Wednesday, January 02, 2008

pastiera napoletana: pastry from hell

It didn't taste like hell, it was just hell to make it. Ironically, the part that caused me the most grief - and there was a lot of grief - was the crust, which I didn't even think twice about when I first saw the recipe. I've never even heard of a Pastiera Napoletana before, but I happened upon the recipe while browsing around for Mario Batali recipes. I was intrigued - it basically sounded like a pie filled with rice pudding. How could that be bad? I could not foresee my troubles.

The filling was actually farro, not rice. Farro is a type of wheat grain, considered the original grain from which all others are derived, whatever that means. I actually thought it was technically the same as spelt, but apparently although they look alike they are somewhat different. For this recipe, the farro must be soaked in water for 3 days. That's a lot of forethought for me, but it was no problem. The grain is then cooked and mixed with milk.

The next step is the ricotta, which you stir vigorously until smooth and creamy, then combine with the farro/milk mixture. It's like cheesecake rice pudding!

Then, the key ingredient - Orange Flower Water. I think the big reason I was drawn into this recipe is because I saw that ingredient and had to know what it was like. I'm sure, now that I've tasted it, that I've had other desserts that contain it but just didn't realize it. I'm lucky enough to work right upstairs from a great Italian market that features dozens of somewhat obscure ingredients imported from Italy, and I was thrilled to find a bottle of Fior d'Arancia there. It's amazingly perfumey and heady, and the flavor is unmistakable. I don't think you could really make this dessert without it.

Finally it was time to make the crust. What can I say about that experience? I'm a dumbass who made dumbass mistakes? I wasted an obscene about of eggs and butter with all of my discarded attempts? THREE TRIES. It took three tries to get the damn thing right. I was incredibly frustrated with the recipe, which I felt was a little unclear in explaining the method for making the dough. Am I wrong to think that if the recipe tells you to mix the butter and egg together in the well, that your butter needs to be pretty much a liquid? Apparently I'm wrong. I melted the butter, then cooled it so that it was liquid but not warm. That didn't work. I thought perhaps that the problem was with the proportion of fat to flour, so I tried again with less flour to start out and added slowly to it. I got as far as rolling it out and trying to put it in the pan. That really didn't work. Much cursing ensued. Finally, I gave up on the traditional handmade technique, broke out the food processor, and made the dough with really cold butter as I would for a pie. That worked. Pretty much. I still couldn't get the crust to work in a 2" tall cake pan, but it worked in a 1.5" tall cake pan. Whatever, as long as it worked.

The final step was folding beaten egg whites into the ricotta/farro mixture, filling the pastry, and cutting a lattice top. At this point, I was looking at the clock and realizing that despite my idea to start early in the day and have it done hours before leaving the house, I was only just going to make it. All day. I spent all day on a freaking pie.

I swore that I would never attempt this recipe again, but I have to admit that after the enthusiastic reception, I may have to reconsider. I guess that now I have conquered all of the stupid mistakes, and I know what should work in the future. But we'll see if I ever do get over my pastry trauma. Recipe after the jump:

Adapted from a recipe by Mario Batali at

For the filling:
1/2 pound farro
1 pound fresh ricotta
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup orange flower water
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 cups skim milk
zest of 1 lemon
4 large eggs, separated

For the dough:
2 - 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsalted butter, chilled
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 egg yolks

Soak the farro in cold water for three days, changing the water daily. On the third day, drain farro, then place in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover by a couple of inches. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer for 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat milk on medium flame to just below boiling. Add the faro, 1/2 the lemon zest, 1 pinch cinnamon, 1 tablespoon sugar, and let cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the milk is completely absorbed.

Place the ricotta in a large mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon, mix the ricotta until the texture becomes creamy. Add the remaining cinnamon, sugar, egg yolks, the remaining lemon zest, orange flower water, and the cooked faro. Use a spatula to mix until well combined then set aside.

To make the dough, combine flour and sugar in a food processor and pulse to combine. I started with 2 cups flour and added more later if it seemed too wet. Cut the chilled butter into small pieces, add to the processor and pulse until the dough is crumbly. Add the egg yolks and pulse until dough comes together. If the dough is too dry, try adding a tablespoon of cold water. Remove the dough, knead by hand for a couple of minutes, then wrap in plastic and place in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cut the dough into 2 pieces, 1 piece 3 times as large as the other. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the larger dough piece until it forms a large circle, about 11 inches in diameter and about 1/8-inch thick.

Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch round baking pan. Place the larger dough round into the baking pan, using your thumb and forefinger to tuck the dough into the bottom of the pan. The dough should come up the sides of the pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whisk the egg whites until they form medium-hard, glossy peaks. Using a spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the ricotta mixture. Gently place the filling into the baking pan, on top of the bottom crust.

Using the lightly floured rolling pin, roll the remaining dough into a circle 1/8-inch thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into strips 1-inch wide. Use these dough strips to decorate the top of the ricotta pie, forming a lattice across the top, just as you would an apple pie.

Place the pie in the oven and bake until the dough on top is golden brown, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.


Leah said...

We're all still talking about how sublime the pastiera napoletana was, so at least that's some comfort, right? Orange flower water is big in Lebanese cooking--I first tasted it when Alex's dad made me some Lebanese lemonade--lemonade flavored with orange flower water. You have to try it--it is so good, like something fairies would drink. You just make fresh lemonade, and add the flavored water to the sugar before you mix it in. You can also buy the o.f. water at Sahadi's. It's super-inexpensive, and a very nice brand.

Sheri said...

That's funny! What a trooper. I'm glad you kept at it because it looks fabulous! P.S. I've also found the orange flower water at finer liquor stores. Cheers!