This special dessert has many names: pizza grano, torta di nonna, Easter pie, and Neopolitan grain pie. As the last names suggest, it’s a Southern treat typically served on Easter. In fact, many years ago in San Francisco, I went looking through the Italian neighborhood for the wheat to make this pie. Nobody knew what I was talking about, till finally someone said, “Oh, that’s a Southern thing. You won’t find it here—the Italians in San Francisco all came from the North.” I don’t know how true that is, but the fact remains that I could not make my pie that year.
I should also mention that years ago, you had to find the dry wheat and then soak it, then boil it. A local market in LA started selling the wheat presoaked, which was a big time saver. Then, they started importing the soaked wheat from Italy, first in cans, and now in jars. In fact, the jar has a recipe on the label, which is not too different from this one. You can tell it’s a Southern pastry because of all the citrus. The climate in Southern Italy is very similar to the climate in SoCal, and around here, citrus is a winter crop. Around Easter, they’d be looking for ways to use up all those oranges and lemons. In fact, a traditional Easter antipasto is a colorful assortment of sliced oranges and lemons with some fresh basket cheese. Also, although you can get ricotta all year round nowadays, it used to be more of a spring thing.
You can use a store-bought crust in a pinch, but it’s worthwhile to make the pasta frolla. It’s a very light and delicate dough, which makes it a bit hard to work with. In fact, if you’re clumsy you might be called “butterfingered” in English, but in Italy, you’d have “mani di pasta frolla.”
This recipe is on a faded piece of paper in my own hand—I don’t know if I transcribed it from my dad’s recipe book (did he even have one?) or what. A lot of it was dedicated to preparing the soaked wheat—but I’ll omit that, assuming we’re using presoaked wheat from a jar. Pay attention to the eggs—you need to keep a few egg whites separate.
This recipe is for a single deep pie, cooked in a springform 10-in. pie plate—but I typically split it up to make two pies in standard pie plates (so you can send your guests home with some and still have more for tomorrow’s breakfast). If you’re making two pies, you won’t need to cook them quite as long. You should also make a little extra dough (which I did not do in the images below).
Let’s start with the pasta frolla.
What you need
2 cups sifted flour
½ cup sugar
pinch of salt
7 or 8 tbs butter
3 egg yolks
1 tbs milk
How you make it
- Sift flour, salt, and sugar into bowl.
- Cut in butter with pastry cutter.
- Stir in egg yolks one by one, mixing with a wooden spoon.
- Work with hands until dough us manageable and clears the bowl, adding a little milk if necessary to hold it together.
- Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead quickly till smooth.
- Form into a ball and chill 30 min.
- Divide into two parts, one larger than the other. Roll large piece on floured board into a disk ⅛ in. thick large enough to line a pie plate.
- Roll out second piece and cut into strips for lattice topping.
Now for the filling:
What you need
1 jar soaked wheat (or ¾ lb soaked and drained wheat)
½ cup scalded milk
1 ½ lb ricotta
1 ½ cup sugar
6 beaten egg yolks
1 grated lemon rind (or two if they’re small)
¼ cup minced citron glacé or candied lemon peel
¼ cup grated orange peel (two or three oranges)
½ tsp orange extract (optional)
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
4 egg whites, beaten stiff
How you make it
- Heat a sauce pan—careful not to let it get too hot. Pout in a half cup of milk (it is now scalded milk).
- Drain any excess liquid from wheat in the jar, then add the wheat to the scalded milk.
- Stir in orange peel, lemon rind, and citron glacé.
- Beat ricotta and sugar together, adding 6 egg yolks one at a time, along with a dash of cinnamon, a dash of vanilla, and a dash of orange extract.
- Add the wheat to the ricotta mixture and stir well.
- Stir in the beaten egg whites.
- Line the bottom and sides of a 10 in. springform pan, or two standard pie plates, with pasta frolla.
- Pour in the filling, and arrange strips of pasta frolla across the top in a criss-cross pattern, fluting the edges with the overhanging bottom layer. If you saved any egg whites, beat them a bit and brush them across the crust to prevent it from browning too much.
- Bake in a medium 350 degree oven for 1 hour, or until firm in the center and nicely browned on the top. Let cool in oven (to avoid cracking).
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Serve at room temperature or chilled, preferably with a nice cup of coffee.