Category Archives: Pastry

Pine nut tart

Pine nut tart

Torta della nonna – you’ll often see this on menus in Rome and other parts of Italy. It just means “grandma’s tart” or “granny’s cake”. I’m not sure I believe every single restaurant I saw it in had a grandmother toiling away making them, but it’s a cute selling point. I’m also not sure there’s a specific type of dessert tart that qualifies as torta della nonna – though the basic theme seemed to be variations on custard and pine nut tarts, made with or without ricotta, and with or without pine nuts on top.

The other day, our friend Dom asked me to supply the pudding for a meal he was making for his wife’s Min’s birthday. Immediately, I thought “tart” – for the pudding that is, not insulting either of them. A quick browse of the contents of the fridge and store cupboard, and of a few books, notably ‘Sweet Pies and Tarts’ by Linda Collister, suggested a pine nut tart. Which brought about fond memories of torta della nonna, even if this recipe is made without ricotta and has a filling that’s more an almondy sponge than a custard. Who knows though, I’m sure there are nonne out there who do use a bit of farina di mandorle (ground almonds) in their tarts.

The politics of pine nuts
Since coming home from Italy I’ve been having a bit of an issue with pine nuts. In Italy, I bought Italian pine nuts, harvested from Italian pine trees. Here, even in the most nominally right-on of health-foody shops, all the pine nuts seem to be from China. And I really can’t bring myself to buy them. It just seems insane to lug such produce half-way round the world, especially from China, a country with a dubious regime, a country that’s achieved borderline world-domination in everything from clothes to electronics, and a country that’s not exactly a paragon of environmental standards, with its economic revolution’s high energy demands. I’m not sure I trust its organic certification either.

Infinity Foods in Brighton, for example, sells Chinese pine nuts; pretty much all their dried beans are from China too – it’s really unfortunate as pulses are a big part of my diet. Can’t we grow anything a little closer to home? Can’t we get beans and pine nuts in Britain with slightly better ethical credentials? I realise the economics are complex, but cheaper food – cheaper imported food – often has hidden costs in terms of the environmental repercussions.

Plus, I remember Dom talking a few years ago about how Chinese pine nuts were leaving a strange metallic taste in his mouth – something to do with pollution perhaps? Or because Chinese exporters were mixing nuts from Pinus koraiensis trees with cheaper nuts from Pinus armandii, which some reports suggest is the cause of this “pine nut syndrome”. The EU changed rules regarding imports of the latter, but is it really that well regulated? And is it really just down to the Pinus armandii? (I’ll stop before I start sounding any more conspiracy theorist.)

I did finally find some pine nuts at La Porte’s in Lewes that were from the EU. Phew. This is what I had in my store cupboard.

Despite the depressing popularity of a certain political party whose name sounds like an injunction to have a nap* in last week’s elections, I’m happy to with a cultural identity that’s English, British and European, and as someone who prefers to buy food from as close to home, EU-grown produce is preferable to Chinese.

For the pastry:
90g butter, cold
150g plain flour
20g caster sugar
1 egg
1-2 tablespoons water (cold)

For the filling:
55g butter, at room temp, or softened slightly in microwave or a warm location
70g caster sugar
2 tablespoons honey (say 30g)
2 eggs, beaten
70g ground almonds
25g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
120g pine nuts

1. Dice the butter then toss it in the flour. If you’re using unsalted butter, add a pinch of salt.
2. If making by hand, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, if you’re using a food processor, pulse it quickly to achieve a similar result.
3. Add the egg and bring the dough together, again either by hand on by machine. Add some cold water to form a dough, but not too much! You don’t want it squishy, you want it dry-ish, and short and crumbly once baked.
4. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and to in the fridge to rest.
5. Make the filling by creaming together the butter and sugar, then beating in the honey and egg.
6. Add the ground almonds, then sieve in the flour and baking powder together. Combine the mixture.
7. Add about a third of the pine nuts to the mixture.
8. Get your dough out of the fridge, roll it out and use it to line a loose-bottom flan tin, about 22-25cm in diameter. If you do this ahead of time, you can rest it again in the fridge for a while.
9. Preheat the oven to 180C.
10. Put the filling in the pastry case, then bake for about 10 minutes.
11. Carefully remove the half-baked tart, and gently sprinkle the rest of the pine nuts on top.
12. Put it back in the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely browned.
13. Remove from the oven and cool on rack. Serve warm or cold, preferably with a huge dollop of thick or clotted cream.


* Ukip – geddit?


Filed under Baking, Pastry, Pies & tarts, Puddings & desserts

Ricotta rough puff pastry and sbriciolata di millefoglie

Butter and ricotta

It’s probably fair to say that Italian cuisine isn’t most famous for its desserts and puddings. Sure, tiramisu has an internation reputation, but generally the desserts aren’t really up there with Italy’s other great, world-dominating culinary exports (you know, pizza, pasta, that kind of thing).

