• A rich, sweet Easter Sunday dessert. (Emiko Davies)Source: Emiko Davies
From an ancient goddess and convent kitchens, the enchanting origins of a staple of Italian Easter celebrations.
Lauren Sams

30 Mar 2021 - 1:19 PM  UPDATED 10 Apr 2022 - 7:44 PM

While most of us in Australia might be chomping on hot cross buns come Easter Sunday, in Italy, for many it’s all about the pastiera Napoletana - a cheesecake-like cake that, like so many celebratory foods, has debated origins (but is definitely delicious).

The story goes that pastiera Napoletana was first made during Pagan celebrations in Italy, to mark the return of spring (in other words, what we would now call Easter). “It’s one of those recipes that nobody quite knows the origins of,” says Luciana Sampogna, who runs Sydney’s Cucina Italiana cooking school. “But that only adds to its charm, if you ask me!” Some believe that pastiera was born when the ancient goddess Partenope emerged from the waters of the Gulf of Naples, enchanting the people with her songs. To thank her, the people of Naples gifted her with the most precious products of their land: flour, ricotta, eggs, wheat, orange flower water, spices (like cinnamon) and sugar. When the goddess returned to the sea, she offered the gifts to the gods, who then did what any of us would do, and made a cake out of them.

The modern version of pastiera was probably, most agree, invented in a Neapolitan convent. And while the cake is certainly beloved (Tuscany-based food blogger Emiko Davies describes it as “crazy perfumed cheesecake crossed with rice pudding in a pie crust”) for its deep, rich flavour, it’s also highly prized for its symbolic value. The main ingredients - whole wheat berries, ricotta, eggs and orange flower water (or zest) are staples of Napoli cooking, and the wheat and eggs symbolise the new life we celebrate at Easter.

The cake is usually made in three stages, across several days, to allow the flavours to develop. On Maundy Thursday, the wheat berries are cooked in milk and lemon, resulting in an oatmeal-like mixture. The following day (Good Friday), cooks will prepare the pastry and ricotta filling and allow both to rest overnight (to avoid a “souffle effect” with the eggs - the top of a pastiera is meant to be flat and even, says Luciana). Saturday is baking day and on Sunday - of course - it’s (finally!) time to eat.

For Luciana, the history of pastiera - and indeed, any dish - is just as important as the dish itself. “In Italy, we do not teach the recipes without teaching the history - both are so, so important. You cannot understand the food until you have learned the history.”

A rich, sweet Easter Sunday dessert.

Want to make your own pastiera Napoletana? Find our recipe here.

More Easter Baking
Hot cross cookie

This Easter, the traditional bun gets a makeover. This fun and crumbly cookie version is still full of spice and with the signature cross piped over the top, this is a delectable way to get festive.

Sticky cinnamon pecan scrolls

Serve these deliciously sticky, spicy and nutty scrolls straight from the oven. They are best eaten the day they are made – but leftovers aren’t generally an issue.

Hot cross buns

These spice-laden buns are traditionally eaten for breakfast on Good Friday and marked with a cross to represent the crucifixion of Jesus.