This dessert has long been on my list of recipes to tackle. In fact, it found its way on my list long before I had a space to talk about tackling tortas. I first stumbled upon this tart-to-beat-all-tarts back in my first days in Italy. Then, almost 5 years went by before I had it again. And not on a return trip to Florence (that wouldn’t happen for 7 years), but at a business meeting in an Ethiopian restaurant in Georgetown. Certain (unsavory) historical events left an Italian influence on Ethiopian cuisine, especially went it came to coffee and dessert, and Torta della Nonna was no exception.
The luscious, but not too sweet, ricotta pastry cream filling and the quirky, crunchy pine nut topping never fails to make me swoon. So this summer, when I spotted its snowy, pine nutty top on the dessert cart at a tiny trattoria on my fifth night in Florence, I knew how my meal would end long before it began.
This recipe is adapted from one that appeared in Food & Wine, though I make one notable addition — the ricotta. There are scads of recipes for this dessert on the interwebs, but few call for the ricotta in the filling. This is a deal breaker for me and it should be for you too. Without the ricotta there is no torta, just a plain ‘ole tart.
Torta della Nonna, or Grandmother’s Cake, is typically served around Easter in Tuscany. However, in my opinion, serving it only once a year seems foolish and shortsighted. So let’s start with Easter this year and think about it again for July 4 and Labor Day and Thanksgiving and Christmas. There’s always New Year’s too and I can’t think of a better way to ring it in.
Torta della Nonna
Summary: This dessert is best when made over 2 days, if possible. The crust and filling can both be made a day ahead and chilled in the refrigerator overnight. This gives the filling ample time to set up and makes for easy assembly, baking, and cooling, the day of. Adapted from Food & Wine
For the crusts:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Zest of 1 medium lemon
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 14 Tbs (1 stick + 6 Tbs) unsalted butter, cold + diced
- 2 large eggs
- 4 large egg yolks
For the ricotta pastry cream:
- 2 cups milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Strips of lemon peel from 1 lemon
- Half of a vanilla bean
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
- Pine nuts + confectioner’s sugar
- For the crusts: In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, lemon zest and salt. Add the cold butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the whole eggs and egg yolks and pulse a few times, until the dough just comes together.
- Turn the pastry dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it 2 or 3 times, just until it comes together. Divide into 2 pieces, 1 slightly smaller than the other, pat into disks and wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (I prefer overnight.)
- For the ricotta pastry cream: In a medium saucepan, heat the milk with 1/4 cup of the sugar, the vanilla bean and vanilla seeds and the lemon strips until the mixture is hot, but not boiling.
- In another medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar until blended. Stir in the flour until incorporated. Temper the eggs by whisking in the hot milk in a thin stream.
- Set a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl. Pour the pastry cream mixture back into the saucepan and cook over moderate heat, whisking, until thick and bubbling, about 2 minutes. Immediately strain the pastry cream into the bowl, scraping the strainer with a rubber spatula. Discard the lemon peel and vanilla bean. Fold in the ricotta and stir until fully combined. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pastry cream and refrigerate until chilled, 1 to 2 hours, or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 350°. Coat a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom with nonstick spray. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the larger disk of pastry to an 1/8-inch-thick round. Ease the pastry into the tart pan, pressing the dough into the corners. Don’t trim the overhang.
- Spread the chilled pastry cream in the tart shell in an even layer. (You may have some extra pastry cream, but I hardly consider this a problem. You can always make a baker-sized mini torta, like I did, or slurp it up with some fresh berries.)
- Roll out the remaining pastry disk to an 1/8-inch-thick round and set it over the tart; gently press out any air bubbles. Carefully roll the rolling pin over the tart pan rim to cut off the overhanging dough. Gently press the edge together to seal the tart.
- Bake the tart in the lower third of the oven for about 40 minutes, rotating the tart pan halfway through baking, until the crust is golden brown. Let the tart cool completely in the tart pan. Unmold the tart and transfer it to a large serving plate. Sprinkle the tart with pine nuts and confectioner’s sugar, cut into wedges and serve.
Preparation time: 1 hour(s)
Cooking time: 40 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 8