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

Baked Pears with Prunes, Chocolate and Almonds

Autumn just gets better and better, with new season’s pears appearing and a few quinces making their debut in the markets. My few garden pears are maturing on the tree- protected from cockatoos and parrots by bird netting. All this bountiful plenty makes me think of how wonderful pear desserts can be.Image

Leah, of the Cookbook Guru, has chosen Karen Martini’s ‘Cooking at Home’ this month. Its a great chance to cook from a recipe book that you might own, or just borrow one, as I did.  It is also a chance to be honest and appraise the pros and cons of a recipe. A few pear recipes caught my eye but I decided to make something with a touch of drama, a little trick that I might keep up my sleeve for when  friends come over for dinner.

       Baked Pears stuffed with prunes, chocolate and almonds. (serves 6)

  • 350 g castor sugar
  • 2 slices of lemon
  • 800 ml water
  • 400 ml white wine
  • 6 beurre bosc pears, peeled, cored, but with stems left intact
  • 2 sheets frozen puff pastry, defrosted
  • pure icing sugar for dusting
  • good quality ice cream for serving

    Stuffing

  • 4 Tablespoons sherry ( or other spirit)
  • 6 prunes
  • 2 Tablespoons currants
  • 100 good quality dark chocolate, melted
  • 10 g toasted flaked almonds
  • 4 pieces glace` ginger, chopped
  1. Combine the sugar, lemon, water and white wine in a large saucepan over high heat and bring to the boil. add the pears, reduce heat to low, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until tender. Remove pears and set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 220c. Line a baking sheet with baking paper.
  3. Make the stuffing. Heat the sherry in a small saucepan. When hot, add the prunes and currants. Stir, remove from the heat and set aside for 15- 20 minutes. Strain ( if you need to). Combine the melted chocolate, almonds and ginger and prune mixture, then set aside to cool.
  4. Cut the pear shapes from the pastry sheets, with an extra 3 cm all around. Spread 1 tablespoon of stuffing onto the pastry and sit pears on top. Transfer to the baking tray and bake for 14 minutes.  Dust with icing sugar and serve with icecream.Image

Pros.

  • The pears can be made up to a week ahead. I made one third of the recipe for the actual composed dessert, but ate the other pears for breakfast.
  • The stuffing can also be made ahead, leaving the shaping and baking till the last minute.
  • It looks dramatic.

Cons.

  • The lovely sounding stuffing tasted only of fruit chocolate. The subtlety of the other ingredients didn’t shine through ( except for the ginger).
  • The pastry I used was commercial sheet pastry which was hanging around in my freezer. It wasn’t fabulous. I would suggest a really good quality puff pastry in order to get the benefit of puff and crunch that this dessert probably deserves.
  • Mr Tranquillo said he preferred my other pear desserts and was underwhelmed. His opinion was proffered only when pushed!

.