Earlier this year, I talked about my cooking trip to Sichuan and the great friendships I made while studying there. One of my fellow students is a journalist, and he wrote a fantastic article for this morning’s Boston Globe. Another is a retired university professor living in China for a year with his wife (who is teaching at the University), and the third, a retired exec from a large international accounting firm. The latter came to Seattle last weekend to stay with us and meet David for the first time. His only instructions were, “Rather than going out to dinner, let’s cook together. You invite your c*ntiest gays, and I’ll do the same when you come to Florida in March”.
I can do that. Game. ON!
Since we spent two weeks cooking Chinese food together, and have both burned out our respective husbands with Sichuan fare since returning to the US, I decided to cook Italian for him. With the exception of the appetizer tartlets I mentioned recently, every dish came from Nancy Silverton’s Mozza cookbook, with which I am completely OBSESSED. We have used this book in the past for our cookbook club, where every dish blew our minds.
For this occasion with my friend, we started with the tartlets, moved on to a beautiful take on a caprese salad with burrata, pesto, pine nuts and oven-roasted tomatoes, made a pasta dish with homemade sausage, herbs and fennel pollen, and taking the main stage, a stuffed quail agrodolce dish my friend Becky took over and rocked. (It’s always to have a chef friend over for a dinner party. Especially when they ALSO meet the aforementioned “c*nty gay” requirement). I'll be blogging about the quail dish for sure. This night was one of those perfect dinner parties for a host, where every dish outshone the last,...culminating in this cheese-filled Torta. This is, for me, the most intricate dessert I’ve ever made successfully to the point I’d call it a “10”, other than that Pastel de Tres Leches cake, which was also a bitch to make.
No weird substitutions or anything here, since it is a dreaded baking recipe. I did find unbleached pastry flour but I had to look for a while to find it. I didn’t find the Italian leavening at either of the Italian delis in town, so I used the baking soda/powder mixture and it worked great. I had to search for honeycomb, but if you have a grocery store with a good cheese selection, they're likely to sell it. (For Seattleites, I got it at the University Village QFC). This dessert looks so impressive with the cheesecake topped with the individual cookies and honeycomb. It’s definitely one I will make again, but there’s a significant time investment here.
Cooling the torta and the cookies
This dinner party involved lots of Negronis, many bottles of red and white wine, and we served the last of my homemade Arancello with dessert. After many jokes, puns and jabs at one another to accompany the food and wine, everyone stumbled their happy asses home. As my friend swerved downstairs to the guest room, he gave the concession I was waiting to hear: “Your friends are WAY c*ntier than mine”.
Well done, people.
Torta Della Nonna
From Mozza, by Nancy Silverton and Matt Molina
For the crust:
11/2 cups unbleached pastry flour or unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more for dusting
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/4 teaspoon Italian leavening, such as Bench Mate, Pane Angel, or Rebecchi, or 1/8 teaspoon baking soda and 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
4 extra- large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (if not using Italian leavening)
All-purpose flour, for dusting
Unsalted butter, for the pan
1 extra- large egg white
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
For the filling:
10 ounces Philadelphia style cream cheese
1 cup mild- flavored fresh goat cheese, such as Coach Farms goat cheese
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached pastry flour or unbleached all- purpose
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 extra- large eggs
1 cup sugar
11/4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
For serving the tart:
Two types of single- flower honeys, such as chestnut honey and wildflower honey
To make the crust, combine the flour, confectioners' sugar, butter, leavening, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and mix on low speed until the butter and dry ingredients form a coarse cornmeal consistency, about 2 minutes. Add the egg yolks and vanilla, if you are using it, and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Dust a flat work surface with flour and turn the dough out onto it. Knead the dough for a few minutes until it comes together into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour and up to three days; or freeze it for up to two months. (Defrost the dough overnight in the refrigerator.)
