Gwyneth Paltrow and I have this in common: We’re self-described cooks … as opposed to bakers. You’ll find quite a few sweet treats here at Foodie Wanderings, but I must admit I don’t enjoy making desserts as much as I do actual meals or food that contributes to a meal. I (regretfully) like sweets a lot more than I did in my teens and twenties.. but there are some passionate bakers out there and I can’t say I’m one of them. My daughter on the other hand isn’t as passionate about being in the kitchen as I am (though she likes to eat) -but when she summons a recipe (without prompting) it usually always means “baking”. So I guess we don’t tread on each other’s culinary toes. We have some balance.
Desserts have a reputation for pushing contestants passed ‘Go’ (& subsequently ‘Collecting $200′) when it comes to reality tv and challenges. I notice more ooh’s and aah’s in the media (& blogosphere) when a whiff of sugar is in the air. But that’s not why I have something sweet for you today.. (albeit not overly sweet, thankfully).
Last week I happened to have a seemingly “waste of time” day in Melbourne, but all wasn’t wasted when I ventured over to my former neighbourhood in search of lunch, specifically Glenferrie Road, Malvern. It was nearing 2pm and I remembered the bakeries of Glenferrie Road where it intersects with Wattletree Road. I parked my car right outside of Sweet Crumble which happened to get a mention in the Herald Sun’s ‘Sunday’ magazine, four days later. I didn’t venture in because it seemed too busy and there were people spilling out of their alfresco seats on the footpath ie. I could barely walk by them. Anyway I wasn’t actually looking for anything sweet. Yet.
My lunch consisted of a deliciously fresh bagel (sprinkled with caraway seeds), stuffed with smoked salmon and cream cheese from ‘Glick’s‘ kosher bakery. I also asked for half a tub of their sliced pickles because I spotted them after the bagel was bagged. I so much wanted to ask the lady behind the counter to retrieve my bagel and load it with pickles please.. but I didn’t want to push my luck as I was asking enough ‘excitable foodie’ questions as it was.
Across the road from Glick’s I discovered ‘Fleischer Continental Cakes’. Their window of baked goods hooked me and I was immediately curious about the Easter Cakes. They looked like Christmas mince pies with an icing sugar ‘cross’ dusted on top of each one. Fleischer’s have been in Melbourne since 1938, so I don’t know why I don’t remember them from my time living in the area. When I went inside to buy a couple of the Easter cakes I noticed they had some cut into pieces for taste-testing. A little handwritten sign said they had ricotta, wheat germ and orange blossom water in them. Wheat germ? That seemed like a curious thing to add to something that looked cheesecakey. I had a couple of sample bites and decided to buy three individual (mince-pie sized) Easter cakes instead. They also sold them as whole full-sized cakes too.
Back at home it dawned on me that I had my recipe of the week (for the following Tuesday). I’d make an Easter cake! After some research I learned the significance of that wheat germ and that the cake is commonly known as ‘Easter Pie’, originating from Napoli in Italy where it’s known as ‘Pastiera Napoletana’.
The Easter cake from Fleisher’s tasted a bit like a cheesecake crossed with Italian cannoli and a sweet crust pie. It had tiny amounts of candied orange peel and orange blossom water so it wasn’t overly orangey. In fact I appreciated the subtleness of the orange aroma laced through the ricotta filling. I knew I had to replicate that.
After a few days of intermittent online research I decided to base my recipe on Nick Malgieri’s Neapolitan Easter Pie. I’ve changed some of the baking techniques and a few ingredients to suit my own baking style and tastes, but overall most of my recipe quantities are based on his pie. The end result received a thumbs up from me and my family.. and the pie doesn’t whack you in the face with orange either. Subtleness achieved. Continental pastry flavour & authenticity = score!!
What makes an Easter pie unique is the ricotta and orange blossom filling and the presence of “wheat” with texture.. as in ‘wheat kernels’ aka ‘spring wheat’ aka ‘wheat berries’. It was enough to put me off attempting the recipe. Apparantly wheat berries or ‘farro’ is readily available in the USA in cans or jars. It’s cooked on the stove with milk until all the milk is absorbed and then it’s stirred into the Easter pie’s ricotta mixture. Looking at photo’s and video’s online I could see that these softened kernels thickened-up the filling and also provided a bouncy aldente texture to the palate.
It was obvious that Fleisher’s in Malvern had substituted the wheat componenet with wheat germ…which doesn’t mimic farro or ‘Spring wheat’. But Nick Malgieri suggested substituting the wheat with either cooked rice or pearl barley. Pearl barley! Yes! It looked and cooked like wheat kernels, having the same texture and I had some in my pantry! The use of actual wheat kernels in an Easter pie is supposed to represent rocks that were thrown at Jesus ie. Him being wounded for our transgressions. The eggs in the pie represent life and His resurrection. Apparantly Nun’s in Napoli, Italy invented the recipe and they used the orange blossom shrubs growing at their convent. The pie is traditionally made on Thursday in Napoli (before Good Friday) and isn’t eaten until the weekend. We ate it on a weekday while it was still warm..and it was lovely. A tip: Using utensils to consume your portion of pie seems to encourage it to crumble apart. It’s easier eaten by hand and doesn’t produce many crumbs at all that way. A little candied orange and/or citrus peel is traditionally used in this recipe, but I substituted with some orange marmalade .. with excellent results.
