A friend recently posted this article  on Facebook that addressed the difficulties of Christmas gift giving between adults, which is something Bryan and I have been discussing a lot. As people who are celebrating the secular side of Christmas, we’re struggling to figure out what that means now that we’re all grown up. As kids with little or no financial power of our own, gifts were the greatest thing ever (we also weren’t as smart as kids, so surprises were easier). I think we hold on to the hope that gifts will still feel the same, but they usually don’t. And while I still give and enjoy receiving some gifts, I am trying to find other ways to show my friends and family I care. Baking is one of those ways.
Occasionally, I like to throw a real project of a recipe at you, especially at this time of year when you don’t have anything else going on. I have wanted to try this Torta della Nonna recipe since I first got The Mozza Cookbook (which remains a favorite cookbook of mine), but I have been a little reluctant because the recipe spans 3 or 4 pages of the book and sometimes even I just can’t. But I did finally try it, and am here to encourage you to do the same. It might be just the place to channel some of your gift-giving energy, and what better gift than sitting around a table eating a pastry with friends?
This is essentially a cheesecake in tart form, and before you cultural purists start to comment—Silverton admits this is not a traditional version of the torta. This version starts with pasta frolla, which is an Italian pastry dough. The main distinguishing characteristic, as far as I can tell, is that there are a bunch of egg yolks added to the dough. The result is a dream to use, easy to roll out and move around. The filling is a cheesecake batter that employs, in addition to the decidedly American cream cheese, some fresh goat cheese and mascarpone. Because it is a restaurant recipe, it adds some flair through cookies (made with the same pasta frolla) that top the torta as well as a little plating pizzazz in the form of pools of honey and a scattering of pine nuts. The end result is a dessert worthy of a New Years or Christmas Eve dinner. Or you can eat it on a random Tuesday night, as we did.
One of the wonders of the recipe is that the dough and filling can be made a day (or more) in advance and stored in the refrigerator. I suggest you do this, to make things easier and less stressful. If you don’t have a flan ring, I am sure you can use a fluted tart shell with a removable bottom, though I haven’t tried. The recipe calls for an Italian leavening I had never worked with, but found at a local Italian market. It is not necessary, and Silverton provides an alternate suggestion, but it is always fun to find and work with new ingredients.
I hope the year ends well for all of you, and I look forward to more fun in 2016. xo
- 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 1/4 teaspoon Italian leavening, such as Bench Mate, Pane Angel or Rebecchi (or sub 1/8 tsp baking powder and 1/8 tsp baking soada)
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 4 extra-large egg yolks
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (only if NOT using Italian leavening)
- 1 extra-large egg white
- 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
- 10 ounces cream cheese
- 1 cup mild-flavored fresh goat cheese
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
- 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 extra-large eggs
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Two types of single-flower honeys (I used buckwheat and clover)
- Honeycomb (I didn’t use this, but it would be nice
To make the crust, combine the flour, confectioners’ sugar, butter, leavening, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and mix on low speed until the butter and dry ingredients form a coarse cornmeal consistency, about 2-3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and vanilla, if you are using it, and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth, 2 to 3 minutes.
Dust a flat work surface with flour and turn the dough out onto it. Knead the dough for a minute or two until it comes together into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour and up to three days.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, butter the inside of an 11- inch flan ring, and place the ring on the baking sheet.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Dust a flat work surface with flour, cut the dough into chunks, and knead the dough on the work surface to soften it, until it is the texture of Play-Doh. Cut off a 1/3 cup portion (about 3.2 ounces) of dough, wrap it in plastic wrap and return it to the refrigerator.
Dust your work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll the dough out to 2 inches larger than the ring, and to a thickness of 1/8 to 1/4 inch. Gently fold the dough in quarters and place it on top of the flan ring, placing the point in the center and gently unfolding the dough so the ends are flopped over the ring. Gently push the dough down to fit inside the ring, pressing into the crease around the inside circumference so the dough fits snugly against the corners and sides. (Don’t stretch the dough to fit or it will shrink during baking.) Dip the knuckle of your index finger in flour and use it to press the dough into the crease to create a straight edge, not sloping sides. Roll the rolling pin over the top of the flan ring to cut the dough. Pull off the trimmed dough and discard (I saved this dough until I was done, in case I needed it). Place the tart shell in the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes and up to one day.
Remove the 1/3 cup of dough that you had set aside from the refrigerator and place it between two sheets of parchment paper. Roll it into an 8-inch circle about 1/16 inch thick. Place the dough sandwiched between the parchment paper on a baking sheet and put it in the freezer to chill until it is firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes.
Adjust the oven rack so it is in the lowest position and preheat the oven to 350°F and line another separate baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the sheet of dough that you rolled very thinly from the freezer, lay it on a flat work surface, remove the top sheet of parchment paper, and use the 8-inch ring to cut a circle out of the dough, working quickly so that it stays cold. Pull away and discard the scraps of dough around the circle and cut the circle into eight or ten equal (I did 8 but think 10 is better) wedges as you would a pie—however many servings you want the tart to make. Still working quickly, use a metal spatula to carefully lift the wedges one at a time and place them on the prepared baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between each. Brush the wedges with the egg white. Scatter 2 tablespoons of the pine nuts over the wedges, dividing them evenly, and gently press the nuts into the wedges to make sure they adhere; reserve the remaining pine nuts for serving with the tart.
Bake the wedges until they’re golden brown, about 8-10 minutes, rotating the pan in the middle of the baking time so the cookies brown evenly. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and place it on a wire cooling rack until the wedges cool, and dust them lightly with powdered sugar.
To make the filling, combine the cream cheese, goat cheese, butter, and mascarpone in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until the ingredients are combined and the mixture is smooth and creamy, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula occasionally, about 2 minutes. Add the flour and salt, mix on low speed to incorporate, and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Combine the eggs and sugar in the same bowl you mixed the cheeses in. (There’s no need to wash the bowl.) Exchange the paddle attachment for the whisk attachment on your mixer and beat the eggs and sugar together until the eggs are thick and fluffy and the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat just to incorporate. Gently fold one- third of the egg mixture into the cheese, using the flat side of a spatula to smash the cheese and break up the density of the cheese with the egg. Add another third of the egg mixture, folding it in with a light hand so the eggs stay light and fluffy. Fold in the remaining egg mixture, mixing until the ingredients are combined but there are still visible lumps of cheese in the mix. (The filling can be made up to four days in advance. Transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate until you are ready to bake the tart.)
Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator and pour the filling into the shell to fill it 1/8 inch from the top. (You may not use all of it but you don’t want to overfill the ring; discard the excess.) Place the baking sheet with the tart on it in the oven to bake for about 40 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through the baking time for even browning, until the filling is set and the top is golden brown. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and set it aside to cool slightly. You can serve the tart warm, or set it aside to cool to room temperature. (To rewarm the tart, place the whole tart or individual slices on a baking sheet and put it in a 350°F oven until it is warmed through; about 5 minutes for slices, about 15 minutes for a whole tart.)
Just before serving, place the cookie wedges on the tart with the outside edges of the cookies about 1 inch from the edge of the tart. Lift the flan ring off the tart. Use a large knife to cut between the cookies, creating even slices using the cookies as a guide. Use a metal spatula to carefully transfer each wedge to a dessert plate. Spoon 1 teaspoon of honeycomb on one side of each wedge. Spoon 1 teaspoon of each of the two honeys into circles about the size of silver dollars on either side of each wedge. Scatter a few of the reserved pine nuts in the center of each pool of honey, but not the honeycomb, and serve.