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Dust a flat work surface with flour, cut the dough into chunks, and knead the dough on the countertop to soften it, until it is the texture of Play- Doh. Cut off a 1/3 cup portion (about 3.2 ounces) of dough, wrap it in plastic wrap and return it to the refrigerator.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, butter the inside of an 11- inch flan ring, and place the ring on the baking sheet. Remove the remaining dough from the refrigerator. Dust your work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll the dough out to 2 inches larger than the ring, and to a thickness of 1/8 to 1/4 inch. Gently fold the dough in quarters and place it on top of the flan ring, placing the point in the center and gently unfolding the dough so the ends are flopped over the ring. Gently push the dough down to fit inside the ring, pressing into the crease around the inside circumference so the dough fits snugly against the corners and sides. (Don't stretch the dough to fit or it will shrink during baking.) Dip the knuckle of your index finger in flour and use it to press the dough into the crease to create a straight edge, not sloping sides. Roll the rolling pin over the top of the flan ring to cut the dough. Pull off the trimmed dough and discard. Place the tart shell in the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes and up to one day.
Remove the 1/3 cup of dough from the refrigerator and place it between two sheets of parchment paper. Roll it into an 8-inch circle about 1/16 inch thick. Place the dough sandwiched between the parchment paper on a baking sheet and put it in the freezer to chill until it is firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes.
Adjust the oven rack so it is in the lowest position and preheat the oven to 350ºF and line another separate baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the sheet of dough that you rolled very thinly from the freezer, lay it on a flat work surface, remove the top sheet of parchment paper, and use the 8-inch ring to cut a circle out of the dough, working quickly so that it stays cold. Pull away and discard the scraps of dough around the circle and cut the circle into eight or ten equal wedges as you would a pie— however many servings you want the tart to make. Still working quickly, use a metal spatula to carefully lift the wedges one at a time and place them on the prepared baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between each. Brush the wedges with the egg white. Scatter 2 tablespoons of the pine nuts over the wedges, dividing them evenly, and gently press the nuts into the wedges to make sure they adhere; reserve the remaining pine nuts for serving with the tart.
Bake the wedges until they're golden brown, about 8 minutes, rotating the pan in the middle of the baking time so the cookies brown evenly. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and place it on a wire cooling rack until the wedges cool, and dust them lightly with powdered sugar.
To make the filling, combine the cream cheese, goat cheese, butter, and mascarpone in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until the ingredients are combined and the mixture is smooth and creamy, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula occasionally, about 2 minutes. Add the flour and salt, mix on low speed to incorporate, and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Combine the eggs and sugar in the bowl you mixed the cheeses in. (There's no need to wash the bowl.) Exchange the paddle attachment for the whisk attachment on your mixer and beat the eggs and sugar together until the eggs are thick and fluffy and the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat just to incorporate. Gently fold one- third of the egg mixture into the cheese, using the flat side of a spatula to smash the cheese and break up the density of the cheese with the egg. Add another third of the egg mixture, folding it in with a light hand so the eggs stay light and fluffy. Fold in the remaining egg mixture, mixing until the ingredients are combined but there are still visible lumps of cheese in the mix. (The filling can be made up to four days in advance. Transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate until you are ready to bake the tart.)
Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator and pour the filling into the shell to fill it 1/8 inch from the top. (You may not use all of it but you don't want to overfill the ring; discard the excess.) Place the baking sheet with the tart on it in the oven to bake for about 40 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through the baking time for even browning, until the filling is set and the top is golden brown. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and set it aside to cool slightly. Cut the tart into the same number of wedges that you cut cookie wedges. You can serve the tart warm, or set it aside to cool to room temperature. (To rewarm the tart, place the whole tart or individual slices on a baking sheet and put it in a 350ºF oven until it is warmed through; about 5 minutes for slices, about 15 minutes for a whole tart.)
Just before serving, place the cookie wedges on the tart with the outside edges of the cookies about 1 inch from the edge of the tart. Lift the flan ring off the tart. Use a large knife to cut between the cookies, creating even slices using the cookies as a guide. Use a metal spatula to carefully transfer each wedge to a dessert plate. Spoon 1 teaspoon of honeycomb on one side of each wedge. Spoon 1 teaspoon of each of the two honeys into circles about the size of silver dollars on either side of each wedge. Scatter a few of the reserved pine nuts in the center of each pool of honey, but not the honeycomb, and serve.