Rewriting Tradition, Part 2. Easter in Naples

If we were in Naples today, I would take you to lunch in a family trattoria, set in an un-touristed part of the city. I would lead you through the dark lanes around Spaccanapoli, passing the eternally grieving Madonna statues sitting snugly in niches along white washed walls, each with their own red or pink glowing light and plastic flower bouquet. We would pass beautiful desanctified churches, graffitied, bombed and derelict beyond repair. Turning down the busy Vin San Gregorio Armeno where craftsmen carve and paint wooden presepi, a street dedicated exclusively to the Nativity, we would later exit onto the main thoroughfare at Via Duomo. On the opposite side of the road, we would gaze up at the ornate Cathedral of Naples, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, and then notice the 20 foot high advertising poster of a young woman in skimpy lace underwear right next to it. As we walk to lunch, we might speculate about a country that in recent times enjoyed the depraved antics of a corrupt Prime Minister, Berlusconi, and a society that feasts upon evening game shows hosted by middle age men in suits alongside young women sporting bikinis and stilettos.

After much banter, we’d find our lunch venue down an unattractive street still bearing the scars of the second world war. There’s no written menu here so we order a lunch of three courses, senza carne, without meat, a lunch of the house. First comes a little antipasto of acciughe, anchovies lightly dressed in oil, a generous ball of mozzarella di bufala, with a pile of Pane Duro, sliced from the ringed shaped loaves on the counter. Next follows a simple Pasta Napoli, then some contorni or sides, a cooked tangle of spinach slicked with good oil, some roasted potatoes which emerge from the focolare set in the wall, and a mixed salad. Finally, and because it’s the week following Easter, we are served a large slice of Pastiera, the famous wheat studded ricotta tart of Naples. The vino di casa, a light red wine, is included in the 10 euro per head price. We remark on our good fortune to have found such a place.

Di’s Beurre Bosc pears poached in Vincotto and Vanilla

Pastiera Napolitana is a pastry lined tart filled with citrus flavoured ricotta, lightened with eggs, containing softened wheat berries, then covered with latticed pastry on top. It has pagan and mythical origins, but the modern version of pastiera was probably invented in a Neapolitan convent.

“An unknown nun wanted that cake, symbol of the resurrection, to have the perfume of the flowers of the orange trees which grew in the convent’s gardens. She mixed a handful of wheat to the white ricotta cheese, then she added some eggs, symbol of the new life, some water which had the fragrance of the flowers of the spring time, candied citron and aromatic Asian spices. We know for certain that the nuns of the ancient convent of San Gregorio Armeno were considered to be geniuses in the complex preparation of the Pastiera. They used to prepare a great quantity for the rich families during Easter time.”¹

Torta di ricotta con brulee

I have made Pastiera in the past. It needs to be made some days in advance, and no later than Good Friday, to allow the fragrances to mix properly. This Easter, I have decided to break with tradition and make a lighter version. No resurrection wheat, and no top layer of pastry which I now find too heavy. My Sunday’s ricotta tart is lightened by cream, retains the aromatic orange elements, and steals a little trick from the French, a brûlée topping. It is served alongside some autumn pears cooked in vincotto. It is a dessert worth indulging in at any time of the year and the fruit can be varied to suit the season. Slow baked quinces would also go nicely.

An inside look at the filling

Torta di ricotta con pere, vincotto e vaniglia- Ricotta tart with brûlée topping and pear, vincotto and vanilla.

The Pastry Case

First make some sweet shortcrust pastry or pasta frolla, rested for one hour then baked blind, enough to cover a 25 cm tart or flan tin with a removable base. I have not included a recipe for this, since most cooks will have their favourite. Make it very short ( with 250 gr of butter)  and dust the tin with almond meal before baking.

The Ricotta Filling

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 375 g firm ricotta, drained
  • 60 gr icing sugar
  • 2 tsp or more of fine orange zest
  • 1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier or orange blossom water
  • 50 – 100 gr candied citron, finely chopped – optional
  • 25 ml full cream

Set the oven temperature to 180 c before commencing.

