February is over now, despite the extra day which gave me 24 greatly appreciated hours to use in order to catch up with everything I was behind on. March, the spring-time month, begins with great prospects and the third stop of the Tuscany tour with Ventura to discover local traditional recipes based on dried fruits.
We are now going to Pisa, the first city many tourists happen upon because it’s where you often land. It’s a city which people often believe is confined to the Piazza dei Miracoli, part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1987, with its Cathedral, Baptistery, Campo Santo and the leaning tower. Yet, there is much more.
Pisa is the only city, outside my countryside area, where I lived for a good five weeks, around ten years ago. I was posted there as a tutor for a course and it was when I was there that I discovered cecina for the first time, before rediscovering it in Livorno under a different name. I’ll talk more about Pisa next week, but today I want to tell you about a typical local cake, the Pilgrim cake or torta coi bischeri.
The torta coi bischeri is a dessert made at home during the holidays, which can also be found in bakeries and Pisan pastry shops. Let’s start with its Italian name, which will put a smile on your faces, if you understand Italian. In Tuscany you use the word bischero to describe someone who isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, who can be easily outsmarted. This, however, is not the origin of the name of the cake.
In the case of the cake, the bischeri are the outer pastry sections which decorate the cake – as is the case with the torta coi becchi from Lucca which, however, has a different filling – and take their name from guitar or violin tuning heads, since they look similar. It has a classic filling of rice and chocolate, further enriched by raisins, candied fruit and pine nuts, but variants include fillings of rice and custard, ricotta and custard and sugar beet and raisins.
If we’re being precise from a geographic point of view, however, the cake came from the town of San Giuliano Terme and Pontasserchio. It is usually prepared to celebrate the Ascension and to coincide with the Feast of the SS. Crucifix of the Miracle, on April 28. The torta coi bischeri seems to have been made for the very occasion of this important religious festival in the sixteenth century, as a way to welcome the pilgrims who arrived here from the via Francigena, hence the other name, pilgrim cake.
From that point onwards, it spread throughout the Pisa area becoming ever more well-known, until it secured a quality brand in 2007, thus including its own specifications which detail the preparation of the ingredients, which must be of Italian origin. In the specifications, local pine nuts must be used, those which come from the Migliarino Regional Park.
La torta coi bischeri – Pilgrim cake
Here we have the recipe, inspired once more by Paolo Petroni’s recipe, author of the book, Il grande libro della vera cucina Toscana.
I come from a family who has always loved torte di riso (rice pudding cakes), and we think they are the perfect sweets to celebrate birthdays and special occasions. They are simple cakes to make, which manage to win everyone over thanks to their moist and creamy fillings. This one has the added benefit of being quick to make and being filled with a moist filling of rice pudding, chocolate, candied fruits, raisins and pine nuts. A worthy partner to a cup of coffee or a glass of vinsanto after a family lunch.
La torta coi bischeri - Pilgrim cake
For the pastry
- 250 g 2 cups - 8,82 oz of all purpose flour
- 1 egg
- 100 g 1/2 cup - 3,53 oz of sugar
- 100 g 7 tablespoons - 3,53 oz of butter, at room temperature
- A pinch of salt
For the filing
- 100 g of rice, originario variety or a rice suitable for puddings
- 1 egg
- 100 g 1/2 cup - 3,53 oz of sugar
- 150 g 5,29 oz of dark chocolate
- 50 g 1/3 cup, packed - 1,76 oz of raisins
- 50 g (1/3 cup - 1,76 oz of pine nuts
- 50 g of candied citrus peel
- 2 spoonfuls of vinsanto
- Seeds from half a vanilla pod
- A pinch of cinnamon
- Begin by preparing the pastry. Work the butter together with the sugar and egg, then add the flour and knead it together to form a ball. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge for a few hours.
- For the filling, boil the rice in plenty of boiling water, with a pinch of salt. 12 minutes should be long enough - read the packaging instructions.
- Drain it and put it in a bowl with the grated chocolate, sugar, vin santo and a beaten egg. Add the raisins which were previously soaked in water and drained, the candied citrus cut into thin strips and the pine nuts. Finish off with the cinnamon and vanilla seeds.
- Grease and flour a 20cm (7,87 inches) round cake tin with a removable bottom.
- Take the dough out of the fridge, roll it out with a rolling pin and a little flour and cover the base of the tin, leaving at least 4 cm (1,5 inches) at the sides.
- Fill the pastry with the filling and decorate the sides with the famous ‘bischeri’ design, similar to a guitar tuning head, cutting the dough diagonally before folding it in on itself. With the leftover dough decorate the top with the classic pastry strips to create a diamond shape design.
- Heat the oven to 180°C (350°F - gas mark 4) and bake the pastry for around 30-35 minutes until the pastry crust is golden.
- Leave it to completely cool before cutting it.
Now tell me: which is your favourite rice cake? Sweet or savoury? and have you ever heard the word bischero?
- I’ve already told you about my love for pine nuts in the past, for the strong ties they hold with my childhood and the afternoons spent in the large square in San Gimignano with my grandfather. Pine nuts are the stars of pinolata, a classic cake from Siena, and the famous castagnaccio, but also the outer shell of these pasticcini di pasta di mandorle (sweets filled with almond paste) which taste as good as they look. They are a great ingredient to enrich meat and fish fillings, as is the case with totanini ripieni di pane (filled squid), but also that extra special touch to season fresh pasta, as I did with the tortelli di zucca e patate (tortelli filled with pumpkin and potatoes).
- The bischeri I made in my cake are not the best ones, let’s face it, but here you can learn how to make them from an expert.
- Here you can read more about the pilgrim cake.
- Don’t be a bischero. Read this fun article and learn where this word come from.