Italian cuisine isn’t really known for its desserts. This is probably due to that fact that, after they have finished eating a meal laden with pasta, cheeses, bread, and wine, most people are either to stuffed or too sleepy (or both) to even think about taking on another course. Typically, your run-of -the-mill Italian eatery will feature the old standbys on its menu: tiramisu, gelato, cannoli, and flour-less chocolate cake, which isn’t Italian, but it apparently is written in some secret restaurant code that all dessert menus must feature this ubiquitous confection.
When Eric went to Europe with a group of his classmates, after graduating from business school, they spent most of their time in Italy. I was one year behind him and up to my ears in corporate catch phrases, doing my summer internship in New York. Although I did not get to experience the beautiful Tuscan countryside and delicious fresh foods firsthand, Eric did come home with a backpack full of gifts, perfect for a foodie like me. Two of these gifts were very authentic looking Italian cookbooks, which featured traditional and mostly unfamiliar Tuscan and Florentine recipes (in other words, no Spaghetti and Meatballs to be found).
Both of these cookbooks contained recipes for Torta Della Nonna, or "Grandmother’s cake", which is commonly seen on the shelves of pastry shops throughout Italy. There are thousands of variations of this cake, as each grandmother has her own special secret recipe, but they are usually a custard filled tart and they traditionally feature pine nuts. If you’re too full from your big Italian meal, this recipe would be equally delicious with afternoon coffee, or rather, espresso. Here are a few extra tips for these individual Italian pastries:
- If you don’t have vanilla beans on hand, and if you don’t want to make the rather steep investment, you can substitute 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract or 1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste (available at Trader Joe’s for a much more reasonable price.)
- Instead of dark rum, try substituting coconut rum, such as Malibu. You can also stir some lightly toasted coconut into the custard after it has cooled.
- If you don’t have mini tart pans, or if you would rather make one large dessert, then prepare the recipe using a 9 or 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. You may need to adjust the baking time accordingly.
- The crust dough may be chilled for up to 2 days, and the raisin mixture and custard may be prepared up to one day in advance. The tortas can be prepared one day in advance as well.
- Although tortas della nonna are traditionally prepared using pine nuts, you may substitute a different nut, such as slivered blanched almonds, instead.
Tortas Della Nonna
Makes 8 individual tarts
2 1/4 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 large eggs
5 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup raisins
1/4 cup dark rum
2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
5 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water (glaze for crust)
Prepare the crust dough: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the confectioner’s sugar and butter until blended. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and beat well after each addition. Add the flour and salt and beat until blended. Divide the dough into 4 pieces and wrap each piece in plastic wrap. Flatten the pieces into disks and chill for 1 hour.
Prepare the filling: Combine the raisins and the rum in a small saucepan and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for 3 hours or overnight.
Whisk 1/2 cup of the milk, egg yolks, and cornstarch in a medium bowl. In a large saucepan, mix the sugar and 1 1/2 cups of the milk. Scrape in the seeds from the vanilla bean and then add the bean. Bring the milk and sugar mixture to a boil and then gradually whisk it into the yolk mixture. Return the mixture to the pot and boil until thickened, whisking constantly, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, press plastic wrap onto the surface, and chill until cold, about 4 hours.
"Preheat the oven to 350F degrees. Working with 1 dough disk at a time, roll out onto a floured surface to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut the dough into 5 1/2-inch diameter rounds, gathering scraps and re-rolling, for a total of 16 rounds. Transfer 8 of the rounds to 4 1/2-inch diameter tartlet pans with removable bottoms.
Stir the raisin mixture and pine nuts into the cold custard. Divide the filling among the 8 tartlet pans. Top with the remaining 8 dough rounds. Trim the edges to a 1/4-inch overhang and press together the edges to seal. Brush the dough with the egg glaze.
Bake tortas until golden brown, about 45 minutes. Cool, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar, and serve.