As often as not, Andrew volunteers to bring dessert whenever we’re asked out to dinner. On this particular occasion, he asked our friends Bill and Peter if they had any requests. Peter asked for ‘something nutty’. I seemed to remember an amazing tart Andrew had made some time ago. This elegant dessert featuring Pine Nuts, or Pignoli, was full of flavor. Sweetened with honey, rich in eggs and butter, it has a perfect balance of nutty goodness and crunchy pine nuts. It seems perfect for a winter treat. So we found the recipe in a book of Italian desserts written by Gina De Palma all the way back in 2007.
“Dolce Italiano” (Clarkson Potter 2007) is still in print and it’s a worthy addition to any collection of Dessert Cookbooks. Ms. De Palma had a reverence for simplicity. She excelled at making desserts like Chocolate Polenta Tarts, Strawberries in Chianti with Black Pepper and Ricotta Cream, and her signature Saffrom Panna Cotta with Poached Peaches. She learned her craft from her mother and grandmother who had immigrated from Calabria. Her career was closely linked to Mario Battali. He was then Chef/Owner at New York’s Po Restaurant and he came to Ms. De Palma with a concept for a restaurant featuring rustic Italian cooking. Battali hired her an hour after meeting her. And together they made Babbo into one of New York’s perennially hard-to-get reservations. Her creations often had an American spin to them. She made a Thanksgiving
Cranberry tart with a Polenta Crust and, in a salute to both Jell-O and the Bellini, she suspended white peaches in a golden Prosecco Aspic. And today’s Pine-Nut Tart owes much to good old American Pecan Pie. Sadly, Gina De Palma died of Ovarian cancer in 2015, having fought the disease for eight long years.
Pine Nuts are the edible seed of pine trees. Worldwide, there are about 20 kinds of pine trees that produce seeds large enough to harvest. Pine Nuts have long been a staple in both European and Asian kitchens where they are frequently added to meat, fish, salads and vegetable dishes and baked into bread. But Americans are most familiar with Italian recipes, specifically Pesto of which they are an essential part. In Italy, they are called Pinoli. The spelling “Pignolo” is an Italian word that is used to describe a fussy, overly fastidious or extremely meticulous individual. In Italy you’ll find them in recipes like “Torta della Nonna” (Granny’s Cake), a generic name for an old family recipe. Most often that recipe bears a strong resemblance to today’s take on Pine Nut Tart. It is a pie or tart filled with custard, topped with pine nuts and occasionally dusted with icing sugar.
You can make this tart with almost any kind of honey. However, it is best made with mild honeys like Acacia, Orange Blossom, Eucalyptus or Millifiore (A thousand flowers). And if you can find a local producer, so much the better. Andrew used Golden Blossom brand which is a blend of Orange Blossom, Sage, Buckwheat and Extra Clover honeys. The recipe may make just slightly more liquid custard than you need to fill the 10-inch tart shell. Just discard the extra rather than trying to overfill the shell. The finished tart almost begs for a scoop of Vanilla Gelato. Our hosts told us their tart was still delicious several days after Andrew had made it. Here are the recipes, first for the Sweet Tart Crust and then for the Honey Pine Nut Tart:
Sweet Tart Crust
A delicately sweet pie crust that can be used for all kinds of dessert tarts
- 2 1/2 cups cake flour (sifted, plus more for dusting)
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 lemon (zest)
- 1 cup cold, unsalted butter (cut into small cubes)
- 1/4 cup ice water (plus more as needed)
- Step 1 In the base of a food processor, add the flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest. Pulse to combine. Add the cold, cubed butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until the dough just comes together and forms a ball, without being too wet or sticky.
- Step 2 Remove the dough to a clean work surface and form into a flat disk, about 2 inches thick. Wrap dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- Step 3 Remove the dough to room temperature and let soften enough to roll out. Preheat oven to 365ºF. Follow instructions below to complete the Honey Pine-Nut Tart
Honey Pine-Nut Tart
Buttery-rich custard is topped with crunchy pine nuts in a sweet tart crust
- 2/3 Cup Honey
- ½ Cup Granulated Sugar
- 1 Tsp. Kosher Salt
- 1 Cup Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)
- ½ Cup Heavy Cream
- 1 Large Egg
- 1 Large Egg Yolk
- 1 ¼ Cup Pine Nuts
- Step 1 On a floured board, roll the tart dough into an 11-inch circle 1/8-inch thick. Transfer the dough to a 10-inch tart pan with fluted sides and a removable bottom by rolling the dough around the pin like a carpet and then unrolling it onto the pan. Press the dough into the bottom and sides of the pan, then trim it so it is flush with the top of the pan. Chill the tart shell while you make the filling.
- Step 2 Preheat the oven to 325 F and position a rack in the center
- Step 3 To make the custard: Place the honey, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan and stir to combine them. Add the butter, place the saucepan over medium-high heat, and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring often. Remove the saucepan from the heat and transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl
- Step 4 Allow it to cool for 20 minutes. Whisk in the heavy cream, followed by the egg and egg yolk.
- Step 5 Distribute the pine nuts evenly over the bottom of the tart shell and pour the custard into the shell until it reaches the top of the crust. Place the tart on a baking sheet to catch any drips and bake for 30 – 55 minutes, or until both the crust and the filling have turned light golden brown and the custard is set but still jiggly. Allow the tart to cool completely on a rack before carefully removing the sides of the pan.
- Step 6 Serve the tart while still slightly warm, or cool it and serve at room temperature. Wrapped in plastic, leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for a few days.