The most delicious torta di noci made its appearance on the breakfast buffet at our Lake Garda hotel on the second day of our stay.
Now cakes – usually simple, plain, flavoured with lemon or orange or sometimes swirled with chocolate – are generally offered at breakfast in Italy and I usually virtuously ignore them. But this cake was special. Studded with walnuts and pistachios with a glistening honey brown glaze, it begged to be tasted and so I did. It was spectacular, as much pie as cake, rich with a mix of nuts over a delicate pastry base. Later I asked its name. “Torta di Noci” I was told.
Now there are dozens of Torta di Noci recipes in Italy.
The simplest and most famous, perhaps, is the celebrated Ada Boni’s three ingredient Calabrian torta – walnuts, sugar and eggs –included in her classic “Italian Regional Cooking” published in English in 1969. If you don’t have the book (I do) you can find the recipe in Food 52.
Only slightly more elaborate is Marcella Hazen’s Torta di Noci in “The Second Classic Italian Cookbook”. It includes flour, baking powder, lemon peel, butter, and 2 tablespoons of rum – perfect, she says, with morning coffee or afternoon tea. And so it is.
Arthur Schwartz’ Torta di Noci from Campagnia in “The Southern Italian Table” adds honey, water and cream to the chopped walnuts and sugar, and, like the hotel version, bakes it in a pastry crust adding a latticework top glazed with an egg wash.
Each variation is completely delicious, but when the hotel kindly offered the recipe for its patisserie chef’s own rich and luscious Torta di Noci who would not leap at it?
So here it was – awkwardly translated from the Italian and not quite complete but make it I must, feeling rather like a Great British Bake-off contestant faced with one of Mary’s rather loosely described classics I had never baked before.
Here it is:
In a baking tin place short crust pastry 4mm thick and 3-4 cm high
Italian short crust pastry – Pasta Frolla.
I had never made this before (I have never been good at pastry), so went straight to “The Southern Italian Table” by Arthur Schwartz.
1 ½ cups confectioners (icing) sugar)
3 cups bleached all purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten together
½ teaspoon vanilla extract (optional – I did not use)
1 cup (2 sticks or ½ pound) unsalted butter cut into tablespoon sized pieces at room temperature (but not soft)
grated zest of 2 lemons or 1 orange (optional – I did not use)
Combine confectioners sugar, flour, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, stirring the ingredients together on low speed. (I do not have a stand mixer, so I pulsed the ingredients together lightly in my food processer.)
Beat the eggs in a small bowl and set aside.
Add butter to mixer bowl and, still on low speed, blend the butter into the dry ingredients until it looks like coarse meal. Add the eggs and mix together until the dough forms a ball. (All done instead in my processer, making a soft dough).
Scrape the dough out of the bowl. There may be some of the dry portion not entirely blended in. Knead the dough a few times to make sure it is well blended, It will be slightly sticky (mine was definitely sticky, and I did need a little flour on the surface as I kneaded it).
Divide the dough into two disks and wrap each disk in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Now the filling:
The patisserie chef’s recipe called for 300 gr (10 ounces) of butter, but - so sure there must have been a mistake in translation - I halved the amount, keeping the same weight of sugar as follows:
150 gr butter
250 gr sugar
Blend together and add 80gr egg yolk
Having never used egg yolks by weight, I was flummoxed. However, looking at other, similar recipes on line, I decided to use 4 egg yolks which gave a similar weight.
Mix together separately:
100gr ground hazelnuts
300 gr ground almonds
100gr roughly chopped walnuts
50gr plain flour
Beat 120gr (4) egg whites until stiff with 50 gr sugar
Fold the meringue into the first mixture, then gradually fold in flour & nut mixture
Fill pastry crust with the mixture.
Now there was too much mixture. My tart tin measured 9” x 1” - perhaps a 10” one would have been better? Or a cake tin which is deeper? At this point the pastry was ready in my 9” tin and so the extra went into a separate, buttered tin to make a large, soft cookie to be cut into wedges and eaten separately.
Sprinkle walnut halves and pistachios on top. Done.
Bake at 170C for 40-45 minutes.
There were no instructions on how to achieve the lovely rich glaze, and so this time, I sprinkled icing sugar on the top when it was cool.
It was delicious.
Perhaps not exactly like the original, but very good indeed, encouraging me to make it again in future – perhaps with an egg wash glaze.