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Crème Caramel Meets Rice Pudding in This Tuscan Dessert

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Every Tuesday, Italian local Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.

Today: This simple and flourless Tuscan dessert has two distinct—and distincly delicious—layers, with no extra work on your part.

I'm calling this a "torta" (the Italian word for cake) but I'll be honest with you: It isn't really a cake. Its Italian name, torta di riso alla Carrarina, just doesn't do it justice when translated word-for-word into English as "Carrara-style rice cake."

The idea of a “rice cake” isn't going to make anyone's mouth water, and it doesn't help that it's not the prettiest looking dessert either. But don't let this fool you. 

The defining (and best) feature of this dish is that it has two layers: The top layer is a delicate, just-set custard, a little like a crème caramel, while the bottom is a firmer layer of soft rice, bound with custard. Each bite is reminiscent of rice pudding and crème caramel all at once.

It's a very traditional dessert from the town of Carrara in the very most northwestern corner of Tuscany. Carrara is best known for its marble quarries (this is where the best white marble in the world—the marble that Michelangelo carved his sculptures out of—comes from) and its lardo, a delicious slab of pork fat cured in specially-made marble vats. (If you are ever in the area, they make excellent marble mortars in Carrara. They're used with a wooden pestle, like you would use to make the perfect pesto over the border in Liguria.) It's a town with a history of simple but flavorful peasant food, and this dessert is no exception.

More: If you get your hands on Carrara lardo, add it to eggs for the best frittata

There's no flour and no pastry base—it's quite literally just rice, sugar and a custard made of (plenty of) eggs and milk, all helped along with a few flavorings and aromas that tend to change from household to household in the area where this dessert is famous. 

Vanilla (which what's used in my recipe) goes well with custard, as does some finely grated lemon zest or orange zest (or both, or all three!). The splash of liqueur that goes into the custard could be whatever you have on hand. Italians will often pour in something that's regularly used for dessert-making, like rum, brandy, Alchermes (a bright pink, spiced Tuscan liqueur that is only used for desserts, rather than for drinking!), sambuca, Sassolino, or any other anise-scented liqueur. Anise is a much-loved fragrance in Tuscan desserts and sometimes you'll find a recipe for this torta that uses a hefty pinch of whole anise seeds, lightly bashed to release their aroma. 

There are even those who like to use a mint-flavoured liqueur here; I read in Paolo Petroni's Il Grande Libro della Cucina Toscana (The Great Book of Tuscan Cooking) that there was even once a tradition of using the liquid from a few mint caramels dissolved in a cup full of boiling water! Since the torta is such a simple and delicate dessert, its distinctive fragrance comes primarily from the liqueur—so choose wisely. If in doubt, and the strong scent of anise seed or mint is too much, rum is a good, very classic way to go.

I have heard that some (those who like a bit of salty with their sweet) like to dust the top of the torta with grated Parmesan cheese before baking. If you try this, let me know how you like it. 

Tuscan Rice and Custard Torta (Torta di Riso alla Carrarina)

Serves 6 to 8

Butter, for greasing pan

1 1/4 
cups (250 grams) of sugar, plus extra for dusting

cup (100 grams) of short-grain risotto rice (such as Arborio or carnaroli)

pinches of salt, divided

large eggs

cup (60 milliliters) of liqueur such as rum, brandy, or sambuca

Zest of 1 lemon or orange

teaspoon vanilla extract (or the seeds of half a vanilla bean)

cups (500 milliliters) whole milk, warmed slightly

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Emiko Davies

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Tags: Cake, Custard, Rice, Dessert, Bake, Gluten-Free