Torta della Nonna

The holidays were over a month ago, and since then we’ve dutifully refrained from sweets in favor of healthy meals and modest portions.  But 5 weeks is enough, right?

When we saw the recipe for Torta della Nonna in this week’s newsletter from La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese, we were drawn in.  It’s the perfect weekend to turn on the oven and warm up kitchen, to fill the house with the fragrant, lemony-sweet aroma of pasta frolla baking, and to bring our Sunday evening to a close over a delicious and delicate homemade torta.

Torta is a tricky word to translate.  Sometimes it means cake, and when it does, it is pretty straight-forward.  Other times, however, a torta is closer to a tart or a pie.  Torta della Nonna falls into this latter category.  Prepared in a tart pan, it has a base of pasta frolla,  followed by a creamy filling, and topped with pine nuts.

But let’s take things one step at a time.  Pasta frolla is common crust or base for many Italian baked goods.  La Cucina Italiana calls it “short crust pastry” in English, but it is also commonly called shortbread.  It’s not quite the same as shortbread, but the comparison is understandable.  A good pasta frolla will be golden, soft and just slightly crisp, and it will have a delicate, not-too-sweet flavor.

There are different versions of the filling for Torta della Nonna.  Traditionally, the recipe calls for crema pasticcera, or Italian pastry cream, with a second layer of pasta frolla on top.  However, an alternative version calls for a ricotta-based filling.  This is how the recipe from La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese was written, and being amanti of ricotta-based baked goods, this the option that we chose.

In all cases, Torta della Nonna is adorned with a layer of pine nuts before baking, and then a sprinkling of powdered sugar upon exiting the oven.

As we’ve said before, Italian pastries and baked goods are lighter, more delicate and less sweet than desserts in many other countries of the world.  In Italy, homemade baked goods are also characterized by simple, high quality ingredients.  Torta della Nonna, which mean’s Grandmother’s Tart or Grandmother’s Pie, is a perfect example of this.  For our Torta della Nonna we used organic, cage-free eggs, King Arthur Italian type-00 flour, extra-fine sugar, and fresh, whole milk ricotta.

For the pasta frolla
200 g (1 and 1/2 cup) flour
80 g (1/3 cup) sugar
80 g (5 and 1/2 Tbsp) unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 pouch of Pane Angeli lievito per i dolci, or 2 tsp. baking powder
1 egg
Zest of 1 lemon

For the filling
250 g (1 cup, firmly packed) fresh whole milk ricotta
2 eggs
80 g (1/3 cup) sugar
25 g (2 Tbsp) corn starch
Zest of 1 lemon

For the topping
40 g (1/4 cup) pine nuts
Powdered sugar

Prepare the pasta frolla by placing the flour onto a firm, smooth work surface.  Add the sugar and pane angeli or baking powder, and mix.  Gather the dry ingredients into a mound and form a well in the middle.  Add the egg, cubes of butter and lemon zest, and working quickly with your fingers, work the wet ingredients into the flour mixture.  Mix by hand until the dough forms a homogenous, smooth ball.  Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C) and prepare the filling by mixing the ricotta, eggs, sugar, corn starch and lemon zest together with a wire whisk until smooth.

Butter and flour a 9-11 inch or 26-28 cm. fluted-edge tart pan.  If you cannot find a tart pan, a round spring-form pan or a pie plate, will also work, although it is helpful to have a pan with a removable bottom.

Roll out the pasta frolla and lay it into the tart pan, pressing the bottom and sides tightly against the edges.  Pour the filling into the shell, and sprinkle the pine nuts over the top.

Bake at 350° F (180° C) for 30-35 minutes, just until the center is firm and does not wiggle when you gently shake the pan.

Allow to cool for 10 minutes, and use a tea strainer to sprinkle a layer of powdered sugar on top.

Download a pdf of the recipe Torta della Nonna

Pollo alla cacciatora

Pollo alla cacciatora, a.k.a. chicken cacciatore, is perhaps one of the most commonly mistreated Italian dishes outside of Italy.

Once, while visiting the States when we still lived in Italy, Stefano saw “Chicken Cacciatore” on the menu of a restaurant.  Always wary of Italian food in other countries, he thought this would be a safe choice.  How surprised he was when the waiter brought him a heaping plate of fettuccine with pieces of chicken in a cream sauce!

There were a couple of problems with this.  First, generally speaking, Italians don’t put chicken in their pasta.  Second, food prepared – alla cacciatora refers to meats, typically chicken or rabbit but sometimes other fowl, wild boar or even lamb, seasoned with aromi (onion, carrots, celery and parsley) and stewed in tomatoes, possibly with some white wine.  There is no cream sauce involved, and it is definitely a protein-based second course, not a first course pasta dish.

