If you’re in a Roman restaurant and they offer you desert, it’s quite likely you’ll encounter torta della Nonna – that is “Grandma’s tart” or “Grandma’s cake”. I’m not sure about the labour laws, but all this pudding-making must keep granny pretty busy.
Sources vary, but torta della nonna is either a Florentine or a Ligurian dish. Though surely any nonna has her own torta? There are variations, but most commonly in Rome it’s a tart made with a sweet pastry crust and a filling based on custard and/or ricotta. Its defining feature is pine nuts, pinoli.
This post isn’t, however, about torta della nonna. As I had some leftover cookies that had been smashed on their journey to and from the park for a picnic on Sunday, I thought I’d make a cheesecake with a della nonna twist: ie, with the addition of pine nuts.
A note on the cookies
I made some cornmeal cookies – they were basically like a digestive, but with a slightly different crunch, and a few spices (cinnamon, ginger). They worked well, but you can use whatever biscuits you like: digestives are most typical for UK cheesecakes, US recipes use graham crackers. My friend Juli-from-Jersey said the cornmeal cookies reminded her of snickerdoodles, though they’re cookies with a name so ridiculous I can’t quite bring myself to discuss them.
I won’t include the cornmeal cookies recipe, but will say digestives are so easy to make you don’t need to reach for some plastic-wrapped stuff from a factory. I’ve included a simple recipe at the bottom of this post. If you do use this recipe, I’d add some cinnamon and ginger to the crumb base mix.
A note on the candied peel
Only use your own candied peel, or other hand-made stuff. Don’t use that yucky sticky stuff you get in tubs from the supermarket. Peel is easy to make. Honest. Just Google it, if you’ve not tried before. I’m still using some of my candied-vodka-infused-kumquats-from-the-garden-peel.
A note on cheeses
Often, cheesecake recipes will just say “cream cheese” in the ingredient list. It’s a bit vague. Though perhaps it doesn’t matter what cream cheese, as a baked cheesecake mixture seems pretty forgiving. Here I used mascarpone and robiola. The latter could be replaced with something like Philadelphia, if you really had to. You could also do, say, half-half mascarpone and ricotta. I might try that next time as you can get stupendous fresh ricotta here in Roma.
120g cookies/biscuits like digestives
Zest of 1 lemon
100g caster sugar
30g candied peel
60g pine nuts
30g pine nuts
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
2. Toast the hazelnuts until starting to brown.
3. Grind the hazelnuts in a food processor until fairly fine, then add the cookies and grind to a medium crumb.
4. Melt the butter in a pan, then combine with the hazelnuts and cookie crumbs.
5. Push the crumb mix into the bottom of a 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin.
6. Combine the cheeses, eggs, sugar, and zest, blending well by hand or with a handheld zizzer.
7. Finely chop the candied peel and add to the cheese mix, along with the pine nuts.
8. Pour the cheese mix onto the crumb base.
9. Bake for around 50-60 mins until the top is browning and even cracking slightly, and firm to the touch.
10. Remove the sides of the tin, and leave to cool completely.
11. When the cake is cool, toast the extra pine nuts and sprinkle on top, dusting the whole lot with icing sugar.
12. You could serve it with some whipped cream, for added deliciousness. We didn’t as it’s hard to get nice cream here in Roma, despite the cornucopia of other wonderful dairy products.
Extra! Free! Digestive biscuits recipe
120g wholemeal flour
40g caster sugar
Pinch baking soda
1 egg, beaten
1. Preheat oven to 200C.
2. Rub butter into flour, stir in the rest and bind with beaten egg.
3. Roll and cut out rounds.
4. Prick with a fork.
5. Put on baking sheet, sprinkle with oatmeal and bake in a hot oven till browned.