Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nonna Elena's Crostata di Marmellata

Recently I adopted an Italian nonna and we are cooking together. This week we made a crostata, a simple Italian tart which is often filled with marmalade. She called me on Wednesday to tell me what to buy: flour, butter, margarine, sugar, lemon, marmalade.

She came over Friday afternoon and we got right to work, taking advantage of Roman's longer than usual nap. "You seem nervous," she says. I explain how it's important to me to master the crostata because in my mind it's the closest thing Italians have to pie. Pie is so American and I have such a phobia of pie crust. I did not grow up in a family that loved pie and I do not love pie, so I have never been able to embrace learning to make pie crust successfully. Crostata could be my new thing.

"I'll lend you my notebook and you can tell me what else you want to make," she says. Elena started her notebook of recipes 40 years ago. "It's so clean," I say. Every book that comes in my kitchen gets covered in buttery fingerprints or oily splatter. "It's made of baci e lacrime," "kisses and tears." She talks of her demanding husband and her mother in law who she felt she couldn't live up to in the kitchen. "Non si fa così," "that's not how you do it," she would always say. Elena kept striving to get it right to please the tough critics.

Reading the notebook, I can tell she fed her family well. A lemony veal roast, linguine with radicchio, stuffed zucchini blossoms. The notebook is chock full of classic Italian desserts like tiramisu and seasonal treats like the castagnole and frappe eaten during Carnival. Her husband was "goloso," he enjoyed eating. She tells me she made desserts every week. Now she won't even try a slice of the crostata. "Too much fat, stella mia."

We get to work. I'm loving this. It's so easy. I'm not swearing at the dough or threatening to throw it in the garbage. The crostata comes together in a cinch. I breathe a sigh of relief and start thinking of the flavors I'll make and how I can use my mini tart shells to bake individual tarts. Elena shows me how to decorate the top. "It shouldn't look industrial," she says. This is my kind of tart, I think to myself. It's not a type A personality tart, or one that strives for absolute perfection. It's an easy, homey tart you can serve to close friends over tea and conversation. The crust is almost like a lemony shortbread. And there it is, my new thing. I'm sure I could sneak it into a Fourth of July picnic or even a Thanksgiving without offending the traditionalists.

Pastry dough for Crostata
Makes 2 tarts

I'm new at converting recipes from the metric to the American measurements. Hopefully I got it right. When in doubt, if you have a kitchen scale, use it to weigh out the flour and sugar, since that's always more accurate anyway.

500 grams Italian 00 flour (2 1/4 cups)
150 grams sugar (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
pinch of salt
zest of one lemon
250 grams butter (Elena uses half margarine) (17 tablespoons, 2 1/8 sticks)
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1/2 jar of marmalade

Preheat the oven to 350. Place the flour, sugar, salt and lemon zest in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the butter, which you have cut into chunks, the egg yolks and egg. Pulse until the butter has incorporated and you have a ball of dough. Sprinkle a small amount of flour on a board and knead the dough. It will be sticky but do not continue to add flour. Set aside about 1/3 cup of dough per tart for the top. Place the rest in the center of a buttered tart pan and spread it out to fit the pan using your hands. Once it has been evenly spread into the pan, use a fork to prick holes all over the dough. Spread about half a jar of marmalade evenly over the tart base. Roll out the reserved dough and cut strips or pieces to decorate the top of the tart. Bake for about 30 minutes or until slightly browned.


  1. I loved that you "adopted" an Italian nonna...that's adorable. Crostata is a must have in your repertoire, and you can customize it to your likes. My mother's version (my favorite!!!) has chocolate and amarene (sour cherries).

  2. Amelia, Thanks for all your comments. I got that cake dome from c.u.c.i.n.a. - not sure if you know that kitchen store, there are several in Rome.
    I saw your mom's crostata in your last post, it looks really beautiful- what great cooks both your parents are!

  3. This looks beautiful! I want to adopt a nonna... :) I especially like the advice of not making it look industrial, it's perfect.

  4. I know all of the feelings coming out of this post so well. I think it is sweet that you have adopted a nonna. She seems perfect and the crostata looks amazing. I want to make one right now.

  5. I have been trying for ages to leave a comment and never managed to. Today it looks like I might manage through my google account. I wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying your blog and that I recently attempted a crostata and loved it. I was surprised to later realize it was very close to a pie crust! I have been terrorized to make a pie crust after reading all people have to say out there about it!

  6. @ Nuts about food- Glad you were able to make a crostata. I'm so glad I found an alternative to pie, I just can't get my mind around that crust!!! Stress is not good for cooking :) Thanks for reading!!

  7. I adore this story of you and your nonna, exchanging recipes and life stories. Your devotion to nourishing your family creatively and lovingly is so inspiring, in this busy, crazy world today.

  8. I had an italian nonna (actually great-nonna, from Trieste), but she did not cook; in those days, cooks were hired and lived in the home and their cook was Greek! Still I love crostata, we make a version of it in Lebanon, and I think it is a great pastry to have around the house for a nibble in the afternoon, for example. Read your comment about how your word is pronounced, and frankly, with a son named Nicolas (after my grandfather and numerous relatives) and a couple of cousins named Nicole, I still can't get used to the American enunciation of that name!


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