Cacciatore means “hunter” and food prepared -alla cacciatora typically is translated to “hunter’s style.”  This likely refers more to the fact that the meats were hunted, and then prepared at home with foods and seasonings found in the garden.  Pollo alla cacciatore is a recipe of Tuscan origin that is prepared across Italy today.  As is so often the case, there are variations of the recipe, some which call for mushrooms or red bell peppers.

Our recipe below is quite traditional, except for the fact that we remove the skin.  Many recipes call for the skin to be left on.  We prefer the healthier skinless version below, and have found that the meat turns out tender and flavorful.

For another version of pollo alla cacciatora, see fellow Italian food blogger and Cannolo Award recipient Manu of Manu’s Menu, and for other examples of comical Italian food aberrations, see Paolo’s Quatro Fromaggio and Other Disgraces on the Menu.

1 whole chicken, 4-5 lbs (approx. 2 kilos), whole or in pieces, preferably all natural
Two 28 oz. (500 g.) cans whole tomatoes
1 medium onion
1 stalk celery
1  medium carrot
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch flat leaf Italian parsley
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp. Olive oil
2 Tbsp. butter

Remove the skin from the chicken, using paper towel to help pull the slippery skin off, if necessary.  If your chicken is whole, chop it into 6-8 pieces.  Pat it dry and set aside.

Slice your onion into thin rings, and slice your carrot and celery lengthwise into 4 pieces.   In a large skillet, sauté the onion in olive oil and butter.  When the onion is translucent, add the celery, carrot, parsley and chicken.  Salt and pepper liberally.  Allow the chicken to brown, turning it occasionally so that it cooks evenly on all sides.  Add the wine, and let it cook for 5 minutes.  Then, add the canned tomatoes, passing them through a food mill first to produce a smooth sauce.

Once the sauce boils, turn the heat down and allow the chicken to simmer for an hour or more, until the meat separates easily from the bone.  Taste for salt and adjust.  Serve with crusty bread to soak up the juices.

Download a pdf of the recipe Pollo alla cacciatora

Wine Pairing
We paired our pollo alla cacciatora with a classic Langhe Chardonnay by Giacomo Vico. It is a fresh, medium-full bodied wine that nicely balances the chicken and sauce of this dish.

Calamari con piselli

Thank goodness for seafood!

With the holidays behind us, it’s time to lighten up, eat healthier and drop the pounds we probably added over the last month or two.  But, it’s still cold outside, the days are short and Sunday afternoons at home call for family-style meals.  Seafood-based dishes are the perfect solution – tasty, comforting and healthy.

Calamari con piselli, or squid with peas stewed in tomato sauce, was of a favorite dish of Stefano and his brother and sister when growing up in Rome.  Their mom, Maria, made it often in the winter, using either calamari (squid) or its related cephalopod, seppie (cuttlefish).

Before we begin with the recipe, let’s look more closely at these interesting and delicious sea creatures.  Octopus (polpo in Italian), squid (calamari in Italian) and cuttlefish (seppie in Italian) are three common cephalopods prevalent in southern Mediterranean and Asian cooking.   All cephalopods have bilateral body symmetry and a large head with tentacles attached to it.   They also all have ink sacs and can squirt ink, which is why they are sometimes referred commonly as inkfish.  It is the black colored ink from squid that is used to make squid ink pasta.

In the landlocked Midwest of the United States, cephalopods are not easy to come by.  We were thrilled to fine frozen calamari while out shopping one day, and immediately new that we would stew them in tomato sauce with peas, for a perfect January weekend meal.

2 and 1/2 lbs. squid
Two 28-oz. cans of canned whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
3 Tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch parsley
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
16 oz. frozen peas
Salt to taste
Black pepper, or if you prefer crushed red pepper

Generally, squid is sold already cleaned.  If your squid is not cleaned, clean it, as explained here.  If your squid is clean, rinse it under running water, removing any skin, sand or bits of tough tissue.  If the tentacles are still attached, remove them.  Pat the squid bodies and tentacles dry with paper towels.

On a cutting board, slice the body, or sac, into rings 1/4th inch to 1/2 inch wide.  Chop the onion and sauté it in the olive oil over medium heat.  Mince the garlic, and add it to the sauté when the onion becomes translucent.  Chop the parsley and add it to the sauté.  Add the tomatoes, passing them through a food mill.  Bring to a boil, and then add the white wine.  Allow it to cook for 10-15 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste, and then add the squid.  Simmer for approximately 30 minutes, add the peas and let the mixture cook for another 5-10 minutes, or until the peas are tender.

Serve in a pasta or soup bowl, with a piece of crusty bread, toasted if you wish.

