This cake is originally from Naples, as the name indicates, and it consists of a motley of ingredients that wouldn’t be customary in northern Italian cooking: wheat, ricotta cheese, orange blossom water, cinnamon, vanilla, candied peel, and quite a lot of sugar. However, large retail chains have spread the use and appreciation of flavours and dishes coming from the far ends of the country, so that nowadays, for instance, olive oil is a staple condiment even in those regions where traditionally butter was king.
Judging from the state of the supermarket shelves when I went shopping, I should have concluded that making Pastiera has become rather common in the north too, and probably not just because of the large number of families of southern origin living here. The wheat was on offer in a prominent position at the aisle head, a clear sign that it was the product of the moment and its purchase would automatically put customers on the scent of the other ingredients. But the treasure hunt was quite a demanding one.
Despite the dimensions of the store, ricotta cheese was sold out, no candied peels seemed to be available and only after a long search did I find out that the space on the bottom shelf that was allotted to this item had literally been plundered of all the packets. Orange blossom water was also exhausted, but the ensuing careful scan of the area allowed me to find the vials by another manufacturer.
I got home with enough ingredients to start making the dough and put the preparation of the filling off to the next day after I’d got hold of the missing items. So I started kneading a massive 500 g of white flour that in due time turned into a ball of yellow dough and stored it in the fridge. At least this time I was heeding the recipe's advice to let the dough rest for 30 minutes in a cool place.
With ricotta cheese, milk and egg yolks I prepared the mix, to which I subsequently added the cooked wheat, the aromas and the whipped whites, before pouring it into the lined mould. The surface of the cake has to be decorated with a grid of slanting stripes that with the heat keep their light colour, whereas the filling turns brownish enhancing the visual effect.
After one hour’s baking the cake was ready and I left it until Easter day to be eaten as dessert after the meal. The flavours and texture of this sweet are fantastic and I was happy to have gathered enough courage to embark on its preparation. My effort was rewarded by fragrances that took me far away, as its ingredients are an expression of another climate and the exotic influences exerted by foreign cultures that once crossed their ways in the melting pot that was the Kingdom of Naples.
But maybe most of all I felt happy while making the cake because I was performing a ritual for the festival that made me materially effect a change with respect to other times of the year. Nowadays people seem to have grown disillusioned about festivals, considering them an obligation they submit to with very little enthusiasm, when there are already enough and better occasions for distraction in their lives.
Still the essence of a festival is singling a day out in order to accomplish different functions within a social group, such as marking the passing of time or rites of passage and alternating the seasons of the year between times of rest and the times of toil, uniting family members and infusing a sense of belonging. Food is definitely central to the celebrations and special dishes are associated to given festivals to help make them special, especially when they came after a period of fasting.
I went back to the old ways in making my Pastiera and why should we look down upon them? Even in the digital era the urban man will always be a mortal man that needs food from nature and lives in nature. It would be an absurd claim to think we can overturn the rhythms of our ancestors. I was content with establishing a deep connection with spring-time nature, putting all my expectations for the festival into the cake, my best wishes for the future and all my love for the people I was making it for.