Making sweets was my first foray into cooking independently in the kitchen, and as a teenager I could often be found baking my way through my mother’s cookbooks, in particular an American pie cookbook – I have always had a thing for pastry. You will see a bias towards it in Torta della Nonna too, from southern Italian custard and jam bocconotti to ricotta-filled crostata and Florence’s little rice pudding pastries, budini di riso.
I also have a thing for historic Italian cookbooks, as they have been instrumental in helping me appreciate the unchanging nature of regional Italian cuisine, as well as being a constant source of inspiration for recipes. They are as close as you can get to unlocking the recipes of nonna. My Tuscan mother-in-law, in fact, relied on her mother for recipes, who, in turn, like so many Italian housewives of her generation, relied on her Artusi.
A thick copy of Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, with its 790 recipes, was often given to Italian brides to guide them in the kitchen. My mother-in-law’s copy (inherited from her mother) is so well-worn that the spine is broken and the book automatically opens to Artusi’s three recipes for pasta frolla (Italy’s soft shortcrust pastry) and there is a little mark next to recipe B – my preferred of the three, too, and one of the essentials in my kitchen today.
In fact, many of the recipes in this book have their beginnings in that very pasta frolla. Many are the kind of recipes that Carol Field refers to in her excellent The Italian Baker (1985), sweets that “have perfumed mountain homes in Val d’Aosta, simple farmhouses near Bologna, villas in the Tuscan countryside, and apartments in Rome. Emanating from a simple way of life, they almost invariably start with pasta frolla”.
A few decades after Artusi’s publication, in 1929, a Roman magazine editor, Ada Boni, published Il Talismano della Felicità (The Talisman of Happiness, an enormous collection of more than 1000 classic recipes) and, along with Artusi, it became the Joy of Cooking for many Italian households too. Her book is still an important reference book, the recipes still very much valid today, like Artusi’s, but easier to follow for a modern reader in a modern kitchen than Artusi’s charming, 19th-century banter-filled recipes. From granita to stuffed peaches and the wonderful thrifty chocolate cake (a dense cake made with only pantry items and milk, no eggs or butter), Boni’s no-nonsense recipes are still among some of my favourites when I want to produce something that channels my inner nonna.
These recipes, which first appeared in my cookbooks, Florentine, Acquacotta and Tortellini at Midnight, along with a handful of new inclusions, are a collection of beloved Italian classics, many of which you could likely find on nonna’s table for Sunday lunch, in a homely trattoria or one of Florence’s best pastry shops.
- This is an edited extract from Torta della Nonna by Emiko Davies. Hardie Grant Books, $ 34.99.
Pandiramerino – Rosemary and sultana buns
Shiny and delightfully sticky with decorative split, crisscrossed tops, pandiramerino – which means “rosemary bread” (ramerino is the charming Tuscan word for rosmarino or rosemary) – are fragrant with fresh rosemary and studded with sweet sultanas (golden raisins). Traditionally these rustic buns were made for gioved santo, the Thursday before Easter, and were without sultanas, hence their name. Now you find them year round in bakeries all over Florence.
20g fresh yeast, or 7g active dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
180ml lukewarm water
300g plain flour, sifted
2 rosemary sprigs, chopped (about 1 tbsp)
60ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing
pinch of salt
1. Combine the yeast, sugar and water in a mixing bowl and let it sit for 10 minutes until dissolved. Pour over the sifted flour and combine to make a firm ball of dough. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let it rise in a warm place away from draughts for one hour.
2. Meanwhile, put the sultanas, rosemary and oil together in a bowl and set aside to infuse until the dough has risen.
3. Combine the dough with the sultanas, rosemary, oil and salt. Work the ingredients together by kneading, and divide into eight small balls weighing approximately 70-80g each. Place the buns on a baking tray lined with baking paper and cover loosely with a tea towel. Allow the buns to rise for a further 30 minutes.
4. Preheat the oven to 200C.
5. Brush the tops with olive oil and slash a tic-tac-toe grid (similar to a hash symbol) over each one with a very sharp knife or razor. Let them rest another 10-15 minutes, then bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, prepare a sugar syrup by dissolving the sugar in two tablespoons of water in a small saucepan and bringing to the boil. Take off the heat and brush the hot buns with the hot syrup.
7. The buns are best eaten the day they are made, but they will keep well for 1-2 days in an airtight container.
Makes 8 buns.
Torta di pera e cioccolato – pear and chocolate cake
This is a rich, elegant dessert inspired by one from a favourite Florentine pastry shop. Sometimes you can find this cake encased in a shortcrust pastry too, but I love this on its own, particularly when it has a dense melt-in-the-mouth texture like this one. The chocolate part of this cake is modelled on one of my own favourites: a flourless chocolate cake of Elizabeth David’s.
