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