Monday, June 16, 2008

Torta della no no

I read Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes last year and while I'd hate to write something as cliched as "That book changed my life", I must confess, that book changed my life. I'm not planning on buying a crumbling Tuscan villa, but I was struck by her passion for food and how that shone through in her writing. I found it very inspiring, both as a writer and as a food lover. That being said, there was a particular dessert she wrote of called torta della nonna, or grandmother's tart, that I've been wanting to try. The recipe sounded delightfully simple and rustic:

A thick custard filling made from two egg yolks, 1/3 C. flour, 2 C. milk, and a 1/2 C. sugar poured into a polenta crust made from 1 1/2 C. polenta, 1 1/2 C. flour, 1/3 C. sugar, 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder, 4 oz butter, 1 egg, and 1 egg yolk.

Top with a handful of pine nuts and bake at 350 for 25 minutes.

There wasn't much direction other than that.

Since I've never made a custard before I turned to my mother's worn copy of Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. Don't let the word New fool you. I couldn't find a publishing date, but based on the photographs of the BHG test kitchen, I'd guess this book is at least twenty-five years old. A lot of the recipes seem like holdovers from my Grandmother's time, but it is a venerable encyclopedia for timeless favorites.

The recipe for their custard was slightly different. It called for three whole eggs,vanilla extract, and less sugar but I figured the basic idea--stir over medium heat until it coats spoon--would still hold over.

I was wrong.

I had a feeling that the custard wasn't as thick as it could be, but I figured it would thicken as it cooled. It did, but not nearly enough. I baked it for around thirty minutes, hoping maybe the extra cooking time would help. The crust turned a nice golden brown and the top seemed to harden a bit, but I could tell from the way the surface wobbled that it would be soupy.

It looked great though and despite my warnings, my mother couldn't wait to cut herself a slice. As soon as she did, my worst fears were confirmed by her exclaimation: "Oh, it's all runny."


She then assured me that custard can be tricky and asked what the recipe called for.

"No cornstarch?" She asked.

No, just flour.

She shrugged her shoulders, then asked me if I wanted a piece.

The crust was pretty good. I used Red Mill polenta, which was a bit too coarse for my tastes. I wouldn't use it again.

The custard itself was quite runny. Oh well. It still tasted good, but wasn't what I was hoping for.

Then, I dropped it on the floor right before I took the picture.