Three of the best Easter cakes and pies
Easter is the sweetest holiday of the year. No other festivity can beat the crop of chocolate eggs, marzipan lambs, and Bundt cakes that make their appearance between mid March and mid April. In Italy, in particular, regional traditions make the Easter table even richer and sweeter than elsewhere.
Eggs are ubiquitous of course, as are the colombe, dove-shaped cakes made with flour, eggs, sugar, candied peels and butter, and covered with pearl sugar and almonds. But eggs are just as popular in other countries while colombe, though loosely linked to Lombardy’s history and gastronomy, are a clever and relatively recent commercial initiative from panettone producers, who thought they could adapt the traditional Christmas recipe to another holiday.
Far more interesting are the many regional offerings, which are often artisanal and steeped in religious symbolism—Le Marche’s ciambelle pastries, for example, are shaped like Christ’s crown of thorns. And, like the festivity itself, some of the Easter cakes and sweets are rooted in pre-Christian rites, such as the pastiera, a pie from Naples whose origins are linked to the Roman Spring festival and the cult of Ceres, goddess of agriculture.
You could almost hop from place to place in an endless gastronomic tour of Easter delicacies, but if you want to show some restraint, here are three of the very best regional sweets you really shouldn’t miss.
The first thing that strikes you about pastiera is its scent. It’s like smelling a bouquet of orange flowers. Indeed orange flower water and orange peel go into this pie, which has a crisp golden crust and a soft, creamy filling of ricotta, sugar, eggs and cooked wheat, flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla. It is so heavenly that legend wants it to be the creation of a siren, Partenope, protectress of Naples, who concocted it from the food offerings the populace brought her every spring. The cake, Neapolitans say, was the only thing that was sweeter than the siren’s voice.
Another story gives pastiera equally sacred but more modern origins—it is said that a nun of a Neapolitan convent first made it to celebrate Easter, and tried to capture in the recipe the scents of Spring blooming in the cloister garden. Indeed, pastiera was long the preserve of nunneries, which excelled at making the cake.
Today, it is made at home, usually on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, so that the flavours have time to blend and steep before the Easter banquet.
There are huge debates in Naples over which is the yummiest pastiera recipe—the traditional version, which uses beaten eggs and ricotta, or the more modern one, which replaces the eggs with custard. The best way to settle the controversy is to eat a slice of each type—purely for research’s sake, of course!
Picture by Mattia Luigi Nappi.
The queen of Sicilian desserts, cassata is one of the richest, most Baroque cakes you’ll ever taste. It is originally an Easter tradition, even though you can now find it at other times of the year too. Its origins, however, are far from Christian.
It was the Arabs who first brought to Sicily the ingredients and, probably, the recipe that later evoved into the cassata. Even the name, cassata, likely comes from the Arabic quas’at, which means bowl, although some people think it may derive from the Latin word for cheese, caseus—cassata being, after all, a luxurious form of cheesecake.
But each of Sicily’s many rulers added something to the cassata recipe. In Norman times, the shortcrust with which the cake had originally been made was replaced with green-tinted marzipan. During the Spanish domination, chocolate and a Spanish style sponge cake (called Pan di Spagna, or Spanish bread) were introduced. And the Baroque era brought the rich candied fruit with which the cake is now topped.
Throughout this time, nuns were widely recognised as Sicily’s best patissiers. They made cassata at Easter, and the cake became a synonym for the festivities—to the point that, according to a Sicilian saying, “those who don’t eat cassata on Easter morning lead a miserable life.”
Today, cassata is a sponge cake filled with ricotta, chocolate and candied peel, topped with marzipan and intricately decorated with icing and candied fruit. It is a feast for eyes and palate—and a serious threat to the waistline.
Unlike cassata and pastiera, pardulas are tiny. They are pretty star-shaped pies of thin, crisp pastry filled with a perfect, soft, golden mound of cheese, sugar and, unexpectedly, saffron, subtly flavoured with lemon or orange zest and occasionally peppered with raisins.
The local tourist board insists that Sardinia is “almost a continent” and, at least for what concerns food, this is true. So it is hardly surprising to discover that both recipe and name of these miniature cheese tarts—which are somewhat reminiscent of medieval darioles—change significantly from North to South of the island.
They are called pardulas in the southern Campidano plains where they are made with ewe’s milk ricotta; and casadinas in the North, where they are made with fresh pecorino cheese. The former are delicate and light, the latter stronger and more flavoursome.
Both variants, however, are quintessential Easter treats, although they are now available at other times of the year too. Their origins are lost in the mist of time and their association with the Spring festivities is unclear. But it is evident that the pardulas are deeply rooted in Sardinia’s shepherding tradition, which turns simple, every day ingredients into a mouthwatering feast.
And if sweet is not your thing, try the three best savoury specialities:
Torta pasqualina, a savoury Easter pie from Liguria, where an oil-based pastry is filled with spinach and ricotta
Pizza di formaggio, a rich pecorino cheese roll from Le Marche
Casatiello, a large Neapolitan roll filled with cheese and salami and topped with whole eggs held in place by thin stripes of bread.
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