Download a pdf of the recipe Calamari con piselli

Lasagne alla bolognese

In Rome, Stefano’s mom makes lasagne for special occasions, holiday meals, and Sunday afternoon family gatherings.  She uses her homemade pasta, which makes it extra special.  Unlike in America, where lasagna tends to be a bit over-worked, authentic Italian lasagne uses several layers of thin sheets of fresh egg pasta, with rich bolognese sauce (ragù) and besciamella (béchamel) in between.  There is no ricotta in lasagne alla bolognese.  Instead, we use Parmigiano.  Stefano’s mom also adds mozzarella, although traditional lasagne alla bolognese does not call for it.  According to The Silver Spoon, the addition of mozzarella may come from a southern variation of lasagne, called lasagne napoletane.  We have come to appreciate the mozzarella in our lasagne, so we have included it in our recipe.

Warm and comforting, it’s the perfect winter meal.  We especially like making up a few pans at a time and freezing them unbaked, so that we can just pull them out in the morning, let them thaw during the day, and bake them for dinner whenever we want.  There are always leftovers, and all Italians know that lasagne tastes even better the day after.

Ingredients for one 9×13 pan

For the bolognese sauce
Two 28 0z. cans of whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 and 1/2 lbs. ground beef*
1 medium carrot
1 celery stalk
1/2 of a medium yellow onion
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
Salt to taste

For the besciamella
100 g flour (just a bit more than 3/4 cup)
100 g butter (just shy of a stick)
1 liter whole milk
1 dash of salt
1 dash of nutmeg

4 sheets of 9×13 fresh egg pasta, or the equivalent**
2 ovoline of fresh mozzarella, in water (one tub)
1 cup grated Parmigiano***

*Choose ground beef however lean you prefer.  Generally speaking, less lean cuts will produce a sweeter sauce.  However, we often choose very lean ground beef and do not believe that there is an evident taste sacrifice.

**Homemade pasta is ideal.  Alternatively, use store bought fresh egg pasta.  Locally, fresh sheets of egg pasta can be purchased at Cossetta’s.  Oven-ready, no-boil dry pasta, such as Barilla’s lasagna, will work, too.

***Buy a wedge of real Parmigiano Reggiano, and grate it finely.  Alternatively, you can use pre-grated Parmigiano Reggiano, sometimes sold in tubs.  Bags of Parmesan sold in supermarkets are typically not authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, and please no green Kraft shaker parmesan!


For the besciamella
Prepare the besciamella in advance.  Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat, taking care that the butter does not brown.  When melted, remove from heat and stir in the flour, mixing with a fork until it forms a paste.  Heat the milk gently until warm.  Add the milk a little at a time, stirring well after each addition until the mixture is smooth and creamy.  When all the milk has been added, return the saucepan to the stove over medium-low heat.  Add the salt and nutmeg.  Stirring continually to prevent the formation of lumps, allow the mixture to thicken and come to a boil.  Remove from heat and let cool.

If you wish, you can prepare the besciamella a day or so in advance.  Store in the refrigerator in a air-tight container.

For the bolognese sauce
Chop the carrot, celery and onion and put them in a saucepan along with the olive oil.  Sauté over medium heat for 3-4 minutes until the onion becomes translucent.  Add the ground beef, along with salt to taste.  Allow the ground beef to brown slowly, stirring frequently so that the beef crumbles and cooks finely.  Add the tomatoes, passing them through a food mill to produce a smooth sauce.    Bring to a simmer, and then add the white wine.  Cook uncovered for 3 hours or more at a low simmer, stirring occasionally.  If the sauce should thicken too much, a small amount of water can be added.  When done, remove from heat, allow to cool slightly.  While still warm, taste for salt and add if needed.  Set aside.

Assembling the lasagne
Drain the mozzarella and cube it as finely as you can.  It will be somewhat messy.  Place the cubed mozzarella into a small bowl.  If required, grate the Parmigiano and place it in a separate bowl.  Pour the besciamella into the bolognese sauce, and stir until well mixed.  (Sometimes the besciamella and the bolognese are kept separate, and added to the lasagne in layers.  We prefer to mix them together before assembling the lasagne.)

Arrange your workspace so that your sauce, mozzarella and Parmigiano are set out next to your pan and your fresh pasta.  Using a ladle, place sauce at the bottom of the pan and spread it around to cover the entire surface area.  Add a layer of fresh pasta.  Follow with another layer of sauce (We have found that two ladles provides the right amount), a sprinkling of mozzarella and another sprinkling of Parmigiano.  Add a second layer of pasta, followed by a second sprinkling of the two cheese.  Repeat until you have at least three and if possible four layers.  Add a little extra mozzarella and Parmigiano onto your final layer to produce a crispy top.

Bake at 350° F, (180° C) until the cheeses on top are browned, approximately 30 to 45 minutes.  Allow the lasagne to sit for 15 minutes before serving.  If you prefer, the assembled lasagne can be frozen unbaked.  Allow it to thaw before baking.

Download a pdf version of Lasagne alla bolognese