Friday, June 8, 2007

Everybody Needs a Nonna

Lately I’ve been thinking how nice it would be to have an Italian grandmother hanging around the house. You know the kind I mean – a wizened little old woman in a headscarf who’d cluck over my skinned knee (or bruised ego), tend to a flock of chickens in the back yard, and pour out a fortifying slug of grappa when I needed it. Then, when I’d had just about enough of Nonna, she’d gently nod off in her rocking chair and make soft, Italian-accented snoring sounds. Sounds great, huh?

The other thing Italian Grandma would do of course, is cook. This would be her passion, making good things for me, the little principessa, to eat. Minestrones, panzanellas, roasted meats, and every kind of pasta. Italian Grandma would bend over her wooden counter and roll out raviolis by the dozen. “E niente,” she’d shrug - It's nothing - and I’d smile fondly at Nonna and keep on chewing.

And maybe in certain households in Italy, it really is nothing. My friend Anita visited her relatives in an Italian village and after eating her way through a four-hour, multi-course dinner, she watched, aghast, as they fed the leftovers to the dog. Thing is, those leftovers were handmade tortellini, the kind of thing Anita makes only a couple of times a year – on very special occasions, when she’s got say, an extra five hours or so. Lucky, lucky dog.

And that reminds me of the time that the royal family once stayed at a bed and breakfast in upstate New York. We came downstairs at breakfast to find the house cats chewing their way through a tangle of spaghetti and meatballs, both cats coming at it from opposite ends of the same strand. It was a great place to spend a weekend: We all loved the goat that lived on the property, a sweet little creature named Molly who gave a whinny whenever her name was called. Funny how these things become embedded in family lore. Call out the name “Molly” in that particular singsong voice and any one of our family will still bray in response. (Umm, okay, maybe you had to be there.)


But I digress. Back to Italian Grandma ... Nonna. This week’s recipe is in fact called Torta della Nonna, translated as tart or cake or pie Grandmother-style. It comes from my dear friend Ellen, a former colleague and terrific traveling companion, who tells me she made it for a Grandmother Shower. She claims it was the perfect accompaniment to the prune-tinis they served at the shower, although I hope she was kidding about the beverage selection.

I can vouch that the torta is a wonderful treat and tastes divine with a cup of strong coffee. The buttery pastry is orange scented and the filling is a ricotta custard with just enough pine nuts and Cointreau-soaked raisins to give it a bit of a zing. One bite and you’ll agree: La vita e bella.

Oh, if only Italian Grandma were here to taste it.


Torta della Nonna
Adapted from Good Friend Ellen

Ellen makes her version with almonds; I used pine nuts. Ellen used a 10-inch springform pan for her torta; I used an 11-inch tart pan with removeable bottom. (I ended up with enough extra pastry to put in the freezer and use for another tart.) Nobody's complaining about either version.

For the pastry:
1 1/2 c. butter, softened
2 c. sugar
2 t. vanilla
grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 t. salt
2 eggs + 2 egg yolks
5 c. flour

Cream butter and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla, orange zest, and salt. Mix eggs in one at a time until well incorporated. Dough will be very soft. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

For the filling:
1 egg + 2 egg yolks
4/5 c. sugar
1/2 c. + 2 T. flour
2 c. whole milk
12 oz. ricotta cheese

Whisk together eggs and sugar in heavy bottomed saucepan. Sift flour into mixture, whisking to avoid lumps. Add milk in a stream, stirring gently. When mixture is smooth, put over medium low heat, stirring until mixture thickens. When mixture comes to a boil, allow to cook for 2 more minutes. Pour mixture into a bowl to stop it from cooking any more. When mixture has cooled completely, stir in ricotta.

For assembling:
1 egg yolk
3 T. pine nuts or blanced almonds, sliced lengthwise
3 T. golden raisins soaked in 2 T. Cointreau

If the pastry has chilled, let it come to room temperature before rolling out. Preheat oven to 375.

Divide pastry and roll into 2 circles. Fit one half into bottom of pan. Pour ricotta mixture into pastry shell and sprinkle with 2 T. nuts and all the raisins. Cover with remaining pastry and crimp edges. (If you use a tart pan, the pastry will cut itself as you place it atop the ricotta.)
Whisk the egg yolk and brush over pastry. Sprinkle tart with remaining tablespoon of nuts. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on size of pan. Tart will be golden brown. When cool, dust with powdered sugar.



At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

La torta de nonna non che como la festa perdita.

At 4:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is that, in fact, the king shoveling pie towards his face? Although I have met the gentleman once, I now do not believe I would recognize him without a forkful of something delectable posed in front of his face, just so...

I am a frequent lurker here, and greatly enjoy your writing. I may even get off my substantial posterior, and make one of these pies with my kids this weekend.

Thanks for the entertainment!

At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So glad your torta was a success!

At 10:15 AM, Blogger The Queen of Tarts said...

Anonymous, Grazie! (I think)

Doug, Yes, that's the king eating with gusto. Thanks for your kind words...stop by anytime!

Ellen, A toast to you!

At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi :),

We would like to feature your torta on our blog and possibly our digital-recipe reader, too.

Please email if interested. Thanks :)

You can read more here:


At 1:31 AM, Anonymous Marleene said...

This looks so beautiful. Very nicely done. I love this.Thanks.


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