2 pears, peeled, cored and cut into eighths lengthways
150g dark chocolate
90g unsalted butter, cubed
90g caster sugar
90g almond meal
3 eggs, separated
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder, for dusting
icing (confectioners’) sugar, for dusting (optional)
1. Combine the sugar with 500ml water in a saucepan and set over a medium heat. Add the pear and poach for 10-15 minutes, or until tender but not too soft (a knife should easily penetrate the flesh without any resistance). Drain and let the pear pieces cool.
2. Melt the chocolate over a bain-marie. When melted, remove from the heat, add the butter and stir until the butter has melted. Add the sugar and almond meal, stirring to combine. When the mixture is cool, add the egg yolks.
3. Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a 22-24cm round springform cake tin and dust with the cocoa powder.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to firm peaks, then fold them into the chocolate batter. Pour the chocolate mixture into the tin. Arrange the pear pieces on the top of the batter, pushing them slightly in. Bake for 40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
5. When cool, remove the cake from the tin and, just before serving, dust liberally with icing sugar, if desired. Serve in modest slices – this is rather rich.
Torta di mele e marmellata – apple and jam cake
This soft, buttery loaf cake, with chopped apple and apricot jam swirled through the top, is essentially a dressed-up pound cake (which Italians charmingly call a “plum cake”, using the English words but pronouncing the “u” as “oo”.) Highly adaptable, this cake can be made in many different ways – just remember that the weight of the butter, sugar, eggs and flour should all be equal. I often combine polenta with the regular flour for a rustic cake with a good crumb, and sometimes I have made this with olive oil in place of the butter (use little less, about 200ml. You can leave out the apple or exchange it for another fruit (pear, apricots, berries or plums would all be nice). Just don’t skimp on whipping the eggs – it’s what makes this cake so soft and fluffy without any other rising agents.
250g butter, at room temperature
zest of 1 lemon
4 eggs, at room temperature
250g plain flour
1 apple, peeled, cored and diced
3 tbsp apricot jam
icing sugar, for dusting (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 170C. Grease an 11 x 26cm loaf tin and line with baking paper.
2. Use an electric beater to cream the butter and sugar with the lemon zest until pale and creamy. Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each. Once all the eggs are in, beat continuously until very, very pale and fluffy. This takes about seven minutes with electric beaters.
3. Fold in the flour carefully until it is just combined. Pour into the tin, drop in the diced apple and use a butter knife to gently swirl through the mixture to distribute. Smooth the top, then dollop the jam down the middle of the cake. Using a (clean!) knife pointing vertically down about 2-3 cm into the batter, swirl the jam in a zigzag pattern.
4. Bake for approximately one hour, or until it’s golden on top and a wooden skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. If the jam on top begins to look like it’s darkening or cooking too quickly, you can cover the cake loosely with some aluminium foil. When cool, dust with icing sugar, if desired.
5. Serve in thick slices. When wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the fridge, it will stay moist and fresh for three to four days.
Sorbetto di susine – plum sorbet
Sorbetto, or sorbet, is one of my favourite ways to preserve ripe, seasonal fruit, and I find stone fruits, including apricots and white peaches, work particularly well in home-made sorbetto. But it’s the bright colour of damson or blood plums that I really love here, and the beauty of this recipe is that is it so low maintenance – throw the plums in the pot, skins, pits and all. Strain them later.
500g whole, ripe dark plums, such as damson or blood plums
juice of 1/2 large lemon
1. Rinse the plums and, without drying them, put them whole in a saucepan over a low-medium heat with 60ml water, covered, and bring to a simmer. As they heat, the plums will release their juices. Check regularly and stir occasionally to make sure they do not stick to the bottom and burn. As they get soft, break them up a little with your wooden spoon. Once simmering, uncover, lower the heat and cook until the plums have released all their juices and have essentially ‘melted’ down, softening completely, about 10-15 minutes, depending on their size. Remove from the heat and strain the mixture over a bowl (discard the pits) with a food mill or simply with the use of a spatula and a fine-mesh sieve. Set aside to cool.
2. Place the sugar in a small saucepan with 125ml water. Bring to the boil to dissolve the sugar. As soon as it begins to boil, remove from the heat. Let cool slightly then add to the strained plums along with the lemon juice. Let the mixture chill completely before churning in an ice-cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions (see note). Serve immediately for a soft sorbet or put the mixture in an airtight container in the freezer for about an hour longer to serve in scoops.
Note: Without an ice-cream machine, pour the mixture into a sturdy, shallow container with an airtight lid and place in the freezer for about five hours. When frozen, use a fork or spoon to loosen and “fluff” the sorbet. As it loosens, you can begin to beat it with the fork or spoon until the mixture is smooth and rather creamy. Place back in the freezer and freeze for a further hour. If frozen overnight or longer, it will have hardened and will need to be left at room temperature for 15-20 minutes to soften slightly before “fluffing”, then beating to soften and serving in soft scoops. While this is achievable without an ice-cream machine, the results will be somewhat less creamy on the palate.
Makes about 500ml of sorbet (about 4 serves).
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