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The Tuscan pine nut cake – a recipe with a story

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.

Tuscan pine nut cake

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.

Tuscan pine nut cake

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

The Tuscan pine nut cake is a soft, buttery cake with a thick, melt-in-your-mouth pastry cream heart dotted with raisins. The top is sprinkled with toasted pine nuts
4.50 from 14 votes
Print Recipe Pin Recipe
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Tempo di raffreddamento 4 hours
Total Time 5 hours
Course Dessert
Cuisine Tuscan
Servings 8


  • 180 grams butter , at room temperature
  • 150 grams sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 180 grams all-purpose flour
  • 8 grams baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons shelled pine nuts

For the pastry cream

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 100 grams sugar
  • 40 grams all-purpose flour
  • 500 ml whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons raisins, soaked in Vinsanto, Tuscan sweet wine
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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.
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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.

Tuscan pine nut cake

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This Post Has 62 Comments

  1. 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. 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. 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!

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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. Wonderful story 🙂
    I’ve had delicious pine nut dishes, but never this cake – it looks amazing! I’d love to try a slice 🙂

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

    1. 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!

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

  8. 5 stars
    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.

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

  10. 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?

    1. 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

  11. 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!

    1. 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.

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

  12. Hi Giulia, I landed on your blog looking for a recipe online and I really like it. I’ve already had in the past torta della nonna but never this one, I’ll try soon!
    Sorry, I had to comment on the “sac-a-poche”, in reality in French is poche à douille, and I’m not sure where we Italians got it from but it’s just an Italian thing…like calling Chantilly cream/custard instead of the French sweetened whipped cream.
    Ciao da un’italiana a NY 🙂


  13. Ciao Giulia, complimenti…le ricette sono fantastiche! I’m slowly working my way through them one by one and yet to be disappointed! I’m 8 months pregnant and in a phase of ‘stocking up the freezer’ do you think this cake and the torta di cioccolato e clementine could be frozen?? Thanks again e saluti da Firenze

    1. Ciao Rebecca, I am so happy to know that you appreciate my recipes!
      For your project of stocking up the freezer I’d prefer drier cakes, just like a pound cake, which surely will freeze better than this cake. The torta di cioccolato with clementine is perfect, too. Crostate with jam would be good to freeze as well!
      oh, and congratulations on the happy news!

  14. Hi Giulia, I recently received your book (Polish translation) as a gift. Browsing through the dessert section I was a bit surprised to see that almost every cake/biscuit had, as the translation put it, yeast as the raising agent. This included this recipe, as well as biscotti, etc. I decided to cross-check with your blog & I’m glad I did :(. Unfortunately this is the second Italian cookbook translated into Polish that I’ve seen this mistake. I guess the word ‘lievito’ is problematic, but…

    1. I am so sorry to hear that. And it is not the first time I receive this feedback! 🙁

  15. Hi Giulia, thanks for the reply! Do you mean feedback about the Polish translation or specifically about the yeast? I’m thinking of writing to the publisher…

  16. 5 stars
    Forget the cake, I’ve fallen in love with your grandfather….on one hand he couldn’t be more different than the one grandfather I had in my life but on the other hand they’re identical in ways. I feel SO incredibly sorry for people who didn’t grow up with a loving, kind, a little bit unique, blessed, dear sweet grandfather at least for a while in their life. I was so lucky to have mine until I was 28 years old and he was in his 90s. There is just something it gives the life of a child that can’t be replicated by anyone else in any other way. Each type of relative, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and those honorary “aunts and uncles” all play a different and important role and none can take the place of any other. I can picture in my mind you walking along holding his hand and grasping onto that bag of treasure. And then, impatiently waiting while the cake, which you had played a the most important role in preparing (even if you didn’t touch one other ingredient) in your mind. It’s amazing the intense emotions food can play with our memories and our minds.

    1. Comments, memories and gentle thoughts like these are the reason I love blogging!

  17. 5 stars
    Just love your story. Can’t wait to try your recipe once I figure out the amounts in cups and ounces. I make pignoli cookies from a recipe a friend gave me about 17 years ago, my family loves them. Thanks for sharing your lovely story.

  18. I finally made your Tuscan Pine Nut Cake. Excellent recipe. LOVE it 🙂

  19. 5 stars
    I made this bad boy about a year ago and it was divine! The only issue I sort of ran into was not being able to keep the dough from mixing in with the custard. Should I just spoon the dough on top and leave it in little dollops all over or do you have some tips for spreading it out? Thank you soooo much for sharing! It is probably my favorite cake ever, especially cold!

    1. hi Skyler, I usually use a pastry bag to distribute the dough and the pantry cream in layers, creating concentric circles with both the dough and the pastry cream, and spreading them with a spatula. Let me know if this will work for you, too!

  20. 5 stars
    I’m making this for the 4th time! I just love it. I’ve used sherry and calvados (different times) to soak the raisins and they both worked perfectly. I added a teaspoon of vanilla essence to the custard. Thank you for such a delicious recipe!

    1. Thank you so much Clair, so happy you like this, and that you’re making it yours!

  21. I am constantly exploring gf italian baking and cooking. As an alternative to torta della nonna this must be adaptable to gf? Almond flour for the cake and cornflour for the pastry cream?

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