I thought I would be a much more active participant in this chapter of the Modern Baker Challenge: Sweet Tarts and Pies. Certainly more than the prior chapter, Savory Tarts and Pies. Sugar! Yet, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, it’s not come to pass. I like to offload much of my baking at work (sort of as a self-preservation strategy–I don’t trust myself with all those calories around) and considering I walk to the commuter rail and then have to switch to the T (Boston’s name for the subway), taking in pie is a bit of a pain. And probably would turn to a crumble by the time I get there. I should just take a cue from Abby and Renee–they’ve been making mini-versions of all the recipes in this chapter (and it’s not like I haven’t done the relatively easy math to figure out how to downsize myself either). Who knows.
It might seem odd that one of the few tarts I’ve made, then, is the Roman Almond and Pine Nut Tart. As opposed to say, a rich chocolate tart or a classic and homey apple pie. But we know I’ll always go for something with an international pedigree. Especially if it’s Italian. The combination of Roman and pine nuts brings up memories: my friend Raffaella, who lives in Rome and whose family has a small vacation home south of the city. I was lucky enough to be invited to spend a few days there with her and her father one summer when I was visiting, and we sat on the steps of the rear patio in the waning evening snacking on pine nuts we plucked out of cones from the pine trees growing in the backyard.
I still hadn’t really appreciated don’t think most of us usually think of pine nuts as a dessert ingredient–it’s more associated with savory dishes, and in particular pesto. But if you google a bit, it turns out they have their “sweet side” so to speak–make a cookie rolled it in pine nuts; make a cake or two or three; use it to enhance a crumble, or if you’re still sceptical, try a dessert with chocolate (on the undisputable theory that it’s got to be good if it has chocolate). Have I, uh, made my point?
But enough about other desserts, and back to the task at hand! Verdict is I loved this tart as much as I expected to. The toasted nutty flavors, the sweet crust, the satisfying bite. While the almond filling is the star player in this tart, the pine nuts play an important role–they provide a nice contrasting texture, as well as dressing it up a little. (Frankly, this pie is a bit monotone, and a monotone tan at that. I know looks aren’t everything, but tan isn’t exactly the most exciting of hues).
Probably because the filling is egg and nut based, this bakes up quite firmly, almost like a very moist cake (and very easy to transport to work, where it was well received despite a few questions as to exactly what it was. Probably those pine nuts, and the fact that I forgot to sprinkle with powdered sugar). I used canned almond paste (Solo brand, which was on special at Christmas, though you can make your own too) which is an attractive off-white gel with little brown specks in it. Yes, lovely. It’s almost pourable, so I didn’t know how it would turn out given that the recipe directs you to “chop” your almond paste. Fortunately, it turned out perfectly. As a bonus, I had 4 ounces left over, which is exactly what is needed for the raspberry almond mini-tarts later in this chapter. That leftover waits to be used in the freezer. And waits…
One final note–you may have been with me the whole time on this pine-nut-in-sweets concept, but were thinking to yourself, “has she seen how much pine nuts cost lately?” I know: $21.00 a pound is the most recent price I saw in the bulk bin. But despite appearances, the amount of nuts you need isn’t all that much. But if you’d prefer a substitute, I’d suggest slivered almonds. They are similar in size to pine nuts (perhaps about twice as long), will clearly harmonize with the almond filling, and still provide the tender, toasty, contrasting bite on top.