It was our Italian-ified take on high tea, where tea was replaced by espresso and biscuits were replaced by Torta della Nonna. I don’t know exactly when it started but, over the time I lived in Florence, when my mother would visit our afternoon ritual was to order a short espresso and a slice of the lemon-custard cake known as Torta della Nonna.
Our regular haunts were the historic Florentine cafes of Gilli or Rivoire becuase they both had great service, amazing views, and, of course, delicious takes on the cake. We did so on a such regular basis that before we'd even sit, the waiter (who was smitten with my mother) would head directly to the pastry case to plate a slice for us. With time we kicked the habit, but we still order it whenever we're traveling in Italy together and see it on the menu.
Possibly tied with cantucci e vin santo (aka almond biscotti and sweet dessert wine) as the most ubiqutous dessert in Tuscany, Torta Della Nonna is one of the most classic Tuscan desserts you'll come across when you travel to Italy. Made by topping a shortbread crust with a lemon and vanilla pastry cream and a smattering of nuts (sometimes pine nuts other times almonds) and a veil of powdered sugar, it's simple in its execution but delicious in taste. I like it because, like so many other classic Italian desserts, it's subtle, not too sweet, and relatively easy.
The translastion of Torta Della Nonna, is “Grandmother’s cake” but, beyond the name and the fact it's from Tuscany, not much else is certain about this dessert. The provinces of Arezzo and Florence have a long-standing rivalry and apparently that extends to this dessert too becuase both claim to have created it. And, even though the name implies it's a classic recipe passed down from grandma, it's believed that the recipe actually came from the restaurant world. What is for sure is that the combo of pastry, custard, and pine nuts have been around since the 1800s.
At first glance, this recipe may seem like a lot of work because there are a few different steps, but all you're really doing is making a pastry crust and a pastry cream. So, once you make this a couple times, it will feel as familiar as your favorite cookie recipe and won't require much attention. And, there are a few things you can do to make it even easier on yourself.
The standard recipe for Torta Della Nonna is pretty much the same but, like with so many Italian recipes, there are still a few variations. While the most common version is made with just pastry cream as the filling, I'm partial to adding ricotta to the filiing. Also, while you'll see it topped with both pine nuts and almonds, I'm partial to the slightly bittersweet flavor of pine nuts. Finally, there is also a chocolate version of this recipe called torta del nonno––meaning, “Grandfather’s tart" but it's less common than this one!
plus more for pan and rolling out dough
plus more for garnish
cut into cubes
or heavy cream
or 1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
or slivered almonds
To Make The Italian Pasta Frolla Dough: Combine the 2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour with the 1 cup of powdered sugar, the 1 teaspoon of baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in a food processor fit with an S blade. Pulse several times until the ingredients are broken up and evenly mixed. Add the butter and mix on high until everything is evenly broken up.
Beat 2 of the egg yolks until they're smooth then add to the dough and pulse until it comes together as a ball. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it a few times until it's evenly combined. Shape it into a 1-inch thick rectange then divide the rectangle so you have one piece that's about 1/3 of the dough and a second piece with about 2/3 of the dough. Form them both into flat discs (anywhere from 1/2-to-1 1/2-inch in thickness), place them in resealable plastic bags (or wrap in plastic wrap) and refrigerate so the dough can relax, at least 30 minutes and up to 3 days.
You can make the dough through this step up to 3 days ahead of time. Wrap well and refrigerate until ready to use. Alternatively, you can freeze it up to 1 month -- just be sure to defrost it before using it. Also, feel free to use a great quality frozen pie dough if you don't want to make this dough from scratch.
To Make The Pastry Cream Ricotta Filling: While the dough rests, start to make the pastry cream. Whisk together the 1 cup of sugar with the 1/2 cup of cornstarch and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in a medium saucepan. Whisk together the 4 cups of whole milk and the remaining 8 egg yolks in a glass measuring cup until well combined.
While constantly whisking, slowly pour the milk mixture into the pan until it is all evenly combined (be sure to get in the pan corners too so you don't risk lumps!) then bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Whisk frequently until the mixture starts to thicken up, about 8 minutes. While continuing to whisk, let the mixture boil for 30 seconds to 1 minute them immediately remove it from the heat nad stir in the vanilla. Transfer to a clean glass or metal bowl, cover with plastic wrap (or wax paper), pressing it directly onto surface of cream to prevent skin from forming.
If you want the cream to cool more quickly, set the bowl over an ice bath and leave to cool to room temperature, at least 1 hour. Once the mixture is cool refrigerate it at leat 30 minutes and up to 3 days before using.
If you want to be extra sure that your pastry cream is smooth and doesn't have any lumps, go ahead and strain it through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, being sure to scrape the bottom of the seive so you get all the pastry cream.
To Roll Out The Italian Pasta Frolla Dough: Meanwhile, fininsh the dough. Start by preparing a 8-inch cake pan or springform pan by covering it with butter and flour -- tap out any excess flour that doesn't adhere. Place the springform pan in the refrigerator until ready to line it with dough
Take the larger piece of dough and place it on a lightly floured surface and, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll it to a circle a few inches wider than the prepared pan, about 11 inches in diamete. Wrap the dough onto your rolling pin and unroll it onto the prepared pan, carefully pressing it into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Use the back of a dry measuring cup to smooth the surface of the dough and help it adhere. Remove the excess pastry using a sharp paring knife and, with a fork, dock the surface of the dough. Set the lined pan in the refrigerator until your cream is cooled and you're ready to proceed.
Meanwhile, roll out the smaller piece of dough to an 10-inch circle -- keep it on a cutting board or flat plate in the refrigerator until you're ready to proceed.
You will have leftover dough. Use it to make fruit tarts or cut it into shapes and dip in sugar for impromptu sugar cookies!
To Assemble The Torta Della Nonna: Once the pastry cream is totally cool, soak the nuts in water for 10 minutes then drain, heat the oven to 375°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Place a rimmed baking sheet on the bottom rack as the buttery crust might drip a bit while baking!
Meanwhile, add the lemon zest and the ricotta and stir to just combine. Turn the ricotta pastry cream into the prepared pan and drape the second piece of dough over the filling. Create a seal at the cake's edge by pinching the edges of the crust closed and, again using a sharp knife, remove the excess pastry crust.
Make an egg wash by beating the 1 remaining egg yolk with a few tablespoons of milk or water then brush it across the top of the dough. Scatter the soaked and drained nuts on the top and gently push them into to make sure they aadhere. Bake at 350°F until the top is golden throughout, 40 to 50 minutes.
Soaking the pine nuts in water is a key step to help them from burning in the oven. Also, feel free to add more pine nuts or almonds -- many recipes cover the top completely with them!
To Serve The Torta Della Nonna: Remove the cake from the oven and set aside to cool to room temperature before serving. Run a butter knife around the inside of the springform pan to separate the crust from the pan then remove the pan's detachable ring. Top with a dusting of powdered sugar just before serving.
You can let the cake cool completely and refrigerate it then serve it cold -- it will be just as good. Just don't dust it with powdered sugar until you're ready to serve it!
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