by Jamie Schler
The Italian Pine Nut Tart
I prefer to regard a dessert as I would imagine the perfect woman: subtle, a little bittersweet, not blowsy and extrovert. Delicately made up, not highly rouged. Holding back, not exposing everything and, of course, with a flavor that lasts.–Graham Kerr, The Galloping Gourmet
When we speak of dessert we invariably pepper the conversation with such words as sinful, decadent, guilty pleasure, hints of gluttony and naughtiness behind hands pressed to mouths, stifling schoolgirl giggles. We see someone succumb to the temptation and share a knowing look as if having caught him or her in a compromising position, albeit a tad envious of the other’s daring in delving into some tempting, tantalizing, uncontrollable urge.
Dessert, sweet confections, are spoken of as a luxury, something meant to be rarely savored and only at selected moments. A tidbit, a dainty morsel hints at self-restraint, a rather angelic guide to how we should be approaching this most devilish of treats.
We too often shake our heads no at each and every chocolate-rich, rum-infused, egg yolk, cream and butter-rich concoction set before us, feeling oh-so saintly at our self-restraint, and leave the table feeling…deprived. Or we decide to replace white flour with wheat and spelt, throw in a handful of grains or cups of nuts and dried fruit for good measure and think that healthier makes for a better dessert, better for us.
I moved to France at the ripe old age of 25. I had been struggling with my weight and battling my love of sweets for years. Cake, pastries, cookies of every sort were my Achilles’ Heel, and I had developed a bad yet time-worn love-hate relationship with dessert. I grew up in a family of sweet tooths and the house was always filled to overflowing with ice cream, cakes, pudding, every imaginable temptation and anytime of the day, any reason was good for the eating. Plates piled high with huge scoops, chunks or slices — the sky was the limit — became both comforting and reassuring, a reward for a day well spent, a job well done, a meal finished. This evil cycle was only broken when I moved to Europe and married into a French family. It was then that I began to experience a different concept of dessert, understand a different way of eating and learned how to eat as Europeans do: with pleasure and moderation and completely guilt-free! This new relationship suited us both, and I not only slimmed down, but never felt better!
When I was invited to join the talented team of writers on The Rambling Epicure and was asked to concentrate on desserts (oh, how easy is that?), I began thinking of how I look at dessert and how that vision has evolved throughout this long voyage of mine from the United States through Italy and France. Food is not a conscious lifestyle choice here in Europe but rather a way of life. Although Europe has moved rambunctiously into the 21st century and people are relying more on packaged foods, are occasionally seen eating on the run, there are certain mealtime and culinary traditions that are still deeply ingrained in the cultural psyche. Fresh, local ingredients, daily or weekly trips to the market, spending time cooking for family and friends are all part of everyday living and eating, as are regular, precise mealtimes eaten slowly, one course at a time. One rarely finds food piled up on the table for all to grab as they please and eating between designated mealtimes is frowned upon.
Desserts, rather simple, unadorned affairs at home, richer and more luxurious when eaten at a restaurant or served at a dinner party, are offered up in delicately-sized portions, just enough to round off a meal, just enough to satisfy. Snack time is sharply at ten and four, leftover cake or tart from the evening before served up with a cup of coffee or a glass of juice for the youngsters, only enough to tide one over until the next meal. Restaurants normally offer, aside from a full three-course menu, the choice between ordering Entrée + Plat (first + main course) or Plat + Dessert (Main course + dessert) and rare is the person who doesn’t include dessert, apparently desiring, needing that sweet touch at the end of the meal. At home and at dinner parties one usually finds a fruit bowl placed squarely in the center of the table as the dessert is served, offering a cool, refreshing balance to the richer confection offered. Dessert, like mealtimes, like life, should be unhurried, untroubled, enjoyed.
And what is a healthy alternative, a healthy dessert? We hear this cry high and low and wonder what we should be doing differently as we stare down into our plates. I spent too many years feeling guilty, searching for low fat, low-calorie options, snacks and desserts that would both satisfy and not make me feel naughty. Not so in Europe. Yes, fruit and yogurt, those healthy alternatives, are pushed regularly and actually enjoyed by all, young and old. We now see warnings on all food-related TV advertisements urging people to eat moderately, watch their salt and sugar intake and exercise regularly, all in the spirit of a healthier society. Yet other than the odd granola bar or certain whole-wheat cookies on the market and those famous, much-loved yogurts, I have yet to see desserts altered in any way by the addition of more “healthier” ingredients. “Healthy” desserts simply mean the best quality ingredients, fresh cream and eggs, high-grade chocolate, farm-fresh fruit. This is the way I eat, this is the way I bake. And I no longer hesitate when offered dessert, no longer feel an alarming guilt wash over me as I spoon up those few luscious mouthfuls. I savor the flavors, the textures, breathe in the wonderful aromas and allow myself to be transported to a peaceful, luxurious, soothing place for the short yet oh-so satisfying duration.
With each post, I will be taking you on a sweet voyage, a new Dessert Destination. Together we will discover flavors and culinary passions, both the simple and the luxurious, the homey, the elegantly sophisticated and even the downright decadent. We’ll be savoring traditions, sharing the unknown, exploring the new, enjoying the old-fashioned comfort foods of our youth. Desserts are my passion and I love the physical act of baking, kneading, stirring, watching the magical transformation through the oven door. I love the satisfying act of sharing what I have created, watching smiles bloom on happy faces. I make no excuses for the seemingly sinful richness of what I will be bringing; I do occasionally bake with olive oil, often replace sour cream or crème fraîche with 0% fat fromage frais and whole milk with low fat, look for eggless treats for a careful husband and adore creating with fresh fruits, but my goal is to please, to pamper, to spoil. I only ask you to join me for the pleasure of the ride, eat with thoughtful moderation and all of your senses.
