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

Artichokes, to eat or to decorate

IMG_4839

It’s artichoke season and I can’t find many people who love to eat them as much as I do. Our resident Italian guest, Albé, dislikes them, and my numerous family members, whose visits usually require a mass catering event, or the raiding of the cellar for a reasonable bottle of vino, don’t enjoy them.  Mr Tranquillo hates them intensely.

Back in 2000, our travels took us to Naples to visit the brother of my dear friend Olga. During that time, we were invited to lunch at the apartment of her cousins, right near the Galleria Umberto. The table was set impeccably, the hosts were gracious and also quite ancient. The whole event was ” molto elegante“.  But we forgot to mention the most important thing- that we were vegetariani , and along with the language, age and cultural divides, this would become an embarrassing hurdle.

First course was a simple Pasta Napoli. We were going well. Then came the polpettini di fegato. Liver meatballs, lightly crumbed and sauted.  Mio Dio!  Other expressions, involving the Madonna also came to mind. Mr Tranquillo turned a lighter shade of green and then quietly mentioned his dietary issues. A whole ball of buffalo mozzarella landed on his plate as a substitute.  I ate the liver balls, with some trepidation, but found them quite tasty and tried to focus on the concept of bella figura.*  Along came the next course – scallopini di vitello, veal schnitzels, served with a simple green salad.  I also ate these, and focused  this time on the Dalai Lama: I was almost enjoying this meat fest.  Mr Tranquillo once again sheepishly declined,  and was offered a freshly prepared giant carciofo.  Knowing how much he hates artichokes, but also feeling very embarrassed and quite uneasy about insulting our gracious hosts, I gave him THE LOOK which indicated,  “You will eat every bit of that maledetto artichoke and you will look like you are enjoying it!” He ate it.

young artichokes
young artichokes

Back to the back yard and my giant artichoke plants.  My dear friend Helen looked at them admiringly as I cut two long stems of artichokes from the bush, complete with their soft grey/green side leaves. She mused, décor or to eat,  examining them carefully, whilst pondering a far more sensible question than that of Hamlet.  Décor she decided. Well, I’ve done decorating with artichokes, and no more waxing lyrically about the plants’ architectural beauty.  Today I plan to eat them, by myself, just me.

La ricetta per carciofi in memoria della mia cara amica, Olga D’ Albero Giuliani – Artichoke recipe in memory of my dear friend Olga.

Leave a small portion of the stalk and peel  it. Prepare the artichokes by removing all the sharp spiky leaves, pulling them off, one at a time. When the plant looks much smaller and no sharp bits remain, cut off pointy top half then cut into quarters and remove all the hairy choke from the centre.  Drop each one into acidulated water as you go.  When all are ready, choose a heavy based pan, big enough to hold the prepared artichokes. Add extra virgin olive oil, garlic, sauté for a few seconds, then add drained artichokes. Sauté again for a minute or so, add some lemon juice, a little water, and salt to taste. Cover and cook on low heat, making sure that they don’t burn or catch, until tender. Eat out of the pan, if desperate, or if you can find some friends to share them with, add to an antipasti platter.

My friend Olga many years ago. I miss her every day. *** http://www.ozpod.com/yarra/books/share.html