For me, living on the border between the provinces of Siena and Florence, driving south in Tuscany means going through one of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet, the Val d’Orcia and the Crete Senesi, declared by UNESCO, in 2004, World Heritage Site. The outlines of the hills are well known throughout the world, just as the small group of cypress trees at the top of a small hill that seem placed there on purpose to inspire photographers and dreamers.
Pienza, Bagno Vignoni, San Quirico d’Orcia… these are lands of cheese, hot springs and soft landscapes. Then Montalcino, known throughout the world for its wine and also for the excellent extra virgin olive oil, the view that stretches to a far horizon of rolling hills and an abbey just outside the town where the air still vibrates with mysticism and Gregorian chants.
When you drive southward you have a far away reference point, the Mount Amiata, an ancient and no longer active volcano that dominates the surrounding valleys, the Val d’Orcia, the Bolsena lake, the Chianti and the plain of Maremma. In cloudless days you can see the Amiata mountain even from Siena and my house, covered with chestnut and beech forests. Though it has the fire in its remote past, now is the water that represents its main source of wealth: the Fiora waterworks supply with the local water the entire southern Tuscany and northern Lazio.
Until a few years ago the Mount Amiata was well-known for its winter tourism, being the most important ski resort in the southern Tuscany with its ski tows and its cozy mountain huts. Nowadays it is instead mostly appreciated for the fresh air, the green areas, the hot springs and a straightforward and hearty cuisine.
The goal of our southward trip was Piancastagnaio, famous for its incredible houses clinging to the side of a cliff and protected by the fortress Aldobrandeschi. Piancastagnaio is named after the splendid chestnut trees which surround the town and gift the villagers with one of the most important ingredients of their local cuisine, the chestnuts, celebrated every year in the famous Crastatone festival.
If you’ll ever visit Piancastagnaio, I do suggest you to climb to the Rocca Aldebrandesca, just to enjoy the pictoresque view of the town spreading beneath, with red roofs, the clock tower and the smoke from the chimneys, painting the scenario of an old time mountain village, genuine and true.
And now we enter in a Lord of the Rings genealogy: Piancastagnaio is the hometown of my friend Paolo, who is the husband of my best friend Laura, famous for the luscious Sacher Torte recipe, as well as for being the daughter of Rita, who revealed me the recipe for the delicious pine nut cake, and from now on also for being the daughter-in-law of the woman who gave me the recipe of the ricciolina, the decadent cake who pushed us South!
A first clarification is due, since I really do not want to raise the wrath of neighbour villagers, separated by colorful rivalries as always happens in Italy: the ricciolina tart belongs to the culinary tradition of Abbadia San Salvatore, not to Piancastagnaio. So do not hold it against me if the recipe comes from Laura’s mother-in-law from Piancastagnaio, I strongly believe that a thick slice of shortcrust pastry filled with creamy chocolate spread – now replaced with the world famous Nutella – would help even the most bitter enemies to come to an agreement.
The ricciolina tart hides between two crumbly shortcrust layers a thick Nutella filling and a generous handful of dried fruit, just to make it even more devilishly good. As the filling is made with Nutella, the first thing that comes to mind would be to use hazelnuts, but you can find sometimes also almonds or walnuts. I chose walnuts.
The walnuts are extremely appreciated in the Tuscan pastry making (just think at cavallucci) and their use goes back to the old times when myths and legends were part of the everyday life. Despite the love for this rich dried fruit, the relationship with the walnut trees has always been based on respect and fear. It was thought that the witches chose these trees as a shelter: every time the wayfarers found a walnut tree with a cracked trunk, they used to abandon that path not to wake up the witch who rested inside.
This is a mountain tart, a rustic and traditional shortcrust with a thick filling of Nutella and walnuts, covered by a gentle puff of meringue on which you can draw squiggles of chocolate, from which the cake takes its name.
When Paula from Bellalimento asked me to contribute with a Nutella sweet treat to the blog Bellanutella, I decided to take up the challenge and dig into the Tuscan culinary tradition to find a typical cake made with this delicious chocolate spread… this was definitely a cake worth the trip to the Mount Amiata, I bet you will adore it, too!
- 300 g flour
- 150 g sugar
- 150 g butter
- About 17 g baking powder
- 1 pinch of salt
- 3 eggs (1 whole egg + 2 yolks, do not throw the egg whites, you’ll need them for the meringue)
- 400 g of Nutella
- 80 g of shelled walnuts, or almonds, or hazelnuts
- 2 egg whites
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- Mix the flour with the sugar, the salt and the baking powder. Add the diced butter and rub all the ingredients with your fingertips as to make soft crumbles, just as grated Parmesan cheese.
- Beat a whole egg and two yolks in a bowl, then add them to the crumbles and keep rubbing the ingredients with your fingertips until you have a nice and smooth ball of dough. Flatten the dough ball with your hands, wrap it in cling film and let it rest in the fridge for at least one hour.
- Preheat oven to 180°C.
- Divide the dough into two equal parts: line a 24 cm buttered round baking pan with half of the shortcrust dough, then spread half of the Nutella on the pie and sprinkle with the chopped walnuts.
- Roll out the second part of shortcrust pastry in a disk big enough to cover the cake. Press the edges to seal the pie and bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes.
- Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form then gradually add 4 tablespoons of sugar, keeping on whipping the egg whites until the meringue is firm and glossy.
- After 40 minutes of baking, when the cake is golden, remove it from the oven and spoon the meringue over the cake, using a spatula or the back of a spoon to shape it and create some puffs of meringue.
- Stir quickly the leftover Nutella in the jar to heat it up, then drizzle it on the meringue and mix them gently with a fork to form crazy doodles.
- Bake again the cake for 2 minutes, and as soon as the meringue gets firm on the surface and slightly golden, remove from the oven and let it cool completely before you slice it.