Place the egg, egg yolk, ricotta, sugar, orange zest, liquor and citron in a bowl of a an electric mixer and mix on low until very smooth. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until thick then fold through the ricotta mixture. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tart case and smooth over the top. Bake for 20- 30 minutes or until golden on top. Set aside until the topping sets and cools before removing from the flan tin.

The Pears

  • 4 large firm pears, such as Beurre Bosc
  • 500 ml water
  • 150 gr caster sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, slit open and seeds scraped
  • juice and rind ( without pith) of 1 lemon
  • 2 strips orange rind
  • 1/3 cup vincotto

Peel and core the pears and cut each pear into four. Place the water, sugar, vanilla, lemon and orange rinds, juice and vincotto into a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to the boil then add the pears. Cook on a low poaching heat, for around 30 minutes or until you are satisfied that the pears are soft enough. Remove the pears from the liquid and reduce the poaching liquid to thicken. The pears can be kept for days covered in their liquid.

The brûlée on top.

Sprinkle 1/3 of a cup of Demerara sugar evenly over the cake. Holding a kitchen blowtorch, caramelise the top by moving the flame backwards and forwards, until the sugar is melted.

Serve the tart with Vincotto poached pears on the side.

Buona Pasqua a Tutti.

Although this dessert has many steps, it really is easy to put together once you’ve made a sweet pastry shell.

All recipes are derivative and I have based this one on a recipe I found here, a site dedicated to the use of Vincotto. I also added some of the extra orange elements found in the traditional Pastiera Napolitana.

¹ https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastiera_napoletana

Pearl Couscous, Halloumi and Fig Salad

Returning to the kitchen with a basket of Autumn bounty presents a challenge: pasta, soup or composed salad- that is the lunchtime question. I’m not a sandwich person: too many school and work lunches, eaten on the run, killed the sandwich option for me forever. The provincial classic, Soupe au Pistou, combining green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, new potatoes, shelled red and white beans, then topped with a spoon of pesto, is an all time favourite. Warm composed salads are the other. With a few pantry and fridge staples, such as couscous and Halloumi cheese, this salad came together magically.

Insalata di cuscus, formaggio fritto, zucchini, figo e menta.

Ingredients for two large serves

  • 100g pearl couscous
  • 1 tablespoon EV olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • ½ red capsicum, finely diced
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  •  Halloumi cheese, drained or one small packet, cut into serving shapes*
  • a little EV olive oil for frying and grilling
  • one small zucchini, chopped thickly into 2 cm chunks on the diagonal
  • two or more fresh ripe figs
  • honey
  • mint leaves, torn
  • ground sea salt and pepper
  • vinaigrette or lemon juice to dress (optional)

Method

  1. Make the pearl couscous. In a small heavy based saucepan, add the oil, then add the couscous, capsicum and garlic and quickly toast over medium heat, stirring for 30 seconds on medium heat.
  2. Add the stock. Reduce heat to medium/low and cook, covered, for 20 minutes or until the stock is absorbed and the couscous is soft.
  3. Meanwhile, heat a stove top grill pan and grill the zucchini chunks. Remove and set aside. Season.
  4. In a regular frying pan, cook the Halloumi pieces in a little oil until brown on both sides. Remove and set aside.
  5. Halve the figs. Dunk the cut side in a little honey and fry in the on the cut side until brown and caramelised.

Assembling the salad.

Lay the warm couscous on a flat serving plate. Then add the zucchini, followed by the Halloumi, then the figs. Scatter torn mint over the dish, season and dress lightly.

* Notes.

  • I buy Halloumi in 1 kilo jars for around AU$10. The cheese keeps well in its salty brine and provides enough cooking cheese for around 6 months. Small packets of Halloumi from supermarkets would make this dish more costly.
  • Kefalograviera cheese fries well and would make a good substitute for Halloumi.
  • Other pantry staples could be substituted for the pearl couscous, such as orzo pasta. Use what you have.

This is an Almost Italian original recipe, inspired by this year’s stash of fresh figs.