Once upon a time I lived in Italy. Once upon a time I fell in love in Italy. And once upon a time I had a relationship that went devastatingly sour in Italy. Luckily, I had two of the dearest friends that helped me get through that sudden shift in life.
Bitterly, we split and moved on. After three years, I also chose to move on in the physical sense. At the same moment, a job opportunity came along and it was back in the States. It wasn’t easy to give up Italy, but it seemed like the most rational thing to do then. I was going to follow my head.
Weeks later, I was still heartbroken and saddened by the thought of leaving my Italian life behind. To brighten up my spirits, my friends and I thought that it would help to explore more of Italy and make the best of my time left. A month before my designated date of departure, we boarded the train and ended up in Lucca. The station was right outside the old town and as we exited, we quickly spotted the famous walls that surround the town.
It was Spring. The sun was golden. The air was warm. And despite the 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) of walls, Lucca was inviting. We settled into the Ostello San Frediano, formerly a convent turned into a 140 room hostel. The building had a classical charm and the location and price made it perfect.
We toured the city of Lucca, mostly by foot, doing more laps than a Formula 1 race. We followed the path along the antique walls of the city and ducked into the corners of the town’s historic pockets. Besides enjoying the picturesque beauty of the town, we also indulged in their local cuisine.
Our primi and secondi piatti of Luccanese food were buonissimi, but the memory cemented in my mind, was the dolce we sampled at the end of one of our dinners. I didn’t think my stomach could possibly manage dessert after such an abundant meal, but my curious palate found a way to carve out more room. Walking around town, a round cake with green specks gracing the display cases of cafes and pastry shops continued to catch my eye. When I asked about it, I was told that it was a tart made with verdure. Vegetables. I couldn’t quite get the name right, because it was advertised differently from place to place. I discovered that this pastry had several different names around town: Torta di Verde Lucca, Torta coi becchi, Torta di Lucca, Torta di verdure and Torta d’ erbe.
Torta in Italian can mean cake or tart. At first glance, I didn’t find the pastry very appetizing. It resembled a spinach quiche more than a sweet conclusion to a meal. I continued to ask around about the ingredients. What type of verdure were we talking about here? A friendly waiter finally offered a few more details and told me it was made of bietole. I had no idea what that was, it wasn’t one of the words I remember coming across in my Italian lessons. My friends didn’t have any idea either. We didn’t carry a dictionary and this was way before the iphone came along.
Soon after a bite or two, I instantly fell in love with its flavors. Torta di Lucca had hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, pine nuts and raisins. Suddenly, the feeling of autumn had come upon me. Its texture was soft like bread pudding and the hard crust had a tasty contrast to its center. I made one more attempt to uncover the mystery of the green leaves, but at the end of the meal, I was still unsuccessful.
I returned to Milano with enough Torta di Lucca to feed 24 people. I became obsessed with its flavors, ingredients and recipe. As soon as I got home, I found my dictionary and looked up bietole. Translation: Chard. When I told my friends we were all surprised. We hadn’t come across this vegetable in the markets and had no idea that it was popularly used in Italian cuisine. I became increasingly more curious about Torta di Lucca and continued to seek out information about its history, ingredients and steps to make it. During that weekend I developed a new passion and a new favorite Italian dolce. Luckily, I knew there wasn’t going to be any future heartaches with this new affair, just plenty of guaranteed sweet moments.
(also dedicated to the Papes, because Steve loves pie and had I found chard sooner in Prague, I would have baked it and you would have loved it!)
Torta di Lucca (adapted from many conversations from local residents of Lucca)
Heat oven to 180/350 degrees.
You will need a 9 inch pie plate.
1 bunch of chard (snip off hard stems and chop into fine pieces)
(note: if living in Prague, chard is sold as mangold and can be bought at stall 11 at Pražská tržnice)
1 1/2 cups of stale bread, diced
1/3 cup of milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup of raisins (soaked in hot water)
1/4 cup of pine nuts
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
pinch of salt and pepper
1 tablespoon liquer of your preference
1 square of butter
Heat a frying pan and add the butter.
When the butter starts to melt, add the chard.
Cook chard until the leaves are tender.
When done, let it cool to the side.
In a bowl, soak the bread in the milk.
The bread should crumble and begin to resemble porridge.
When the chard has cooled add it to the bread mixture.
Beat the eggs and then add with the rest of the ingredients.
Pour into the pie crust.
Bake for 30- 40 minutes, until the center comes out clean.
Pastry (adapted from Cesare Casella’s Diary of a Tuscan Chef)
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick of butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
In a bowl, cream together the butter and sugar.
Add the egg and then the vanilla.
Beat until creamy.
In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients.
Make a well in the center and add the wet mixture to the center.
Mix together with a wooden spoon.
At first it will resemble bread crumbs, but should work itself into a smooth ball.
After shaping it into a bowl, wrap in plastic and let it sit in the refrigerator for 1/2 hour.
When ready to use, let it sit out for 5 minutes.
Then lightly sprinkle the surface with flour.
Roll out the dough into a 10 inch circle.
Transfer it to a 9 inch pie plate and shape.
Pierce the bottom with a fork.
Cover the dough with foil and pie weights.
Let it bake for 25 minutes.
Remove and add the filling.
Continue with the rest of the baking time.