Tag Archives: traditional

Torta della Nonna

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I don’t like chocolate ice cream.  I couldn’t care less if I never had a piece of chocolate cake for the rest of my life.  Mars Bars, Snickers, Milky Way, please don’t bring them anywhere near me.  But hand me a bowl of custard, and I know that any attempts at resistance will be futile.

The custard urge came upon me this weekend, so I thought I’d make this popular Italian dessert, Torta della Nonna.   Word has it that it wasn’t actually made by anyone’s Nonna at all, but it was put on a restaurant menu in northern Italy many many moons ago and named such, and has since become an Italian staple in many a bakery.   It’s a simple tart with a classic custard with a  hint of lemon and adorned with pine nuts.

If you’re like me and can’t avoid the temptation of custard, also check out my attempt at Pasticciotti Leccese and Limoncello Custard. Oh, and if you’re wondering to do with all the leftover egg whites, try a batch of almond bread or amaretti.

For the pastry
400g Tipo 00 flour
150g caster sugar
200g chilled unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs

Combine the dry ingredients and the butter in a food processor until it starts to look like breadcrumbs. Add the vanilla extract and the eggs and process until it starts to come together. Turn out onto a floured surface and kneed until almost smooth. Shape into a disc, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for one hour. While the pastry is resting, you can make the custard filling.

Custard
8 egg yolks
200g caster sugar
80g plain flour
1 litre full cream milk
Rind of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place milk, vanilla extract and lemon rind in a large saucepan over low heat and bring to just before boiling point. Remove from heat and allow to infuse for 10-15 minutes. Remove lemon rind from milk.

While the milk is infusing, whisk using an electric mixer the egg yolks, sugar and flour in a bowl and combine well.

Add milk a cup at a time to egg mixture while whisking until all milk has been added. Pour the combined mixture back into saucepan over low heat and whisk constantly until mixture has thickened. You always need to be very attentive with custard, it’s one of those things where it looks like nothing is happening and then thickens in a split second.

Once thickened, remove from heat, and pour into a large bowl. Place cling wrap directly over custard to prevent a skin from forming. Allow to cool for 30 minutes.

Assembly
50g pine nuts
Icing sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 180°C (fan forced). Grease a 25cm tart tin with removable base (or you could also do this in a normal springform cake tin). Divide the pastry into pieces in a ratio of 1/3 to 2/3.

Roll out the 2/3 piece on a lightly floured bench and place into tin. Pour in the custard (you may not need to use it all). Roll out the remaining pastry large enough to form a lid and cover the tart, gently pressing the edges to seal.

Rinse the pine nuts with ice cold water (this can help stop them burning), sprinkle them on top of the tart and bake for 45-50 minutes until golden. Allow to cool, remove from tin and dust with icing sugar to serve.

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Torta Pasqualina – Savoury Easter Cake

This savoury Easter cake, which is really more like a pie, hails from the Northern Italian region of Liguria.  It is traditionally served on Easter Monday, and once upon a time it used to be made using 33 sheets of ultra thin pastry, each layer representing a year that Jesus was alive.  These days most recipes make it with four, which is what I did (and if you really don’t want to make pastry, store bought will do).  I needed five bunches of silverbeet to get to one kilo of leaves, it will depend on how big your bunches are; the stalks can be used for stock or soup, they are tasty and often get discarded. A lot of eggs are required here, so it was lucky that the girls had had a prolific laying week. Like lots of old recipes, you’ll see variations on the theme – some combine the spinach and ricotta, as I did, and others do them as separate layers. There are also artichoke versions.

Pastry
600g Tipo 00 flour
350ml water
1 teaspoon salt
35ml olive oil

Place the flour in a bowl, add the salt, water and olive oil and mix gently with a fork until it comes together. Tip onto a floured surface and kneed until smooth. Divide the dough into four balls – two of 300g each and the other two approx. 170-180g each. Place on a tray, cover with a tea towel and allow to rest for one hour.

Filling
1kg silverbeet leaves
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 twigs marjoram
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
250g of well drained ricotta
7 eggs
1 egg extra, lightly beaten for brushing pastry

While the pastry is resting, make the filling. Blanch the silverbeet in boiling water for five minutes and drain. Squeeze out as much excess water as you can and chop finely.

