Here we are to talk about the Italian dessert par excellence, the recipe that cannot be missing in any grandmother’s cultural background: the tart.
A base of shortcrust pastry enriched with jam, or ricotta with sugar and cinnamon or chopped chocolate, or custard cream with a lot of fresh fruits, and finished on the surface with strips of shortcrust pastry to create a lattice. In short, we could define it as the sweet equivalent of a quiche.
It is such a widespread and traditional recipe that, as usual, it is difficult to trace its origin.
A myth tells that it was created by the mermaid Partenope, who used to sing in the Gulf of Naples, and to whom the inhabitants of the place out of gratitude made a gift of flour, sugar, eggs, ricotta and spices. The siren gave the gifts to the gods, and they returned it to her in the form of a cake, that the siren brought back to the inhabitants of the gulf.
A more founded story credits the invention of the tart to a nun from the convent of San Gregorio Armeno, who finished the cake with the lattice on the surface as a reference to the grate from which the cloistered nuns attended religious services.
This would mean that the very same nuns that invented St Joseph Zeppole also invented the tart. This to say that it is not a coincidence that in Italy, when you want to say that someone cooks well, especially desserts, you say that they “cook like a nun”.
In any case, it is certainly a dessert of poor and popular origin, but it also became very famous and appreciated in the courts. For example, it is said that thanks to the tart, Queen Maria Theresa of Austria was seen smiling, and she was known as “the queen who never smiles”! The tart was also highly appreciated by the Bourbons, who ruled in Naples and Sicily, and it is likely that the Neapolitan Pastiera was born from its evolution.
Whatever way you want to look at this, the tart is so good in its simplicity to get Gods, kings and queens to agree.
Having said that, I must confide that Violetta is not a great lover of sweets. Between a cake and a pizza, she wouldn’t hesitate in choosing the latter, but if there is something that can make her change her mind, that is the tart. The reason is that the tart is rich in its simplicity, the shortcrust pastry is sweet and buttery without overdoing it, the sugar gives it a special crunchiness and all the flavours blend without being too overwhelming.
The apricot jam tart is known by relatives and friends as “Grandma Bianca’s tart”, jealously guarded and now shared with all of you. The first thing you notice is an important presence of butter, as well as the exclusive use of the reds of the eggs. This gives the shortcrust pastry a particularly crumbly consistency, which blends with the taste of the jam making this tart truly irresistible. It is not an easy pastry to work with, because you have to do it quickly to avoid heating the butter up. Much of the success of this pastry was attributed to Grandma Bianca’s hands, large and warm, that allowed her to mix the ingredients with great speed. Unfortunately, the only ones to have inherited those hands seem to be Aunt Laura and Federico, so Violetta, to prevent the flour from being worked too long with the butter, prefers to use the mixer to quickly incorporate the very cold butter.
The other big secret of Grandma Bianca’s tart was the jam, that she prepared herself during the summer using only organic and ripe fruit.
Little Federico was enormously fascinated by the technique of cooking in a bain-marie and the pot in which the jars of jam were cooked between water and clothes; he especially liked the “coperchione” ( litterally the ” big lid”) that, in the funny way in which children cripple words, he used to call the “poderchione”.
When they moved to London, in the boxes between clothes, furniture and books, a few items with sentimental value were added. Guess what Federico brought with him? The “poderchione” and an empty jar of jam.