The seed that drives me nuts!

Every time I open a bag of pine nuts, their intense scent unlocks some of the best moments of my life and my mind goes to her, Gina DePalma, a very dear friend of mine. Outstanding head pastry chef at Babbo (NYC) for many years, one of Gina’s most famous recipes is the Honey and Pine Nut Tart (Dolce Italiano cookbook) Simplicity rewarded her with a prestigious James Beard Award in 2009, the prize of all prizes for a chef. She created this gooey, slightly salty honey caramel, buttery, dreamy pine nut tart after a huge number of attempts, until she got what I call perfection. I always pass this recipe to all my students, and every time I make her tart, it’s like having Gina here with me, each time. Her legacy goes on. Like Marcel Proust, we all have our own madelines. The scent of pine nuts, for me, is evocative. It sparks memories, propelling me right to the exact moment I was cracking the hard pine nut shells with a hammer, my hands the color of rust; or to when zia Giuseppina made croccante. There she is, spreading the hot brittle on the marble table my father had made for her. Time and place suddenly do not exist anymore. I love my job as it’s my passion, my favorite hobby, my own curiosity. Touching ingredients, smelling them, inhaling them is part of this passion. Pine nuts have, for me the most incredible penetrating scent of all nuts. I use them in both savory and sweet recipes, and I play with their consistency, turning them into a paste, a liquid or in crunchy forms. Pine nuts, or pinoli, are the most prized (and expensive) members
of the nut world. Most people though, ignore that this little elegant nut is actually the seed of the pine tree. Pesto Genovese made them famous worldwide, but, long before, pine nuts were used in ancient Rome, Pompeii and Greece where they were stirred with honey, wine and spices in sauces, mixed with raisins and wrapped in grape leaves as appetizers, and combined with seeds and nuts in what we would now call a cereal bowl. Praised by Pliny the Elder for its medicinal and nutritional properties, and celebrated centuries before by Apicius hundreds of recipes, pine nuts were considered the most elegant and precious of the nuts and therefore worthy of being given to the god Bacchus as a gift. In Italy, pine nutsare frequently used in sweets, but it is common to find them in traditional savory dishes as well. Dishes like Venetian saor, Sicilian caponata and Tuscan dolce forte, (a Renaissance dish made with venison, chocolate and spices), all call for pine nuts.  Their inebriating resin-like scent pairs incredibly well with almost any ingredient. In Tuscany, Torta della nonna is the best way to celebrate pine nuts. Two buttery and crisp layers of pasta frolla hug a sweet delicate, lemony heart of crema pasticcera, topped with a myriad of pine nuts dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

But what is that makes pine nuts so expensive? Due to the long time it takes trees, cones and nuts to grow, the time and skills it takes to remove them from the pine cones and eventually from their hard shells, the price of pine nuts is really high. There are about twenty species of pine trees producing pine nuts that are large enough to be harvested and consumed, but the following are the most loved and common varieties we find on the market: the Mexican pinyon, the Colorado pinyon, the Mediterranean stone pine (which has been cultivated in Europe for its nuts for over 5000 years), and the Chinese nut pine. It takes fifteen to twenty-five years for the trees to begin producing seeds and up seventy-five years for them to reach top production. The majority of the harvest comes from wild, uncultivated trees. The Pisani are the most famous producers in Europe. They like to stress that pine nuts are foraged, not farmed and that for the most part, the seeds are harvested by hand. The elongated, ivory-colored seeds measure about 1/2 inch long and are found in the pine cone, protected by the scales. It normally takes them eighteen months to ripen. The harvest in Italy takes place between October and April, when the cones reach their full size and weight, and are picked by expert climbers, cone pickers, with the help of long hooked poles. Once harvested, the cones are kept in dry and aerated rooms where they dry out and open up. At this point, the cones get smashed to release their seeds. Wait! It is not over yet. The seeds are protected by an elongated hard shell covered with fine brown powder that needs to be removed. I still remember my cousins and I, armed with small hammers, trying to break the shells without smashing the seeds or our fingers. That is how we liked spending some of the hot summer days after a visit to the local pine forest with our parents. We used to collect lots of cones making us expect a royal booty, which would never happen. All we were able to get was a handful of semi-squashed pine nuts. Our resin-covered sticky hands would never go back to their original color for days. The hammer was the only tool most people used to extract the seeds. And because nothing should be wasted, all the shells and the broken cones would be put in a canvas bag, saved in the garage and burnt in the fireplace during the winter. Such good memories! In Pisa, where the best and most expensive ($60 per pound) pine nuts come from, some producers now use tree shakers to collect the cones, steamers to open them and special pine nut shellers to extract perfect seeds. Now you understand why I call them the seeds that drive me nuts!