Place the olive oil in a pan on medium heat and saute the onion with a pinch of salt until softened, add the chopped silverbeet and combine and cook for a couple more minutes, then remove from heat. Season. Add the marjoram, nutmeg, ricotta and parmesan and combine well. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. Take one of the seven eggs, lightly beat, then add to the mixture and combine well. Set aside.

Assembly
Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees fan forced. Grease a 26cm springform tin with butter or olive oil.

Take one of the 300g balls of dough, and roll out thinly on a floured surface so that it is big enough for the cake tin. Gently lift it into the tin and line. Repeat with the second 300g ball, so that you now have two layers in the base. Gently spoon the silverbeet mixture into the cake tin and smooth out. Then take a spoon (I used an icecream scoop) and make seven round impressions in the silverbeet mixture. Into each one crack one of the seven eggs. Season the eggs lightly.

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Now take a 180g ball of dough and roll out big enough to form a lid, and gently place on top of the cake tin. Repeat with the second ball. Trim the excess pastry around the edge of the cake tin, and then curl into a crust to seal (I probably made it a bit too thick, I would do it thinner next time by trimming the pastry a bit more). Take the extra beaten egg and using a pastry brush, brush over the pasty and season the top lightly. Bake in the oven for about 50 minutes or until nice and golden. Remove and allow to sit for a few minutes before serving.

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A Sunday Savoiardi extravaganza

My godmother (or comare in Italian), who I adore, is a fabulous cook.  Like Mamma Rosa and others who grew up in Italy in the decades following the second world war, they took simple ingredients, often home grown, and figured out firstly how to make them go as far as possible, and secondly how to make them as flavoursome as possible.  Once in Australia they adapted and learnt new things and new ingredients – comare’s spinach and ricotta cannelloni crepes are to die for –  but may of the traditions and recipes remain true.

Also like Mamma Rosa, comare is a damn good biscuit maker, both of them can whip up amaretti and crostoli like nobody’s business.

A while back my comare bought me a particular plate of biscuits that I loved and I wanted to learn how to make them.  She called them savoiardi but was quick to point out that they aren’t “savoiardi della nonna”, the traditional variety.  So this morning comare and I met half way in Mamma Rosa’s kitchen for a Sunday baking session. Laughs were had, stories were told, hugs were given.

In typical Italian handed down fashion, there isn’t a strict flour measure.  It’s the good old phrase you’ll find even now in many an Italian cookbook: the flour should be “quanto basta” or “quanto se ne prende” (literally “however much is enough” or “however much it takes”, both extremely useful measures). You need a piping bag for these, the mixture is sticky and difficult to handle – if it is easy to manage with your hands then you know you’ve gone too far on the flour.

My comare’s savoiardi

These use only yolks, so you’ll have a dozen whites to use – so often after making a batch of these she makes almond bread.

Ingredients
12 egg yolks from large eggs, at room temperature
1 slightly heaped cup of caster sugar
1 cup canola oil
1 cup Grand Marnier liquor
2 teaspoons baking powder
Approx. 450-500g self raising flour, sifted

Making them

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees fan forced and line a tray with baking paper
  2. Using an electric mixer, whisk the yolks, then add the caster sugar and whisk until thick.  Then add the canola oil and the liquor and continue to whisk until combined
  3. Finally add the sifted flour and the baking powder and combine.  The mixture should be reasonably thick but quite stickysavoiardi (2)
  4. Put the mixture into a piping bag with a large attachment for biscuits (ie not one for pastry decorating).  Comare had a bad ass version, have to get me one of these. You can go for either ridged or smooth, but the ridges largely disappear as they rise. savoiardi (1)
  5. Pipe the biscuits to the desired length and then put in the over for 10-15 minutes until golden.

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So so good.

After we whipped these ones up, comare says “let’s make the other ones too”.  Who am I to argue?

Savoiardi della Nonna

These follow largely the same method, just a slightly different mix of ingredients.

Ingredients
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 slightly heaped cup of caster sugar
1 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Grated rind of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons baking powder
Approx. 500g self raising flour, sifted

Making them

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees fan forced and line a tray with baking paper
  2. Using an electric mixer, whisk the eggs, then add the caster sugar and whisk until thick.  Then add the canola oil, vanilla extract and lemon and  continue to whisk until combined
  3. Finally add the sifted flour and the baking powder and combine.  The mixture should be reasonably thick but quite sticky
  4. Put the mixture into a piping bag with a large attachment for biscuits and pipe the biscuits to the desired length and then put in the over for 10-15 minutes until golden.

