 days in the fridge. I loved the flavour of the cinnamon and orange blossom water together as both were subtle but effective. It made a lovely change from chocolate or marzipan Easter treats!

pastiera slice

Yellowman meets yellow butter…

Having invited some friends to Sunday brunch, I wasn’t quite sure what to make. Combining two meals into one raises the stakes somewhat and a rubbery fried egg and some cold toast wouldn’t cut it. So I googled brunch ideas and the clear winner was this Bill Granger recipe for ricotta pancakes with honeycomb butter. Soft fluffy pancakes with sweet crunchy butter sounded just the ticket and offered the perfect opportunity to educate my English and American guests about proper yellowman instead of this honeycomb malarkey…

Yellowman is the Irish name for this aerated sugar creation you probably know as the middle of a Crunchie bar or possibly as cinder toffee. It is famed throughout Ireland and particularly associated in the North with the famous Auld Lammas Fair in Ballycastle around the end of August. Paper cones or pokes of yellowman were served at the fair, traditionally accompanied with the famous dulse or dried seaweed. Perhaps an Irish precursor of the salted caramel trend we all know and love now, I found this combo utterly revolting as a child. Dulse had the texture of shoe leather dipped in salt and I could never understand why people brought it back from Ballycastle for us. I already hadn’t been on holiday, why punish me further? I might feel differently these days though.

I loved yellow man though with its sticky rough crunchy feel and glorious sunny colour reminiscent of late summer sunshine and long weekends before school started again. Skipping the side dish of dulse and adding it into butter sounded like improving on something already pretty perfect. Filled with the warm glow of childhood memory and refined sugar, I decided I would live dangerously and make my own yellowman for this recipe as I remember people making it when I was a child and saying how easy it was.

Seeking Irish expertise, (and soundtracking the event with the tones of Jamaica’s finest and appropriately named reggae artist Yellowman) I decided to follow Niamh’s recipe at Eat Like a Girl especially as she omits the butter some recipes use. I’m nervous enough round molten sugar without potentially burning butter to boot. Warned to use a deep pan, I got the Le Cresuet out and started melting. Unfortunately because I am incapable of reading recipes correctly at the moment, I used 200 ml of golden syrup instead of 200g so may have had too much in the mixture, which is why when my trusty thermometer said the mixture had reached the magic 150°C or hard crack stage, the whole thing had gone from an alluring golden amber to burnt umber. I bunged the bicarb in anyway and was unprepared for how much it foamed up. Unsure whether I was meant to stir (ie: put my hand near boiling sugar that is exploding) my hesitation meant there was yellowman mix all over the cooker and even belated stirring didn’t help that much. I poured the remaining mix into a lined tray and set about scraping the sugar off the cooker. I certainly know why the Scots call it puff candy

Sampling a bit left on the pan, I established that the sugar had gone from sickly sweet to acidic and overcooked. I decided to start again, using the correct amount of golden syrup this time. Thinking this is where I’d gone wrong, I followed the recipe exactly otherwise, again going for the hard crack stage and ending up again with darker looking sugar than I’d have liked. I added the bicarb, stirring like a dervish and although it puffed up like a more alluring indoor firework, the yellowman still didn’t look sunshine yellow. In fact eagle eyed readers will have noted that it is in fact that the kind of burnished hue usually only seen on a contestant on Snog Marry Avoid. It also had the same acrid tang of burned sugar as the previous batch.

Having run out of refined sugar products to ruin and acutely aware I was spending my Saturday night in a fog of sticky smelling smoke, I gave up at this point and turned my attention to washing up both sugar caked pots I’d used, realising I should have taken the mix of the heat before it got to the hard crack stage and see if that helped. I also discovered when ruining another recipe later in the week, that I am reading the thermometer wrong! So please don’t be scared to try this recipe unless like me you paid no attention in science class and can’t read a thermometer.*

I then went out the next morning and bought a four pack of Crunchies, denuding them of chocolate with a sharp knife and then mashing them into some softened (and thinking back to the dulse, salted) butter before shaping into a roll and chilling for a couple of hours in the fridge.

Once the guests arrived, I turned my attention to the pancakes. Despite the seemingly complicated two step batter, these are incredibly easy to make and quicker than a regular batter as they don’t need to sit. Spoonfuls of the thick yet light batter went into a hot pan and puffed up beautifully as they turned golden brown. Served up alongside some crisp streaky bacon, these little pancakes were pretty perfect as they were. But adding in the butter took them to a whole new level.

Flecked with shimmering jewels of honeycomb, the butter added a soft yet crunchy, sweet yet not sickly layer of deliciousness to the pancakes. Combining the best of the world of the whipped style butter and syrup the Americans serve with pancakes, you no longer have to choose between the two toppings, but enhance them by creating the best butter in the world. The crunch worked perfectly with the soft pancakes and the sweetness took the bacon up a notch too. There were no pancakes left and only a scraping of the butter once we’d all finished, even though we also had light crumbly corn muffins and a slightly spiced berry compote on our plates too.

Once my guests had left, I finished off the butter on the leftover muffins and reminded myself that it was so good, it had been worth all the fluffy faffing with sugar and syrup the night before. I will be trying making yellowman again instead of trimming a million Crunchie bars, so that I can make an entire block of the butter and then eat it with a spoon. Or make the best toast in the world. Don’t make the pancakes without it. It’s so worth the extra effort!

*I’d also like to thank Niamh who took time out to see if she could help me sort my problem with the yellowman despite me slightly slandering her poor recipe’s good name. I feel very reassured now.