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A Torta della Nonna that My Nonna Never Made

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The Torta della Nonna is the trifecta: shortbread, pastry cream with subtle hints of lemon and vanilla, and pinoli (pine nuts). Then again, you could cover a shoe in the pastry cream and I'd eat it. Whatever the secret is, it's delicious. After researching briefly where the name "Grandmother’s Cake" came from, I quickly found that, like many Italian traditions, the name Torta della Nonna has many plausible origins—but I think the most interesting are those with personal stories tied to them, like mine.

Torta della Nonna
Torta della Nonna

I’m an Italian-American from New Jersey. It seemed that almost everyone I met growing up had an Italian grandmother, and memories of their nonna spending hours over a stove, or guarding her top-secret recipes, passed down for generations—there’s always such a special bond between a nonna and food. The same holds true for me and my nonna.

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My mother moved here shortly after my sister was born, leaving behind her family (and a few dogs and an epic wardrobe) for the States. She held on to her Italian roots, raised my sister and I bilingual, and ensured we both obtained dual citizenship. We spent several months each year with our overseas family soaking up the sun on La Maddalena’s notorious beaches, but while my sister Jessica spent most of her time making friends with the neighborhood kids, I spent my time clutching my nonna’s apron as she cooked.

Top left: Rebecca's mom as a babe in La Maddalena, Sardegna. Top right: Rebecca's mom and nonna feeding a giraffe at the zoo in Rome. Bottom: Rebecca's nonna in Sardegna.
Top left: Rebecca's mom as a babe in La Maddalena, Sardegna. Top right: Rebecca's mom and nonna feeding a giraffe at the zoo in Rome. Bottom: Rebecca's nonna in Sardegna. Photo by Rebecca Salisbury

She’d let me play in the garden while she tended to her vegetables, roll dough for pasta or grate day-old bread for breadcrumbs. My grandmother was pretty much Superwoman to me. I mean, the woman could and would flip chicken cutlets in a frying pan using her fingers. She's the reason I ended up going to culinary school so many years later.

Let’s be clear: My grandmother did NOT bake, and she certainly never baked this cake for us—but it does remind me of my grandmother, and not only for its title. On one of Sardegna’s many little islands lies Caprera, a natural reserve, home to many wondrous things among which are la pineta. Many locals (and tourists) visit the island for it’s beautiful secluded beaches, opportunities to spot wild boars and goats (which is where the island gets its namesake: capra means goat in Italian) and the pine trees. Why? Pinoli.

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Rebecca's nonna and nonno.
Rebecca's nonna and nonno. Photo by Rebecca Salisbury

During the right season, it’s a goldmine. My grandmother would take us to harvest these little guys for hours. It’s certainly not easy work and if you’ve ever done it yourself, you know why pinoli have such a hefty price tag at the market. So, it’s a funny coincidence for me that this Torta della Nonna should be covered in a generous helping of pinoli. Every time I make it, it’s like I’m pouring one out for my grandmother. (This one’s for you, Nonna!)

I would say my mother sends me the link to this recipe (I translated this one from giallozaffernao.it) about once a month asking me to bake it for her at the most inconvenient times. "I know you just got finished working a 60-hour week and I'm coming over in 15 minutes but... I could really use a slice of cake with my coffee." My mother, an amazing cook, has no sense for baking or the preparation that goes into it. But if you're reading this, Mom, the answer is yes... I'll make this for you tonight.

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Torta della Nonna

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Makes 1 cake (serves 10)

Shortbread (Pasta Frolla)

  • 400 grams flour (00 is best!)
  • 150 grams powdered sugar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 4 whole eggs
  • 200 grams butter
  • 1 fresh vanilla bean

Pastry Cream

  • 1 liter whole milk
  • 8 egg yolks
  • 250 grams granulated sugar
  • 1/2 lemon, zested
  • 80 grams flour
  • 1 fresh vanilla bean
  • 120 grams pinoli (topping)
  • Powdered sugar for sprinkling on top

See more from the illustrated biographies of 16.5 global desserts

Tags: pine nuts, pignoli, cake, torta della nonna