it's okay to play with your food

Friday, May 29, 2009

Un sogno di Milano

A friend's current gig in Milan has brought back memories of my month-long stint there a couple years ago. I was studying Italian and observing rehearsals of a new opera at La Scala. I had a horrible time. A man tried to mug me in the supermarket, I was terribly lonely and my Italian school was a bust. That said, three things made it worthwhile: the time spent watching rehearsals, hanging out with my former voice teacher, and eating.

In my "food bank," what an ex-boyfriend lovingly called my ability for remembering good meals, a few things stick out... the gelato at Chocolat, a simple pasta in marinara sauce at a spot just a few steps from La Scala, the osso bucco at Trattoria Milanese and a mini torta della nonna from a corner bakery on the street where I was staying.

This torta della nonna was my dinner on more than one occasion. With sugar crystals sprinkled amongst roasted pine nuts atop a thick, not-too-sweet cream filling, I understood what it meant to fall in love in Italy. It's been on my mind a lot lately (as has that pasta... and the pistachio gelato...), so I looked up a recipe for it online. Turns out that the filling can be a sweet cream or ricotta cream filling. The recipe below seems most like the one I fell for in Milan. I haven't actually tried it out yet, but when I do, I'll let you know.

Torta della Nonna (Grandmother's Cake)
Photo by Fabrizio Ferri

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter (7 ounces), softened
2 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
Pastry cream
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
Two 2-by-1-inch strips of lemon zest
5 large egg yolks
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Toasted pine nuts and fresh berries, for serving

Make the pastry: In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, lemon zest and salt. Add the butter in clumps and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the whole eggs and egg yolks and pulse a few times, until the dough just comes together. Turn the pastry dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it 2 or 3 times, just until it comes together. Divide the pastry dough into 2 pieces, 1 slightly smaller than the other. Pat the pastry dough into disks, wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the pastry cream: Set a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk with 1/4 cup of the sugar, the vanilla bean and vanilla seeds and the lemon zest until the mixture is hot to the touch. In another medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar until blended. Stir in the flour until incorporated. Whisk in the hot milk in a thin stream.

Pour the pastry cream mixture back into the saucepan and cook over moderate heat, whisking, until thick and bubbling, about 2 minutes. Immediately strain the pastry cream into the bowl, scraping the strainer with a rubber spatula. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pastry cream and refrigerate until chilled, 1 to 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter and flour a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the larger disk of pastry to an 1/8-inch-thick round. Ease the pastry into the tart pan, pressing the dough into the corners. Don’t trim the overhang.
Spread the chilled pastry cream in the tart shell in an even layer. Roll out the remaining pastry disk to an 1/8-inch-thick round and set it over the tart; gently press out any air bubbles. Carefully roll the rolling pin over the tart pan rim to cut off the overhanging dough. Gently press the edge together to seal the tart.

Bake the tart in the lower third of the oven for about 40 minutes, rotating the tart pans halfway through baking, until the crust is golden brown. Let the tart cool completely in the tart pan. Unmold the tart and transfer it to a large serving plate. Sprinkle the tart with pine nuts, cut into wedges and serve with berries.

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