Sicilian chocolate, almond and lemon torta

In Carol Field’s In Nonna’s Kitchen, this delicious dessert is called a Torta ripiena di mandorle e cioccolato, in other words, an almond and chocolate tart. Or perhaps you could more literally translate it as a tart filled with almonds and chocolate.

Field found this recipe in the handwritten journal of Giovanna Passannanti, a Sicilian woman who was in her eighties when the book was published in 1997. Aside from the almonds and chocolate, it has also got an entire lemon – juice and zest – and a very generous handful of candied orange pieces in it. I was so curious about the very simple combination of citrus, almond and chocolate that I had to bake it — and is it something “spectacular”, as Field herself describes it.

Because I love language and especially the language of food, this has also been making me think about the word torta, which in Italian is used to describe what we would call a ‘tart’ in English (did you notice, they even sound similar because these words have the same Latin root, torda, which once just simply referenced a round, flat, baked thing wrapped in pastry — indeed this recipe is) but torta also refers to many other things, including cake, quiche, pie and even pizza.

The word torta is often used to describe things in crusts, in particular, savoury dishes like a quiche (torta salata, literally a ‘savoury tart’ or a torta rustica, ‘rustic tart’, which is often made with puff pastry — Ada Boni has about 16 of these recipes in her 1929 cookbook The Talisman, which are made with everything from octopus to artichokes and feature puff pastry, bread dough or a simple butter and flour pastry — interestingly, these outnumber her sweet torte) or even specific recipes like Liguria’s torta pasqualina (literally Easter pie), which is a brilliant dish of very thin layers of dough encasing layers of ricotta, chard and eggs, and torta della nonna, which is basically a custard pie, covered on top and bottom with a whole disc of pastry, dotted with pine nuts.

Looking back at the very first torta in Medieval cuisine, it was a pastry encasing a filling — think the  ‘twenty four blackbirds baked in a pie’ from the old nursery rhyme. It was also a gastronomic innovation — at once a container to cook in but also to carry food around in, practical, easy to make and easy to keep. Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari in La Cucina Italiana: Storia di Una Cultura lay out a very convincing argument that the torta or pie originated in Italy before spreading across Europe.

By the Renaissance, the pastry for the torta became not just practical but also edible (in the middle ages, the main function of the pastry — usually flour and water — was to hold the contents and allow them to cook). Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera (1570) includes a section dedicated to everything you need to know about Renaissance torte and crostate, which are not all that different (the word crosta means crust). Scappi differentiates between a crostata and a torta by how the filling ingredients are treated — the former contains whole pieces while the torta contains a minced filling. There is nothing that he cannot reproduce as a torta, write Capatti and Montanari, citing a crostata filled with prunes and sour cherries and another with crab and prawns. Scappi’s pastry is made with either butter or lard and is applied in thin layers, rather like a puff pastry, both top and bottom — as I imagine it, his torta is not far off from that Ligurian torta pasqualina.

Just as in the Renaissance, torta can also be the name of a pizza too, particularly in southern Italy. Take the torta calabrese for example (Ada Boni has a wonderful recipe in Talisman). It’s not a cake. It’s pizza dough, divided in two parts, one part covering the bottom of a tin with high sides. A cooked filling of tomato, tuna, anchovies, olives and capers goes in and then it’s closed on top with the rest of the dough and baked until golden brown and puffed. A Neapolitan version is filled with a tomato sauce with mozzarella, prosciutto and boiled eggs.

But not only. Torta is also commonly used to describe a pudding, or a flan or something slightly wobbly with no crust — baked rice puddings, for example. Pellegrino Artusi has a number of these kind of desserts in his 1891 cookbook that are flourless and made primarily with ricotta, potato or pumpkin, or even bread. He has just one recipe for crostata and he explains, “Per crostata io intendo quelle torte che hanno per base la pasta frolla e per ripene conserve di frutta o la crema.” In other words, a crostata is a tart with a shortcrust pastry base filled with jam or custard (or in Lazio and nearby Maremma, ricotta). He instructs to top the filling with strips of pastry as wide as a finger, criss-crossing them.

Crostata still today describes quite specifically Artusi’s definition. I see it often misused in English to describe things that no Italian would call a crostata (rustic, freeform tarts I’m looking at you), when really Italians use it to describe one of these. We have translated crostata into ‘tart’ …but ‘tart’ is not necessarily always a crostata!

Torta ripiena di mandorle e cioccolato
Almond, chocolate and citrus tart

This is my slight adaption (of Carol Field’s adaption) of this delightful chocolate-almond-citrus torta to fit a smallish cake tin (20cm diameter). Not having any eggs or butter in the filling, this keeps very well in an airtight container for a week. It’s absolutely delicious with coffee.

For the pastry:

125 grams cold butter
250 grams flour
50 grams sugar
1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk
zest of 1 lemon (optional but lovely)

For the filling:

120 grams sugar
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
250 grams almond meal
50 grams candied orange peel
100 grams dark 70% chocolate

I used my favourite shortcrust pastry recipe, which you can find in all my cookbooks in some form: cold butter rubbed into flour with some sugar (I used about 50 grams this time), one whole egg and one yolk. I think some lemon zest in the crust is lovely too if you have an extra lemon lying around. Flatten into a disc and chill (the dough, that is, but you too) for 30 minutes. Roll to 5mm thickness and line a tin with the pastry, trimming the excess. Keep this extra dough, roll out again to 5mm and cut into 2cm thick strips and keep these chilled.

For the filling place the sugar in a smallish saucepan with the zest and lemon juice. Once the sugar dissolved, add off the heat the candied orange peel (I think you could use also fresh orange, or candied citron or zucca – as per the original handwritten recipe – if you can get it) and the dark chocolate. When smooth and melted, combine with almond meal, then immediately smooth it over the top of the pastry base (if you wait too long and it hardens, you can warm the mixture again over a bain marie). The strips of pastry from earlier go criss-crossed over the top and the tart is ready to be baked at 180 degrees celsius for 30-35 minutes or until crisp and lightly golden. 


  1. Don Schuldes says:

    This is a totally Fantastic Recipe … Thank you …. FANTASTICO !!

  2. Alex says:

    Ohh! Gorgeous. It’s looking right back at me…..
    Remember the old days when I was still training in Australia and so much desserts at  Richmond cafes literally the desserts feels like heaven!

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