This cake is my personal ‘Ode to Autumn’ with its golden hue and pine nuts. It’s my birthday cake. Not iced, just plain to look at but nutty, with a hint of lemon and filled with delicate, perfect confectioners’ cream. It is pure nostalgia, not because it is a cake that ever stood on tea tables of my childhood in Hampshire, but because it reminds me of the colours and scents of autumn while my adoptive island home of 18 years ‘enjoys’ humidity and temperatures far higher than an Indian summer let alone a British autumn. OK, I know the UK pines are different too…
Autumn of crisp or soggy leaves – the one sort crunching in bucket-loads under foot, the other glued like paper pulp to heavy-tred Wellies – is on my mind. My birthday as a child was often spent with a trip to the fairground. A rather tawdry, tacky fair it was, but it offered year-long forbidden indulgences of sickly candy-floss and toffee apples which felt even more sickly after the gravity-defying rides. In my memory, the fair weekend was always held in golden October weather. It took place on ‘the Butts’, a large triangular green which in medieval times was used for archery practice and contests; I like to imagine Robin Hood types battling it out there. The green’s perimeter is lined with mature horse chestnut trees weighed down with conkers and providing good leaf mulch to soak up the inevitable mud bath – heavy fairground lorries making short shrift of autumnal, water-logged ground. Memories tend to forget the flood years, another of which the UK has just had.
This cake has no UK leanings,nor Maltese, as it is a Tuscan recipe (at least a region that has four full seasons and does, mostly have dry, golden Octobers). I came across it in a small, pocket book of a recipe series that I’d picked up in a monastery bookshop in Tuscany three years ago, and had left forgotten wedged among the celeb cookbooks on my shelves. Torta ai pinoli was also dropped off most mornings by our host Monica when we stayed so near Pienza you could almost reach out and touch the town on the next hill. This humble, but oh so useful a cake (with breakfast, for tea, in lunchboxes, and after dinner with coffee…) brings me happy memories. What I left til last was that it is also called Torta di Nonna (grandma’s cake). I know I’m reaching ‘a certain age’ but I’ll leave the nonna bit out for a few more years yet!
Recipe: Pine nut cake
This may seem a strange method as you mix it up like a regular cake, but roll it out like pastry. The pastry is somewhat hard to handle – especially in my hot autumn temps here in Malta – so roll out carefully on baking paper to make it easier to transfer to the tin. If your pastry falls apart, don’t worry, you can patchwork it in the tin pressing lightly and the cake turns out fine. The crema is cooked inside the cake, not spread on after but if you prefer bake in two tins and sandwich together when cooled. I tested both methods but do prefer the traditional approach below.
This is from ‘Dolci di Toscana’, di Sandra Lotti, Maria Pacini Fazzi Editoriale.
Ingredients for cake
400 gm plain flour
2 large eggs
200 gm sugar (granulated)
200 gm butter, room temperature / soft
grated zest of a lemon
1 sachet (approx. 7gm) dried yeast
icing sugar to dust
50 gm (large handful) pine nuts
Ingredients for crema pasticceria
4 large or 5 or 6 medium egg yolks
vanilla essence – small capful or to taste
100 gm sugar (or less if you like)
50 gm cornflour
0,5 litre milk
grated zest of a lemon
Beat the eggs and sugar until light yellow and thickened. Add the soft butter, lemon zest (chopped small), flour and dried yeast. Continue beating until all dried ingredients are well mixed in and then leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. Roll out the dough into two dics, one slightly larger than the other. Place the larger disc in the bottom of a lined cake tin (around 20cm diameter), spread with confectioners’ cream (see note below) around half an inch deep and within an centimeter of the edge. Cover with the second disc and press down lightly around the edges. Sprinkle with pine nuts and bake for 40 minutes in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees centigrade until golden brown. Serve warm or room temperature sprinkled with icing sugar. For celebrations, chilled Prosecco, or a dessert wine go well with it as do coffee and tea of course.
For speed, or if you don’t wish to make real custard, you can use thick lemon curd instead if you bake the cake in two tins and fill after cooled. It will complement the cake’s lemon zest nicely.
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar and vanilla essence until they lighten in colour and thicken. Add the cornflour and mix in well. Then pour in steadily in a thin stream the milk, which needs heating to steaming, but not boiling point beforehand. Mix in swiftly with a heat-proof spatula. Place the mixture back on the hob on a medium heat and cook the custard until it thickens, coating the back of the spatula. Set aside to cool on a baking tray and cover with cling film on the custard’s surface to prevent a skin forming. Cool and then layer on the cake base before cooking as above.
All images © Liz Ayling 2012