Today’s Destination Dessert is Italian Pinolata, or Pine Nut Tart. We had the great luck to live in Milan, Italy, for seven glorious years, and I loved strolling into the bakeries and discovering completely new delicacies, local specialties, holiday treats. Rarely rich in chocolate, and other than the infamous tiramisu, panna cotta or zuppa inglese, desserts, cakes, tarts or brioche-like breads are simply flavored with one of a variety of nuts, usually chestnuts, almonds or pine nuts, and the occasional handful of chopped candied fruits. A splash of liqueur or deep, sexy, bitter espresso give some desserts a truly adult twist while white, creamy ricotta and mascarpone give other confections a slightly cheesy, luxurious smoothness. Local oranges, cherries, apples, figs, grapes and kaki are among the favorite fruit found in torte, crostate, focaccia, adding a sweet, flavorful kick to an otherwise plain backdrop of dough. Sweetened dough in all of its variations, baked, fried, filled, twisted, made for a huge yet simple array of cookies, cakes, pies and enriched breads. Oh so simple yet infused with the goodness found in all home-baked, traditional treats.
La Pinolata, the Pine Nut Tart, is a traditional, homey favorite, with variations ranging from a ricotta, pastry cream or even chocolate filling baked in a sweet pastry crust. For others, the Pinolata is a pine nut-studded genoise-type cake. This version is an almond and pine nut frangipane smoothed into a pastry crust over a thin layer of tangy, sweet fruit jam and sprinkled with more pine nuts. This luscious filling can be flavored with a bit of lemon zest and juice, vanilla or even rum. And it not only keeps perfectly well for several days, but tastes better as the flavors meld together.
PINOLATA (PINE NUT TART)
For one 9- to 10-inch (25-cm) round tart. I used my 13 ½ x 3 ¾- inch (34 x 10-cm) rectangular tart tin + 1 small 4 ¼-inch (11-cm) round tartlet tin.
1 batch of single Sweet Pastry Pie Crust (recipe to follow)
1 cup (100 g) finely ground blanched almonds
½ heaping cup (75 g) very fresh, lightly toasted pine nuts, finely ground
4 ½ oz (about 8 Tbs + 2 tsp/ 125 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperatu
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
2 whole large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 Tbs + 2 tsp (25 g) flour
Very fresh pine nuts for the top of the tart, lightly toasted if desired, about 5 ½ oz (150 g)
Optional flavorings: 1 tsp vanilla extract, 1 Tbs rum or to taste, finely grated zest of one lemon
5 Tbs apricot jam (traditional) or flavor of your choice (I used cherry jam)
Powdered/confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Prepare the Sweet Pastry Crust recipe below or your favorite sweet pie dough, roll out and carefully line a buttered tart tin, fitting in the dough and making sure the corners and sides are well pressed in. Trim the edges level with the top of the tin. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C).
Prepare the filling. The easiest and fastest way I have found to toast the pine nuts is to simply place them in a clean skillet over medium-low heat and, shaking the pan constantly, allow them to color ever so slightly then remove immediately from the pan when golden. This step is optional. If you desire the ground almonds and pine nuts to be as fine as possible, place them together in a grinder or processor and whiz for several seconds.
Place the softened butter with the sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat until creamy, fluffy and smooth. Beat in the whole eggs and the yolks as well as one of the optional flavorings if you choose. Add the ground almonds and ground pine nuts, the flour and about a third (50 g) of the whole pine nuts and beat until well blended and smooth.
Remove the chilled pastry shell from the refrigerator and spread the jam evenly over the bottom, making sure you spread it into the corners and up to the edges. Pour or spoon the filling batter into the shell on top of the jam and spread, smoothing the top. Sprinkle the remaining whole pine nuts evenly over the top of the filling and gently press onto the filling using the back of a spoon or your fingertips.
Bake the tart for 30 to 35 minutes, depending on your tart pan size and your oven, until the top is slightly puffed and a nice golden color. The filling should be set but with a slight give, indicating it is still moist and not baked dry. The edges of the pie crust should be golden and cooked.
Remove the Pine Nut Tart from the oven onto a cooling rack and allow to cool. Serve at room temperature lightly dusted with powdered sugar. I find that the tart tastes even better the following day, so don’t hesitate to make this tart a day before serving.
Sweet Pastry Pie Crust
1 1/4 (160 g) cup flour
1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
7 Tbs (100 grams) unsalted butter, cubed *
1 egg, lightly beaten
Combine flour and sugar in a mixing bowl or on a work surface. Using only your thumbs and fingertips, rub the butter into the flour until the consistency of damp sand and there are no more large chunks of butter. With a fork, vigorously stir in the lightly beaten egg until all the dry ingredients are moistened and the dough starts to pull together into a ball. Gather the dough together into a ball and place on a lightly floured surface. Using the heel of one hand (dipped in flour so the dough doesn’t stick to your skin), smear the dough little by little away from you in quick, hard strokes in order to make sure that all of the butter is blended in well. Scrape up the dough together, re-flour the surface lightly and work very briefly and quickly until you have a smooth, homogenous dough. If the dough is a bit too soft or sticky for you, refrigerate it for 10 or 15 minutes until it can be easily rolled out without sticking to your rolling pin.*Most pie crust recipes call for the butter to be chilled. I have found that butter at room temperature is easier and quicker to work into the flour (without leaving your arms sore) and the dough seems to be fluffier. If the dough is too sticky to roll out right away, several minutes in the fridge should do the trick.