My granddad Remigio used to walk with a cane, more as a habit than out of necessity, and he would often waved it just 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 would spend an afternoon with him in San Gimignano. Our main activity was going to the park to collect pine nuts. The park was right outside the city walls, with gravel paths all around the shady flower beds where tall pine trees grew.
Now the park is unfortunately different, they cut down my tall 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, when I would keep 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 insecure hammer blows roared into the hall and the pine nuts shells flew everywhere.
La pinolata. The recipe for the Tuscan pine nut cake
I would eat one pine nut after the other, my hands blackened by the fairy pine nutshell dust, leaving aside just a 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, just like last year Laura’s Sacher Torte.
This year the protagonist is Rita, Laura’s mother. This is Rita’s Tuscan pine nut cake, passed on by Giuliana, who apparently had the recipe from a famous Sienese pastry shop. Here the mystery deepens, but since it is Christmas, I want to share with you this perfect recipe.
The recipe, tried and perfected for years by more than one family, is a reliable one: it is simple to make and gives tremendous satisfaction to take it out from the oven, hot and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts, not to mention to eat it, with a melt-in-your-mouth pastry cream heart, dotted with juicy raisins soaked in vinsanto.
Typical of Siena, the pinolata is one of the most common cakes you could find in bakeries and pastry shops, but also one of those home-baked desserts that cheer up family meals and afternoon snacks.
Tuscan pine nut cake
- 180 grams (¾ cups) butter , at room temperature
- 150 grams (¾ cups) sugar
- 3 eggs
- 180 grams (1 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
- 8 grams (½ tbsp) baking powder
- 2 tablespoons shelled pine nuts
For the pastry cream
- 3 egg yolks
- 100 grams (½ cups) sugar
- 40 grams (1/3 cups) all-purpose flour
- 500 ml (2 1/8 cups) whole milk
- 2 tablespoons raisins, soaked in Vinsanto, Tuscan sweet wine
Make the pastry cream
- Make it as the first thing, as 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, then set aside.
- Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and the flour, then pour in the hot milk in a thin stream, stirring continuously with a whisk.
- Transfer the pastry cream to the saucepan and move it on a low flame. Stir it constantly until it begins to thicken, about 3 minutes. Remove it from the heat, add the raisins and let it cool down.
Make the pinolata cake
- Preheat oven to 175°C/350 degrees F.
- Wisk butter and sugar for a few minutes, until creamy and light.
- Add the eggs gradually, one after the other, waiting for the first to be completely incorporated before adding the next one.
- Stir in the flour sifted with the baking powder.
- Grease and dust with flour a 22cm/9in round cake pan.
- Separate the batter equally into two pastry bags. Pipe the batter of the first pastry bag onto the cake pan, then spread it evenly with a spatula.
- Spoon the cold pastry cream over the first layer of cake, leaving 2 cm all around the edges. Smooth the surface of the pastry cream.
- Pipe the batter of the second pastry bag on top of the pastry cream in concentric circles, trying not to mix it with the custard, then spread it evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle the surface with pine nuts.
- Transfer to the oven and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until golden brown.
- Remove the cake from the oven, let it cool down completely, then gently unmould it onto a plate. Keep in the fridge for a few hours before slicing in.
Just have a look at that slice of pinolata, the Tuscan pine nut cake. It looks exactly like the cakes on display in the San Gimignano pastry shop windows I would stare at with greedy eyes, coming back home from the park with my granddad, one hand secured into his huge hand and the other one holding tightly my bag of pine nuts.