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Thank you comare xxxx

Making pignolata

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A few days before Easter, I give Mamma Rosa a call and suggest we knock together a pignolata, we haven’t made it for ages. “You know”, she says, “I was thinking the same thing”. We’re getting into the territory of hardcore traditional Southern Italian sweets, and for me one that comes with a lot of memories. Nonna, Mamma Rosa and I would get a little production line going to make it happen. When I was growing up, pignolata would typically be made at Christmas and Easter, in the shape of a wreath. But Mamma Rosa, clever lady that she is, often made it into other shapes, giant number 18’s or 21’s depending on the birthday, and there was a dove or two here and there.

Like all of her recipes, none of the quantities are exact, it’s really about look and feel and experience. The dough for pignolata is very similar to that of crostoli, it’s just what you do with it that’s different. The amount we made was quite a big batch – it can produce two large pignolate, or three smaller ones. (By the way other Italian readers may know this sweet as struffoli, but in my mother’s village it has always been pignolata).

So off we go. We start by putting ten large eggs in a large bowl of the electric mixer. Next, says Mamma Rosa, “metti ‘na cucciarinata di zucchero per ogni uovo”. That’s one heaped spoon of caster sugar for each egg. Whisk them in the electric mixer till combined and fluffy.

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Next, add about half a cup of olive oil. Mamma Rosa never uses standard cup measures. Its just “ ‘na tazza” and typically whatever coffee cup she grabs from the cupboard. I guessed it to be about half a cup. Then half a cup of Sambuca (Molinari the only acceptable one at their house!) or Millefiore. She loves Millefiore, a lovely floral Italian liquor she often uses in sweets, but she says its dreadfully expensive here compared to Italy. Combine the oil and liquor into the egg mixture with a wooden spoon.

Now it’s time to add the flour. Like crostoli, she uses two parts plain flour to one part self raising flour. At a guess, I’d say we used about 800g of plain and 400g of self raising. You want the dough to be soft and pliable. We fold in the flour with a wooden spoon then we used the dough hook attachment to bring it together for a couple of minutes. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, knead until smooth and form in the shape of a log. (If it is too much to knead in one piece just split it in two).

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Cut the log into discs, then roll each disc into long thin strips, kind of like breadsticks. They do need to be quite thin because the dough does puff up when cooked due to the self raising flour. Dad grabs a giant tile from the garage and Mamma Rosa and I take a seat and get rolling. As we roll she chatters as she often does about growing in Italy. She tells me that when Nonna used to make pignolata she’d make seven or eight at a time, and hand them out around the village. It would be the same with bread, biscuits, blankets,  whatever she was making. “Mama era di mani larghe” she says. “She was of big hands”.  Generous, she means. I miss Nonna. But the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

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Once we have all our strips ready its time to cut. Grab a serrated knife and cut the strips into little pieces, about 1cm long or so.

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Then it’s time to fry. Heat some oil in a deep pan (Mamma Rosa used canola) and then fry the dough balls in batches until nice and golden. Set the fried balls aside and give the pan a clean. At this point we divided the balls in two to make two separate pignolate. The honey mixture below was just for one of them. If you don’t want to make two at once you can store the fried balls (once cooled) in an airtight container then go again another day.

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Return the pan to the heat and add about 350g of honey and half a cup of caster sugar on low/medium heat. (You can also add a little cinnamon but I’m not really a fan). Stir constantly until it starts to go golden and caramelise – but not toffee –  (was a good ten minutes or so), then add in the dough balls, combine till well coated keep stirring till the honey starts simmering, and continue to stir for another 5-10 minutes.

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The next step is to shape it. You can either shape it on a board or on the plate you’re going to serve it on. Be very careful, the honey is scaldingly hot, so we had a bowl of iced water at the ready. You can’t really let it cool down much as then it will begin to set before you can shape it. We spray the board with olive oil, put a glass down and then tip the honey coated balls around it and begin to shape. Add some sprinkles for decoration, remove the glass, then leave it to harden and set. Once it is set store in the fridge until you are ready to serve and cut with a serrated knife.

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It keeps well in the fridge in a sealed container for several days. It took the two of us a good three hours to make this, so it is a labour of love, but well worth it!