Recipe from Dolce Italiano by Gina DePalma


Serves 8-10.

 for the dough
2 1/3 (305 grams) cups flour
1/3 cup (65 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Zest of 1 lemon or 1 orange
3/4 cup (12 tablespoons, 168 grams or 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup (60 grams) heavy cream

for the filling
2/3 cup (206 grams) honey
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (250 grams, or 2 sticks) unsalted butter 
1/2 cup (120 grams) heavy cream
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 1/4 cups (about 150 grams) pine nuts

For the crust

Place the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and citrus zest in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to combine the dry ingredients. Add all of the cold, cubed butter to the bowl and pulse to process the mixture until it is sandy and there are no visible lumps of butter. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, vanilla, and cream. Add the wet ingredients to the food processor and pulse 3 or 4 times, or until the dough comes together. If necessary, add some ice water, a few drops at a time to make the dough come together.
Alternatively, if you don’t have a food processor, you could do this by hand — simply whisk together the dry ingredients, cut in the butter with your fingertips (which takes a little time, but is doable) then whisk together the wet ingredients as indicated above, and stir into the flour mixture with a wooden spoon until a dough begins to form. Remove the dough from the food processor (or your bowl if you don’t have a food processor) and turn it out on to a lightly floured surface. Knead it a few times until the dough becomes more compact, and then roll it into a ball, flatten the ball in to a disk, and wrap the disk in plastic wrap. Chill for 1-2 hours before rolling out.
On a floured board, roll the tart dough into an 11-inch circle 1/8-inch thick.  Transfer the dough to a lightly buttered 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.

for the filling

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; allow it to cool for 20 minutes.  Whisk in the heavy cream, followed by the egg and egg yolk.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and position a rack in the center.

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. Serve the tart while still slightly warm, or cool it and serve at room temperature.


(Grandma’s cake)

This very elegant cake was created in Tuscany between Arezzo and Florence about 200 years ago. It is probably the most popular Tuscan dessert, served in most restaurants in Italy. In recent years, it has become popular in restaurants abroad as well. The key to perfect flavor is the pine nuts, which, in order to follow the tradition, must come from the immense pine forest separating Pisa from the Thyrrenian Sea. Many people and even pastry chefs, use flour instead of corn starch. Try corn starch instead as it is flavorless and less gluey. Being gluten free, everyone can have this pastry cream.

2 recipes pasta frolla
1 recipe pastry cream
1 egg, beaten into egg wash
1 cup raw pine nuts, possibly from Pisa
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

For the pasta frolla
1/2 pound unsalted butter
1/2 pound sugar
3 eggs
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 pound flour, plus more for dusting 1 tablespoon baking powder

Using a standing mixer (or with hand mixer), cream butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy.
Add eggs and yolk, vanilla and zest. Mix thoroughly. Add flour and baking powder; mix just until flour is incorporated. Do not over mix.
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface, form a ball, wrap with plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes.
On a floured surface, roll out dough. Line a buttered 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. If dough breaks, simply patch it back; it is very forgiving.

For the pastry cream
1 quart whole milk
1/2 pound sugar
1 vanilla bean, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 egg yolks
3 ounces cornstarch
1 ounce unsalted butter

In a saucepan on medium heat, combine milk and salt. Using a knife, split vanilla bean; scrape seeds directly into the milk.
Bring milk to a light boil. Combine egg yolks with sugar, mixing until smooth. Add corn starch; combine until completely blended. Using a ladle, temper eggs. Pour a little hot milk into egg mixture. Mix well; repeat until all milk has been used. Return everything to saucepan; bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Once boiling, keep cooking for one minute or until mixture thickens into a pudding like consistency. Remove from heat and whisk in butter.
Pour pastry cream onto a sheet tray; immediately cover hot surface with plastic wrap to prevent skin from forming. Let pastry cream cool.

For the tart
 Roll out two 10-inch disks of dough,about ¼ inch thick. Line a 9-inch buttered tart pan with removable bottom, pressing dough into edges. Transfer cold pastry cream into pie shell, then smooth it out with spatula.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out second disk of dough and cover cream-filled shell. Trim excess dough. Brush dough with egg wash; sprinkle with pine nuts. Bake for 45 minutes or until golden. Cool on a rack. Dust with confectioners’ sugar.


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