The Tuscan pine nut cake – a recipe with a story

My granddad Remigio used to walk with a cane, more for habit than necessity, and often waved it like Charlie Chaplin. He also had the same funny walk, and loved to wear his hat at a jaunty.

Once in a while, when mum was at work, I spent an afternoon with him in San Gimignano. Our main activity was going to the park to pick up the pine nuts. The park was right outside the city walls, with gravel paths surrounding the shady flower beds and big pine trees, huge.

Now the park is unfortunately different, they cut down my huge shady pine trees, but if I close my eyes I can still hear the gravel crunching under my child feet, and the balsamic smell of the pine resin, the birichicchero, as my granddad called it.

After the walk with my eyes pointed down in the winding gravel paths searching for the tiny precious gifts, I sat in the entrance of my granddad’s house, on a marble staircase, and opened the pine nuts with a small hammer that he kept just for us grandchildren. The hammer blows, a bit insecure, roared into the hall and the pine nuts shells flew everywhere.

I ate one pine nut after the other with my hands blackened by the fairy pine nut shell dust, leaving just a tiny handful for a possible cake. That’s why I waited so long to make my first pine nut cake! This is a recipe with a long story, my favourite kind of recipes as you may already know, just like last year Laura’s Sacher Torte.

This year the protagonist is Rita, Laura’s mother. This is Rita’s pine nut cake, passed on by Giuliana, who seems to have had the recipe from a famous Sienese pastry shop… here the mystery deepens, but since it is Christmas I want to tell you this perfect recipe. The pine nut cake recipe had all the credentials to succeed, I had tasted it several times at Laura’s and I really wanted to bake it again, that’s the result!

5.0 from 1 reviews
Tuscan pine nut cake
Recipe type: Dessert, cake
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 8
You'll need
  • 180 g of butter at room temperature
  • 150 g of caster sugar
  • 3 free range eggs
  • 180 g of organic tender wheat flour
  • 10 g of baking powder
  • 1 handful of shelled pine nuts
For the custard:
  • 3 free range egg yolks
  • 4 tablespoons of caster sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of organic tender wheat flour
  • 500 ml of whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons of raisins, soaked in Vinsanto, Tuscan sweet wine
How to make it
  1. As first thing, make the custard, you'll need it to be cold when you will add it to the cake. Heat the milk in a saucepan until it starts to simmer, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and flour, then pour in the hot milk in a thin stream, stirring continuously with a whisk. Put the custard on a low flame and stir constantly until it begins to thicken: remove it from the heat, add the raisins and let it cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 180°C.
  3. Whip the butter at room temperature with the sugar for a few minutes until it becomes creamy and light.
  4. Add the eggs gradually, one after the other, waiting for the first to be completely mixed before adding the second. Stir in the flour sifted with the baking powder.
  5. Grease and flour a 23 cm wide round baking tin.
  6. Separate the dough into two equal parts with the help of a spoon: put a spoonful of batter into the baking tin and one in a pastry bag, and so on, until you've finished. Level the batter into the baking tin, spread the cold custard over it, then add the remaining batter in concentric circles, trying not to mix it with the custard. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top and bake for 40 minutes.
  7. When golden brown, remove it from the oven, let it cool for a few minutes, then gently remove it from the mould and when completely cold, dust the cake with icing sugar.

The recipe, tried and perfected for years by more than one family, is a reliable one: it is simple to make and gives a tremendous satisfaction to take it out from the oven, hot and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts, not to mention to eat it, with a fondant custard heart dotted with juicy raisins soaked in sweet wine. Talking about the silky custard, don’t miss the recipe, it has become the standard procedure to make custard at home!

Now just have a look at this slice of pine nut cake, it looks exactly like the cake showed in the San Gimignano pastry shop windows I looked at  with greedy eyes coming back home from the park with my granddad, with one hand secured into his huge hand and the other one holding tightly my bag of pine nuts.

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  1. says

    It looks so good and easy to make! I also used to pick pinenuts (from my garden) and then break the shall with the hammer and get all my hands black! :)

  2. says

    What a delightful story – I can just imagine your granddad now :o) I love the Italian pine cake – a wonderful blend of lovely flavors!

  3. says

    I have never come across a recipe for pine nut cake and it definitely does intrigue! Pine nuts are a rare treat because they are not easy to come by here in Texas. Your cake looks like something I would definitely enjoy. Thanks for posting this recipe!

    • says

      here in Tuscany they are extremely easy to find, but oh gosh, so expensive, especially if you’re searching for organic ones! try with almond flakes if you cannot find pine nuts, I bet it is a delicious combination as well!

  4. says

    This is a wonderful story, it could be a children’s picture book! The cake looks so dense and moist, I’ve been experimenting with nut cakes this year, but I haven’t yet used pine nuts, they’ve gotten very expensive in the past couple of years here. The custard center sounds so good, too.

    • says

      I do love the idea of a children’s picture book, with pastel colours and sketchy drawings! as I was telling Tina, they are so expensive also in Tuscany!

  5. says

    The recipe becomes more special because of the heartwarming story that goes with it. Lovely post! Thank you for sharing…

    • says

      It is similar.. I think the torta della nonna has short pastry at the bottom and over the custard, not this soft dough, but it is very similar! and I love torta della nonna, too!

  6. becca says

    what size baking tin/what kind did you use?… spring form… pie dish… 8 inch? any information would be helpful!

  7. Rachael says

    I just pulled this cake out of the oven and it looks and smells wonderful! We’ll be sharing it with friends later. :) Thanks so much for posting the recipe and the beautiful story with it.

  8. says

    I love a good recipe, especially if it comes w a good story! This cake looks amazing. Love the snowy sugar on top. Grazia!

  9. says

    Hi Giulia:

    Thank you for sharing your story and this recipe for Tuscan Pine Nut Cake. I can’t wait to make it! Please, a couple of questions about the recipe:
    – Is “tender wheat flour” the same as wheat pastry flour?
    – Is Vinsanto, Tuscan sweet wine similar to a Moscato? Would soaking the raisins in Moscato be comparable?

    • says

      Hi Cristina, yes, wheat pastry flour is perfect for this cake.
      Vinsanto is a sweet dessert wine, you can use moscato or another sweet wine, the result will be just as amazing as with vinsanto!
      all the best and happy baking

  10. Kelly says

    I came across this cake just by accident today and am making it right now (12:45a.m.) for my husband. If it turns out as well as it looks in your pictures…and smells from the oven, I will make it for my Italian in-laws this Christmas. Thank you for the lovely story and a new recipe!

    • says

      Hi Jillian, you can make it also the day before. Keep it in the fridge e take it out of the fridge a few hours before serving.

      • Jillian says

        Thanks so much for the quick response. Making it a day early will make our Thanksgiving much less busy. Cheers!


  1. […] The Tuscan pine nut cake – a recipe with a story Pine nuts: little, delicious, weirdly shaped pebbles of oily joy! I still remember as a kid often hitting my fingers with a stone trying to crack their shell open, just to get the fresh fruit right out of a pine cone. Therefore this is one of my favorite Tuscan dessert recipes. It also includes raisins, and yellow cream, all layered in crumbling “pasta frolla”. Heaven! […]

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