Easter morning was one of the most exciting days of the year when I was growing up. After the baskets were opened and we attended church services (in our new Easter clothes), we drove up to North Jersey to visit my grandmother and have Easter dinner with my mom’s family. I remember driving by Italian pastry shops and seeing lines of customers out the door waiting to pick up Easter specialties, particularly wheat or rice pies. They are also know as Pastiera or Torta di Grano, a southern Italian dessert. For those who may not be familiar with wheat pie, it is a ricotta cheesecake, encased in a sweet pie crust (pasta frolla) that contains wheat and is traditionally flavored with citrus. The pies I have tasted are flavored with orange flower water (available at Middle Eastern and Mediterranean markets). You can use rice in place of wheat, but wheat is my personal favorite for its nutty and chewy quality. The softened whole grain is added to the cheesecake as an Easter symbol of the life cycle. The grain begins from seed, symbolic of fertility and the spring season of rebirth and of Christ’s gift of new life, after death and resurrection. Wheat pie is one of my favorite desserts of all time. Even my non-Italian husband loves it and requests it for his birthdays instead of cake.
This pie does take time to make, but it can be broken down into steps. When we lived near an Italian population I could buy the precooked wheat in a can, which made the process easier. But after we moved away, and before internet shopping, I had to learn to make it myself. It took many years and experimentation to find a good substitute for perfectly cooked and chewy canned wheat. I have tried substituting bulghur, white rice, and brown short grain rice (which is very good because it is nutty and chewy), but I keep coming back to wheat kernels. I have found the easiest way to do this is to buy wheat berries in the bulk section of your local grocery store several weeks before you want to make this recipe. Many recipes advise you to soak the wheat overnight before cooking, but I find this step to be unnecessary. Cook the wheat in a slow cooker for three hours. Drain cooking liquid then freeze in 1-1/2 cup portions. When you need wheat berries, just defrost it and you are ready to go. If you do not have a slow cooker and want to boil on the stove it will take about 1-1/2 hours or longer. Wheat berries are deliciously chewy and nutty and in addition to this pie are great for salads and soup.
Since Easter is a busy holiday I find that breaking down the steps over several days makes it easier. I make the pastry dough on Good Friday or early Saturday morning and chill it. Defrost the frozen wheat too. Make the pastry cream and chill. Then on Saturday night finish putting together the ricotta filling and bake. The pie does benefit from a day in the refrigerator before serving on Easter Sunday. The recipe is adapted from Nick Malgieri’s book Great Italian Desserts. It makes one 9″ pie.
Italian Easter Wheat Pie (Pastiera di Grano)
Cooked Wheat Berries
1 c. hulled white wheat berries (you can use red or brown, but they take a bit longer to cook)
5 c. water
2 (2 inch) strips of lemon peel
1/8 tsp. kosher salt
Rinse the wheat then place in the slow cooker along with the water, lemon and salt. Stir to mix. Cover and cook on high for 2-1/2-3 hours until wheat berries are puffed and tender yet chewy. Yields roughly 3 cups. You will use 1 cup for the pie. Save the rest for another use.
Sweet Pie Crust (Pasta Frolla)
1-2/3 c. flour
1/3 c. sugar
zest of half a medium lemon
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 c. unsalted butter, diced
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
In a food processor combine flour, sugar, lemon zest, and salt. Pulse until combined. Add butter and pulse to form pea size crumbs. Combine egg and vanilla to blend. Then add to flour mixture and pulse until it just begins to come together. Pour dough out onto the counter and bring together to form a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill 1 hour or longer.
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. flour
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 c. whole milk
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Combine sugar, flour, and salt in small saucepan. Whisk in milk, then egg, and mix to combine. Cook on low heat, stirring constantly until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. It should take 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Pour into a bowl. Cover pastry cream directly with plastic wrap and chill.
1 c. whole milk ricotta cheese
1/4 c. sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 c. candied orange peel, finely chopped
1 tsp. orange flower water
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
In a mixing bowl beat ricotta until smooth, about 1- 2 minutes. Add sugar. Beat in eggs then add orange peel, orange flower water and cinnamon. Fold in chilled pastry cream. Add 1 c. cooked wheat berries (you can use 1/4 c. more wheat if you prefer a more dense pie). The mixture should be thick.
1 large egg
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Roll out 2/3 pastry dough and fit into a 9-inch Pyrex pie plate. Pour ricotta and wheat filling into pastry shell. Beat the egg with salt to form an egg wash and brush around the edges of the pie dough. Roll out remaining pastry dough and cut into 9 (1/2″) wide strips to form a lattice top for the pie. Place the lattice strips on top of the pie filling, then brush the lattice with the egg wash. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the pastry is golden and custard is set in the middle. Cool on wire rack. Chill several hours before serving.