Grandma's Great Pie / Grand Torta della Nonna
Makes a large rectangular pie
The pastry shop windows in any Italian town or city display works of edible art. Usually I try something new each time. At Il Forno in Florence, a popular local spot, I got in line with everyone else giving orders. I chose the torta della nonna, or grandma’s pie, and I was not disappointed.
This two-crusted flat pie, made in a long rectangular pan and cut in squares, was filled with ricotta and orange flavoring and topped with almonds and confectioner’s sugar. I wanted to know exactly how it was made, and when I asked, the answer was “Un po’ di farina, zucchero, uove, e mandorle.” What follows is my recreation of this delicious pie. When I made it the first time, I was surprised how close it came in appearance and taste to the original.
- 4 cups King Arthur™ Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup solid vegetable shortening or lard
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 large egg
- 2 cups milk
- 1/2 cup semolina flour
- 2 cups well-drained ricotta cheese
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons grated orange zest
- 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
- 1/4 cup apricot jam, warmed
- 3/4 cup toasted slivered almonds
- 1/3 cup confectioner's sugar
- In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. With a fork or your hands, cut in the shortening or lard until the mixture is coarse.
- In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the milk, vanilla, and egg together and add to the flour mixture. Combine with your hands until a soft ball of dough is formed. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- In a medium saucepan, bring the milk for the filling just to a boil. With a wooden spoon, stir in the semolina flour in a thin stream and continue to stir until the mixture thickens and leaves the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat and let cool to lukewarm.
- In a large bowl, mix the ricotta, eggs, sugar, orange zest, and juice. Add the semolina mixture and beat with an electric mixer just until blended. Set the filling aside.
- Preheat the oven to 375 F. Divide the dough in half and roll 1 piece on a floured surface into a 15-X-11 1/2-inch rectangle. Place the dough on a greased cookie sheet of the same size and pat gently to fit. Fill any small holes by stretching and patting the dough into place. Spread the filling evenly over the dough to the edges. Set aside.
- Roll the remaining dough into another 15-X-11 1/2-inch sheet. Using your rolling pin, carefully lift the dough and place it over the filling. Use a fork to pinch the edges closed. If a tear occurs, patch it with some of the dough.
- Bake the pie for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned. You may have to move the pie from the bottom rack to the middle rack for even browning. Remove the pie from the oven and immediately brush with the warmed apricot jam. Sprinkle the almonds evenly over the top, gently pressing them to adhere, and let the pie cool completely.
- Before cutting and serving the pie, sprinkle the top evenly and generously with confectioner's sugar. Cut into squares.
- Variation: Add 1/2 cup each raisins and diced citron to the filling.
After returning from a trip to northern Italy where I drove from Venice to Florence, stopping to stay overnight in many little towns along the way, and sampling several Torta della Nonna’s along the way, I searched for a recipe for my favorite version of Torta della Nonna since I could not find it in any bakeries here in the U.S.. Mary Ann’s recipe came closest to the version that I liked.
I think that the use of semolina flour instead of all-purpose flour, as many other recipes call for, in the filling is critical for achieving the correct texture.
I think the use of drained ricotta in the filling is also necessary for the correct texture and flavor, but many other recipes omit the ricotta. Those other recipes usually call for a smooth pastry cream custard which does not have the same body and texture of the Torta della Nonna fillings that I had during my trip through northern Italy.
Many other recipes use lemon zest instead of orange zest in the filling, but the Torta della Nonna filling I liked best in Italy had the orange flavor rather than the lemon flavor.
The flavor resulting from Mary Ann’s recipe does differ, however, in some respects from what I tasted in Italy.
First, I think the fillings for the one’s I had in Italy used vanilla extract or vanilla beans – there was definitely a vanilla flavor to the filling. Many other recipes do call for vanilla extract or vanilla bean. For me the combination of the orange flavor with the vanilla flavor in the filling is simply sublime, and is more than the sum of its parts. I think a teaspoon of a good quality vanilla extract added to the milk when heating it does the trick.
Second, some of the Torta della Nonni I had in Italy had pine nuts instead of almonds, and I prefer the pine nuts to the almonds for this recipe. Instead of sprinkling the pine nuts on after baking, rinse the pine nuts in water and then sprinkle the damp pine nuts on top of the torta and press them lightly into the top crust so they adhere before baking. Rinsing the pine nuts in water prior to applying them to the crust prevents them from burning so that they just lightly brown during baking.
Lastly, I do not recall any of the Torta della Nonni that I had in Italy having any apricot jam glaze on them. By sprinkling the nuts on top before baking as described above, rather than after baking as in Mary Ann’s recipe, there is no need for the apricot jam to adhere the nuts to the top of the torta. In my opinion, the apricot jam glaze slightly blunts the flavor of the orange, vanilla, and nuts, and those flavors pop out more without the glaze.
Despite, these small differences, I am very thankful to Mary Ann for providing a recipe that got me closer to the texture and flavor of my favorite Torta della Nonna that I could only find in Italy.
Thank you Mary Ann.