Easter Pie (Pastiera Napoletana)
FOR THE PEARL BARLEY:
*1/2 cup of pearl barley
*Cold water, enough to generously cover pearl barley and more to top-up as water evaporates
PIE CRUST DOUGH (OR PASTA FROLLA)
*Plain flour x 2.5 cups
*Caster sugar x 1/3 cup
*Baking Powder x 1/2 teaspoon
*Salt x 1 pinch
*Butter, cold x 200 grams
*Eggs x 2 large
*Vanilla paste (or extract) x 1 teaspoon
*Cinnamon, ground x 1/4 teaspoon
*Eggs x 1 large + 1 yolk
*Caster sugar x 1/4 cup
*Plain flour x 2 tablespoon’s
*Milk x 1/2 cup
*Vanilla paste or extract x 1/2 teaspoon
*All of the pastry cream
*All of the cooked pearl barley
*Ricotta, fresh, full fat x 1 cup
*Caster sugar x 1/4 cup
*Eggs x 2 large
*Orange flower water x 1 teaspoon
*Orange marmalade x 2 tablespoon’s
*Orange zest x 1/2 teaspoon
*Ground cinnamon and icing sugar for dusting on top of the pie when it’s finished
*Oil spray for your baking tins – Recipe provides enough filling for almost two pies and that’s what I did..I made a full-sized pie and a smaller one.
-Start recipe by putting pearl barley into a saucepan, generously covering with cold water, bring to a boil and simmer for an hour, topping up water as you need it. While it’s cooking you can get on with the rest of the recipe, but when it’s finished, drain the pearl barley in a colander while rinsing under cold water.
-The dough is easy to make in a food processor and no rolling pin is required afterwards! Put all dough ingredients except butter and eggs into a food processor. Add cold butter which has been chopped into large chunks. Pulse the food processor until the butter’s combined with the flour and the mixture looks crumbly. Add the eggs and mix in with a few more pulses until you have a soft dough.
-The dough won’t necessarily be in one ball, rather you’ll probably need a spatula to scrape it out into a bowl. Don’t be alarmed by how soft it is. Pat it with your hands to form a soft ball, then break it into two pieces..with one ball being a bit larger than the second ball. Put these dough balls on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
-Make the pastry cream (resembling thick custard) by whisking egg yolks in a small saucepan with sugar until combined well, then add flour and continue whisking until well combined. Whisk in milk and then put on stove top to heat and come to a gentle boil. It’s easy to burn the bottom of the saucepan with the pastry cream, so be patient when continuously stirring this. Once it reaches the correct temperature it’ll thicken up almost instantly before your eyes. Remove from heat when it’s thick and keep vigorously whisking with a fork to make sure the mixture isn’t lumpy. I did this on top of a bowl full of cold water (in the kitchen sink) to stop the cooking process.
-To make the final filling, be sure to have your cooked, drained pear barley at hand + the pastry cream. When the pastry cream is done transfer to a large bowl, then with a fork, mix in ricotta, getting rid of as many lumps as you can. Then mix in eggs and then the sugar, followed by the orange blossom water and orange marmalade. Do these steps one at a time, rather than all at once. Finally, stir-in the cooked pearl barley and then preheat your oven to 175-180 degrees celcius.
-Remove pastry from fridge, spray a 20-25cm pie tin with oil and add larger ball of dough. With your clean fingers.. flatten the dough in the tin and work it out to the edges. The dough will yield to pressure and the warmth of your hands. Work the dough up the sides of the pan as if you were making a tart. Make sure you have what looks like a pie shell and an even distribution of pastry. If some parts of the base appear to have more dough than others.. do some ‘patch up’ jobs and make it even. It’s surprisingly easy and forgiving once cooked. My finished crust looked like it had been rolled out with a rolling pin to a precise measurement. The crust is supposed to be thin (see blog photo’s).
-With the final ball of dough you want to make pie-like criss-cross patterns on top of the pie. Usually recipes ask that you roll out the dough, cut it into strips and layer the strips over the pie. I say pinch off some dough and roll it in your hands as if you were making a sausage. Then place the sausage of dough on a clean surface and with your hands roll it so you end up with a sausage “strip” of dough. Layer these rolled dough strips in a diamond pattern on top of the pie and try and press the edges onto the edge of the pie crust..so they ‘connect’. Make it look tidy. No need to glaze with egg wash.
-Bake pie in preheated oven for 45 minutes to an hour. You’ll know it’s ready when the top is browned evenly and slightly puffed up.. and the edges of the crust will have browned and pulled away from the pie tin. I let the pie rest for about 10 minutes, then I dust with ground cinnamon, followed by a dusting of icing sugar. I put a plate on top of the pie dish and quickly, but gently flip it over. The pie should easily fall out onto the plate. Lift away the pie tin carefully.. and you’ll see your pie upside down, hopefully in one piece and a lovely golden colour. For the final unveiling, place your presentation plate (top side down) on top of your upside pie, then flip the pie over carefully, but quickly again. Lift away top plate and voila! Your Easter pie is ready. Hopefully the icing sugar will be more prominent on the criss-crosses. Slice into wedges as required and serve warm or at room temperature. A dollop of double cream may not be traditional, but it’s optional.