This month’s challenge is hosted by Ginger-Z who is pleased to present Torta Della Nonna/ Grandmother’s Cake. Italian ‘torta’ translates as cake, often a dense, single layer cake and many Italian cakes that are plain and simple are often highlighted by a regional/seasonal nut or fruit. This ‘torta’ however resembles a pie (pizze) or a tart. As Ginger researched this traditional Italian dessert, she realized that many regions in Italy claim this dessert as their invention.

Each region offers a similar recipe: a pasta frolla (a sweet, eggy short dough) for the shell and a filling that is either a pastry cream (crema pasticceria) or sweetened (usually, but not always ricotta) cheese, topped with pine nuts (or almond slices) and dusted with powdered sugar. One more advanced version even had a Genoise sponge cake layer between the pasta frolla base and the filling, probably meant for more ‘daring’ bakers.

Some versions encase the filling with pasta frolla on the bottom, sides and top, while other versions use pasta frolla only on the bottom and sides. It is best to use room temperature eggs and room temperature heavy cream when assembling the pasta frolla and the pastry cream. The pasta frolla dough is a very soft one, so if you live in a hot and humid climate, you may need to refrigerate the dough after rolling it out between parchment paper.

Since we’re right in the middle of summer here in Mauritius, it was downright difficult to get the pasta frolla right. For every few minutes, the soft sticky dough had to be refrigerated to make it workable. The pastry cream was luckily more stable at room temperature and I could not resist adding a swirl of whipped cream to give it some extra oomph. For the topping, I did not manage to get pine nuts, so it had to be toasted almonds on my first torta.

TORTA DELLA NONNA

Ingredients:

For the Pasta Frolla

2 1/3 cups / 290g unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup / 65g granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/4 teaspoon fine salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Freshly grated zest of 1 lemon or 1 small orange

3/4 cup / 1 1/2 sticks / 170g / unsalted butter, cold

1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 cup / 60ml / 2 fl. oz. heavy cream

A few drops of ice water, if necessary

For the Pastry Cream/ Crema Pasticceria

2 cups / 480ml / 16 fluid oz. whole milk

Two 3″ / 8cm long strips freshly peeled lemon zest

1/2 vanilla bean, seeds removed

5 tablespoons/ 65g granulated sugar, divided

4 large egg yolks, room temperature

Pinch of kosher salt/ kitchen salt

1/4 cup/ 30g unbleached all purpose flour

1 tablespoon / 15g unsalted butter, softened

For the Torta della Nonna Topping

1/2 cup / 65g pine nuts, toasted and cooled

Powdered sugar, for garnish

Bittersweet chocolate, for garnish

Method:

  • Place the all-purpose flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and citrus zest in the bowl of a food processor.
  • Pulse several times to combine the dry ingredients, then add all of the cold, cubed butter to the bowl.
  • Pulse to process the mixture till it is sandy and there are no visible lumps of butter. Set mixture aside.

  • In small bowl, whisk together egg, egg yolk, vanilla extract and heavy cream. Add the wet ingredients.
  • Pulse until dough comes together. Add some ice water, a few drops at a time for dough come together.
  • Remove dough from the food processor and work it with your hands to even out any dry and wet spots.

  • Form the dough into a ball, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill until firm 1 to 2 hours in fridge.
  • The dough can be frozen for up to 2 months. For the pasta frolla assembly, remove dough from fridge.
  • Roll the tart dough on a floured surface to 1/8-inch/3mm thickness between two pieces of parchment.

  • Place a 9″ /23-cm spring form pan on top of dough. Using a knife, trace a circle around outside of pan.
  • Leave an extra 3/4″ / 2cm parchment all around. Place the circle of dough inside the spring form pan.
  • Press dough onto the bottom and sides. The dough should come up about 3/4″/2cm around the sides.

  • Pierce the bottom with a fork. Cover with plastic wrap; place pan in refrigerator to chill for 20 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 350°F / 175°C / Gas Mark 4 and position the baking rack in the center of the oven.
  • While the tart shell is chilling, prepare the filling. Place the milk and lemon zest in a medium saucepan.

  • Scrape seeds from ½ vanilla bean with the flat side of a small knife. Add seeds and the bean to the pan.
  • Add in 3 tablespoons granulated sugar and place the saucepan over medium heat. Keep stirring mixture.
  • Meanwhile, place the egg yolks in a medium bowl and whisk them with 2 tablespoons of sugar and salt.

  • When the milk mixture begins to boil, remove from the heat. Quickly whisk the flour into the egg yolks.
  • Then whisk in few splashes of the milk mixture. Gradually add more milk mixture, whisking constantly.
  • Return mixture to the saucepan and cook over low heat; whisk constantly until it has thickened enough.

  • Remove saucepan from heat and strain it through a fine mesh sieve to remove the zest and vanilla bean.
  • Transfer the pastry cream to large, shallow bowl and whisk in butter. Press plastic wrap over its surface.
  • This will prevent a skin from forming on top. Remove the chilled pasta frolla shell from the refrigerator.

  • Tear a large sheet of aluminum foil/ parchment paper and press it against the entire surface of the shell.
  • Fill the shell with pie shell weights or dried beans or rice to cover the surface of foil or parchment paper.
  • Blind bake shell for 15 minutes. Carefully remove foil or paper and weights and return the shell to oven.

  • Bake shell for an additional 5 to 7 minutes or until it is light golden brown. Remove tart shell from oven.
  • Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Pour pastry cream into the warm pie shell, smoothing the top with spatula.
  • Allow pastry cream and shell to cool completely so the cream sets into the shell. Cover with plastic wrap.

  • Transfer the tart to the refrigerator to chill. To serve, carefully remove the sides of the spring form pan.
  • Transfer tart to serving plate and scatter toasted pine nuts and chocolate evenly over the top of the tart.
  • Serve cold or at room temperature. Wrapped in plastic, leftovers will keep in refrigerator for a few days.