Holy Thursday, twilight is descending as the nonnas leave the seventh and last church they visit. They are eager to return to their neighborhood to shop for an essential  ingredient– dried grain, or wheat kernels– for the pastiera, or sweet Easter pie.

“I’m getting the dried grain,” a nonna says. “I’ll soak it and bake the pie Saturday afternoon.”

“I’m buying mine soaked,” another says. “It’s much easier that way, even though I still have to cook it.”  Most of the others shake their heads slowly in disapproval.

“Easy, easy?” a nonna says. “I make the pie the easiest. I use barley, the medium size, not too small. Boil it, simmer it, cool it, and I’m ready to go.”

The others gasp audibly. “No wheat?” one exclims. “Just barley?”

“Yes,” she declares. “It’s more modern. Last year, when you tasted the pie did you think it  was bad?”

There is a reluctant “No” from the others. They shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes at one another. How could they have missed an opportunity to find something a little “off” in someone else’s baking?

“Oh , yes,” she says. “I follow the old recipe, but using barley saves me time.”

They enter the local pastry shop and each places an order for orange-flower water, vanilla sugar, and diced citron. All but one orders, wheat dried or soaked.

“Signora, some grain for you –  dried, soaked?” the shop owner asks after he organizes  each nonna’s purchases on the counter.

“Oh, no thank you,” she says. “I have what I need already.”

“You’re not using some left over from last year, are you?” the shop owner asks, aghast.

“Bah,” another nonna pipes up. “She’s using barley.” She spits out the word like an epithet. “I never heard of such a thing.” She shakes her head. “Too bad, we don’t keep the old traditions.”

“If it tastes as good with barley, what’s the difference? Tradition is in the taste.”

They arrive at their apartment building and bid one another good-night.  Soon, the sound of dried grain pings as most nonnas pour it into bowls and set it to soften overnight. The following day, the  nonnas simmer the soaked grain and refrigerate it until baking day, Holy Saturday.

 

While the grain is simmering, the barley-nonna stops by to ask the others if they want her to pick up anything from the stores.  ”I have nothing to do right now,” she says with a glimmer in her eye. “I don’t fix the barley until tomorrow when I’m ready to bake the pie.”

But waiting the hour or so for the grain to simmer makes the nonnas dig in their heels even deeper.  “Barley!’ one says to herself.  ”No, I don’t need anything, thanks,” each says as she realizes she really could use a dozen eggs, some butter, more sugar.

The day of reckoning arrives. The nonnas’ kitchens are filled with the sweet scents  of oranges, vanilla, and buttery crust. Each works swiftly to chill the finished pie for serving at Easter breakfast.

While they wait for their pies to cool, they gather around the kitchen table in the barley-nonna’s apartment.  She  is handing out cups of steaming espresso and thin slices of  already-cool pastiera — her pastiera.

Waiting to hear the verdict, she  busies herself at the sink. Soon she hears, “Very nice, the vanilla and the lemon,”  one says. “Oh, it  tastes just like the one Mama used to make,” another says.

One says, “It tastes just like mine!” The hostess-nonna continues her work with her back to the guests, and does it with a huge grin.

Pastiera (Easter Grain Pie) Serves 8

Crust

  • 2 1/4 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 1/2 sticks very cold unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/8 to 1/4 cup ice water

Filling

  • 1/2 cup dried wheat grains or 3/4 cup medium barley kernels
  • 3 cups water
  • Dash salt
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • Grated rind of 1 orange
  • 3 cups whole milk ricotta, drained
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • Grated rind of 1 lemon
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons orange flower water
  • 1 tablespoon dried citron, diced (optional)

Glaze

  • 1 egg  yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon milk
  1. For grain: Soak  dried grain 24 hours.
  2. Rinse soaked grain; bring to boil in 3 cups water.
  3. Simmer grain 40 minutes or until tender and all liquid is absorbed.
  4. For barley: Simmer 40 minutes in 3 cups water, or according to package directions, until tender and all liquid is absorbed .
  5. Warm milk with sugar, salt, and orange rind.
  6. Add milk mixture to cooked grain or barley; simmer until liquid is absorbed; allow  to cool.
  7. In an electric mixer with a whisk  attachment, beat together the remaining filling ingredients until light.
  8. Fold in grain.
  9. For the crust: In a food processor or electric mixer, blend together all ingredients for crust.
  10. Add more ice water if dough is too dry.
  11. Chill dough 1 hour.
  12. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  13. Divide dough in 2; one, 3/4 of the dough; second, 1/4.
  14. Roll the larger piece of dough to fit into  and cover the sides of  a 10-inch springform pan or deep pie dish
  15. Roll remaining dough; cut into 1– inch strips for lattice to top the pie; set aside.
  16. Pour filling into crust; weave lattice on top; brush with glaze
  17. Place dish on baking pan; bake  90 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown.
  18. Allow to cool in turned-off  oven.
  19. Chill well before  before removing from pan; serve at room temperature; refrigerate leftovers.
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9 Responses to Easter Sweet Grain Pie — Pastiera

  1. Dorothy Cassano says:

    enjoy your nona stories…& pass them on to my friend. I’m only Italian by marriage, but do connect with some. I particularly like the “anything for Thanksgiving” I have very strong memories of that custom.

  2. Fran Claro says:

    Thank you for your kind words. “Begging,” as it was called, on Thanksgiving was a custom practiced only in some New York City areas it seems. It’s great to refresh old memories.

  3. carole says:

    I am soo happy that the nonnas were able to rise to the occasion and actually ADMIT that the “modern” way has its points.

    It seems soo complicated and it’s for BREAKFAST!!

    And is Easter dinner the pascal lamb? I know you saw all those gorgeous photos of lamb in last Wed’s Times.

  4. Fran Claro says:

    Nohing better for a holiday breakfast, accompanied by brightly colored eggs, dark chocolate, fruit of your choice and coffee. As for dinner, lamb is always popular. But I find that a nice ham is a special treat. That’s a happy Easter!

  5. Marie says:

    I was really surprised to hear that someone remembered “anything for Thanksgiving”! I was beginning to think I was the only one who new about that. But now I realize it was only in New York. I came from Brooklyn.

  6. Janice says:

    “Anything for Thanksgiving” was also very popular in the italian neighborhoods of Staten Island, NY My mother was a kid when she used to do this with her friends. Maybe it goes hand-in-hand with the italian generosity of sharing food with anyone who came to the door.

  7. fclaro says:

    Oh, yes! It goes right along with the image of a nonna setting out coffeee, cookies, and fruit before guests even take their coats off. Sharing food at a table with family and friends or handing coins and treats at the front door to a bunch of ragamuffins is very much in the spirit of Italian generosity. What a wonderful memory!

  8. Susan says:

    Oh Fran! What memories! I grew up in Brooklyn, now live on Long Island and cook for a living. I cherish the recipes my Mom left me and all the wonderful traditions. What a joy it is to read someone else’s memories that mirror mine!
    I found your blog when looking for a Pizza Grana recipe and not only found that but a Pizza Rustica recipe. My Mom never made that but my Aunt Gloria’s was what we considered ‘the best’. It was layered, not chopped and mixed up, and had a bite from sharp provolone that I can still taste.
    I will use your Mama’s recipe as the base and add the sharpness I require.
    Thank you so much, I will check back often…Buona Pasqua to all!

  9. [...] There were some other connections to the taste of Easter with the Italian pastries that included grain pie and sweet bread with colored hard-boiled eggs nestled in the middle. These are the images and [...]

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