Italian pastries, biscuits and cakes are great, but they’re not typically desserts. Pastries like cornetti (the sweet Italian equivalent of a croissant) and maritozzi con la panna (sweet cream buns) are typically eaten for breakfast. Cakes and enriched breads are often used to celebrate feast days (like panettone at Christmas, colomba or pizza cresciuta at Easter). And biscuits, such as the famed hard biscotti di Prato / cantuccini (and similar) and ciambelline al vino, are generally eaten with a glass of strong digestivo liquor after dinner.

The Roman pasticcerie we frequented would sell small pastries and cakes – described with the French name mignon (dainty). These could be bought by weight on trays, neatly wrapped and used as gifts when visiting friends or family. I never quite got my head around what time of day they’d be consumed, but the one time we did an English afternoon tea party for friends in Rome, many of the Italians were very confused to be faced by sweet baked goods, dolci, mid-afternoon.

Deconstructured mille-feuille
Having said all that, one Italian dessert, very much offered by restaurants in Rome after you’d eaten your primo and/or secondo piatto (pasta and meat/fish courses), was sbriciolata di millefoglie. I have very affectionate memories of eating it at Trattoria da Bucatino in Testaccio.

The name sbriciolata di millefoglie means something like “crumbled up mille-feuille” – that is, a kind of rough, deconstructed take on the Italian version (millefoglie) or the French mille-feuille, that pastry whose name means “thousand leaves” in both languages and refers to the layering of puff pastry with a filling of cream or custard, specifically thick pastry custard, crema pasticcera in Italian, or crème pâtissière1 in French. (Note, in Italian, custard is just called crema, while cream is panna.) So a sbriciolata di millefoglie could simply be described as a bowl of custard with broken puff pastry on top.

And yet it’s so good. I made a weird onme a while back after I’d made frappe. Italians would say non si fa (it’s just not done), but I had some broken frappe, and fancied some custard, and the result was good. I then thought I should try it again with a proper, non-deep-fried pastry, puff,  or at least a rough puff, pastry.

So I did. Then Fran’s camera broke and I didn’t get any photos of the finished desert. Plus, well, we had lots of guests over the bank holiday weekend so scrabbling around with cameras and crude attempts at food styling might have been a bit antisocial and broken the flow of the very important business of eating. (And boy did we eat a lot.)

For the custard just find yourself a recipe for crème pâtissière or similar thick custard. Dan Lepard has a good one called Extra thick vanilla cream custard in ‘Short and Sweet’, or you could use something like this. (I may revisit this at some point and find a more specifically Italian custard recipe.)

For the pastry, I used a lovely Italian pasta sfoglia2 veloce – quick rough puff pastry – made with butter and ricotta.

Butter and ricotta 2

250g plain (all-purpose) flour
250g ricotta
125g butter, coarsely grated
1/2 t salt

Mash together

1. In a bowl, mash together the ricotta and grated butter with a fork. You could also do this with a zizzer – aka hand blende. But don’t overdo it, as you don’t want to heat up the mixture too much.

Add flour
2. Add the flour and salt and keep mashing together, hen bring together a dough with your hands.

Form dough
3. Wrap the dough in plastic and leave to rest for a few hours, or even overnight.

Roll out
4. Roll out the dough to form a rectangle about 20 by 35cm (or 8 by 14 inches for you 19th century types) and give it a letter fold, that is folding up one third, then folding the other third down over the top.

5. Roll out and repeat the folding process. Repeat this once more. Try to strech the corners a bit to neaten up the rectangles if you like, but it’s not essential – this is rough form of pastry lamination after all.

Fold again
6. Wrap in plastic and rest again, for at least half an hour.

Cut out and prick
7. Roll out the dough to few milimetres thick and cut into required shapes. I just wanted crumbled scraps for my sbriciolata so didn’t do them very reguarly, but if you were doing, say, Italian-style millefoglie, cut them into regular rectangles about 4 by 10cm.

8. Prick with a form then bake in an oven preheated to 200C for about 15 minutes, until nicely browned. You want the pastry crisp

To assemble a sbriciolata di millefoglie, fill individual bowls with the thick custard, or do one large family bowl. Break up your pieces of pastry roughly, and sprinkle the pieces onto the custard. Before serving, dust with icing (powdered) sugar.





1 Can I just say, it’s pronounced “crem pa-teess-i-air” ([patisjɛːʁ]), not “crem pa-teess-er-ree” ([pɑtisʁi]) as so many people seem to say on Great British Bake Off etc. A “pa-teess-er-ree” is a pâtisserie, the shop where you buy the sweet pastries and cakes that may or may not be made with crème pâtissière.
2 So while millefoglia means “thousand leaves”, with foglia the Italian for leaf (feuille in French), sfoglia is the Italian for a leaf or layer of filo or puff pastry. Foglio, meanwhile, means sheet or leaf of paper, or indeed the English folio. It all relates to or is derived from from the Latin folium (plural folia), leaf.


Filed under Baking, Pastry