High Country Baking: Italian Torta two ways – traditional and limited ingredients
Special to the Daily
High altitudes make cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall, and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips that make baking in the mountains successful.
Italians know how to eat; their food is some of the best in the world. So, when I came across a recipe for this torta that’s a specialty of Mantua, Italy, I had to try it. It’s been served as a casual dessert for hundreds of years in its home country, where there are more ways to make it than you can count. All of them result in a crunchy, crumbly giant-sized shortbread cookie that diners break into pieces and munch accompanied by grapes and grappa – or dessert wine. Since I lacked both grapes and grappa when I made it recently, I served it with strawberries and Amaretto and was quite pleased with the combination.
I’ve included two recipes for the torta; the first is a good representation of most of the recipes I reviewed that originated in Italy. It’s my favorite but, if your ingredients are limited, the second is a very acceptable alternative. The pans required by both are the same.
Note that the first recipe calls for almond flour, not almond meal. The flour is made by grinding blanched (skinless) almonds while the meal is made by grinding almonds with skins. You can use meal if that’s all you have but the texture of the torta will be denser and heavier.
Italian Torta Sbrisolana
Make in a 91/2 inch tart pan with a removable bottom or 10-inch springform pan
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Works at any elevation
¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour, spoon and level
½ cup almond flour
1/3 cup fine-ground yellow cornmeal
1/3 cup granulated sugar, preferably superfine
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
1 large egg yolk
1/3 cup sliced almonds
Sliced almonds, optional
Confectioners’ sugar, optional
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the center. Grease the pan with butter.
2. Add the all-purpose flour, almond flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt and cinnamon to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse to combine well. Cut the butter into 12 pieces, add them, and pulse until the mixture looks like a coarse meal. Add the egg yolk and pulse until the mixture is uniformly moist and looks like wet grainy sand. Pinch some of the dough; if it holds together, it’s done. If not, pulse a little longer.
3. Dump the dough out into a bowl, add the sliced almonds, crushing them in your hand so they’re broken into pieces, and toss the mixture, so the almonds are evenly distributed. Pinch pea-sized to 1-inch clumps of dough, (like making streusel), and drop them into the prepared pan. Continue until you’ve used all the dough, making sure the pan is evenly covered. Don’t press the clumps into each other; they’ll come together as they bake. Sprinkle more sliced almonds on top, if desired.
4. Bake until the top is golden brown and well set, about 32-48 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool completely. Store, well wrapped, at cool room temperature, for up to three days. Detach the pan sides when ready to serve and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, if using.
5 ounces of blanched almonds
1¾ cups all-purpose flour, divided
¾ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Confectioners’ sugar, optional.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center. Grease the pan with butter.
2. Place the almonds with ¼-cup of the flour in a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until the nuts are finely ground. Add the remaining flour, sugar, and salt and pulse to combine well. Cut the butter into 28 pieces, add them, with the vanilla, and pulse until large moist clumps of dough form. Dump the dough into a bowl.
3. Squeeze the dough into pea-sized to 1-inch clumps and gently press ¾ of them into the prepared pan; don’t smooth the dough, just level it but leave it lumpy and irregular. Sprinkle the rest of the dough clumps over the top. Bake until the top just starts to color, then turn the temperature down to 300 degrees and continue to bake until golden brown and fairly dry, a total of about 32-38 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool completely. Store, well wrapped, at cool room temperature, for two days. Detach the pan sides before serving and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, if using.
Dr. Vera Dawson is a high-elevation baking instructor and author of three high-altitude cookbooks (available at The Bookworm in Edwards or Next Page Bookstore in Frisco). She’s lived in Frisco since 1991 and has been developing and adjusting recipes so that they work at our altitude ever since. Contact her at email@example.com.