Torta di Riso is an Italian specialty. It is basically a rice pudding baked inside of a pastry crust; a Rice Tart, so to speak.
I first had Torta di Riso more than 20 years ago while visiting Italy with my husband and his parents.
We ate meals at the homes of many relatives. I often arrived with a spiral-bound notebook to jot down the inevitable recipes that would be discussed around the table or the recipes I begged for after being served something wonderful. That notebook is a mashup of American and Metric measures and English and Italian words for ingredients. It became a bible of sorts for recreating many of the dishes I ate on that trip.
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My father-in-law’s Zia (Aunt) Meri made the first Torta di Riso that I ever tasted. Her recipe is below (adapted for American measures).
After having it at Zio (Uncle) Beppe and Zia Meri’s house, I started noticing Torta di Riso in many places in Tuscany.
Alkermes liqueur originated in Tuscany so it is particularly appropriate to use it as the liqueur in Torta di Riso. Alkermes is nearly impossible to find in the United States, however. One can make a perfectly traditional Torta di Riso using rum in place of Alkermes but the resulting confection won’t be pink.
According to CooksInfo, “Alchermes was invented in the Frati Convent at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Its making was kept secret, but the recipe was reputedly stolen by spies from the nearby city of Siena, which Florence was often at war with.”
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Recipes for alkermes (also spelled alchermes) are closely guarded but the process basically involves infusing alcohol with spices and flavorings like cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, star anise, rosewater, and orange zest. The red color comes from cochineal, an insect that is the foundation for natural red food coloring. The resulting infused alcohol is sweetened and diluted with water.
The pastry crust is pasta frolla, a slightly sweetened pastry, leavened with baking powder, and often flavored with vanilla and lemon zest. This is Meri’s recipe for pasta frolla but I also have one from Zia Fidalma that makes about half the quantity.
If you don’t have access to Alkermes, you can use rum. In fact, torta di riso is not always pink. Many that I saw in Italy were white.
If you want to try to make your own Alkermes you can find a recipe here. Amazon even sells the dried cochineal insects that provide the traditional scarlet color.
If you have a favorite family recipe and a bit of a story to tell, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss including it in the blog. I am expanding the scope of my blog to include traditional recipes from around the country and around the world. If you haven’t seen Bertha’s Flan or Melinda’s Drunken Prunes, take a look. They will give you an idea of what I’m looking for.
Torta di Riso (Italian Rice Tart)
This classic Italian dessert is basically a rice pudding baked inside of a pastry crust. Alkermes is a traditional Tuscan liqueur used in a number of sweets, including torta di riso, for its color and spice-like flavor. If you don’t have Alkermes, use rum. Not all versions of torta di riso are brightly colored. Vanilla powder is a natural vanilla product, not artificial. Use vanilla extract if vanilla powder is not available.
Blend the flour, sugar, baking powder, vanilla powder, salt and lemon zest in a food processor until combined.
Add the butter, cut in pieces, and blend till well combined.
Add the eggs and blend till the pastry almost forms a ball.
Remove the pastry from the food processor and use your hands to press everything into a single ball.
Wrap the pastry in waxed paper and refrigerate for an hour before using.
Wash and drain the rice.
Combine the rice, water and milk in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan.
Bring the rice to a boil.
Cover the rice and simmer, stirring frequently, until cooked and the liquid is almost completely absorbed. If the rice does not have the consistency of thick oatmeal, add a bit more milk at the end to make it creamy.
Mix the sugar, lemon zest, and Alkermes and/or rum into the rice.
Pour the rice into a bowl and cool, uncovered, stirring occasionally.
Assembly and Baking
Cut off a small piece of the pastry to make a lattice top and refrigerate.
Roll the remaining pastry between waxed paper, turning often, until it is large enough to cover the bottom and sides of a 10 inch springform pan.
Line a 10" springform pan with the pasta frolla.
Cut the pastry even with the top of the pan. Add the scraps to the pastry you have reserved for the lattice.
Beat the egg and egg yolks to combine.
Stir the beaten eggs into the cooled rice.
Pour the rice into the pastry lined pan.
Roll out the pastry reserved for the lattice.
Cut seven or eight strips, approximately 1/2 inch wide.
Arrange the strips into a lattice on top of the rice. Cut off the excess.
Roll the pastry lining the sides of the pan down to the top of the rice and form a decorative edge.
Bake at 350°F until the crust is lightly browned and the rice is barely jiggley in the center, approximately 30-45 minutes.
My food horizons expanded slowly during freshman and sophomore years in college. I was exposed to Chinese food through Dennis and Martha Law, a graduate student couple from Hong Kong who were the resident advisors in my college house during freshman year. I got exposed to Indian food thanks to the proximity to my dorm of the now long-gone Maharaja Indian Restaurant.
As sophomore year came to a close things were about to get kicked up a notch, to steal a phrase from Emeril Lagasse.
In spring of sophomore year I applied to live in the International Residence Project, another of the University of Pennsylvania’s college houses, during my junior year.
I was accepted into the program and invited to a “meet and greet” with the other students later that semester. The resident advisors were Ambrose and Najma Davis and Reginald (Reggie) and Nanacy Rajapakse. Ambrose was from Jamaica, Najma from Bangladesh and Reggie and Nanacy (whose name was often Anglicized to Nancy) from Sri Lanka.
At the “meet and greet” I was introduced to Ray Hugh, who was to be my roommate. Ray, of Hakka Chinese ancestry, hailed from Guyana. We started hanging out together for the remainder of the semester and then, since we were both staying in Philadelphia for the summer, decided to find a summer sublet together.
As I had done the previous summer, we sublet an apartment in Graduate Towers (as discussed in my post on Homemade Applesauce).
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Then we started cooking! Guyanese food. Chinese food. Italian food. Indian food. The list went on.
The number of cuisines we cooked exploded beginning in junior year when we moved into the International Residence Project. We got recipes from other residents in the Project who came from all around the world. I (very tentatively) started my cookbook collection which now numbers close to 5000 volumes.
Some dishes we made became regulars (like this roast pork). Others we made once for the sheer challenge.
Ray’s mom’s Crispy Duck was in the latter camp. Mrs. Hugh sent us a sheaf of recipes carefully typed out on onion skin paper. Her recipe for plain white rice, included in those pages, was my tutorial on making steamed white rice. I followed that recipe consistently, with unfailingly perfect results, until we moved to Santa Fe where the elevation, and its effect on cooking, rendered the directions unusable.
Included in that same sheaf of recipes was Crispy Duck. We started with a whole duck, head and feet included, which we purchased on Ninth Street in Philadelphia. The duck was hung for 24 hours from a hook we screwed into the ceiling while we carefully lacquered it, repeatedly, with a mixture of soy sauce and other ingredients, before roasting.
Compared to the duck, this pork is a breeze. Though Ray, with whom I am still in contact, now recommends marinating it for a day (refrigerated!) if possible, when we were in college the marinating occurred in an hour as the meat was coming to room temperature. I also think that he often used garlic powder rather than fresh garlic. Actually, I think garlic powder works really well to season chicken to be roasted or steaks to be broiled. As I recall, it was pretty tasty on this pork, too.
Everything in this pork is classically Chinese, except, of course, the rum! Likely a rice-based spirit would be used in China but in Guyana the Chinese used rum. Let’s face it, fusion food happens everywhere! Besides, the rum “plays” really nicely with the five spice powder and brown sugar.
Five spice powder is the main flavor and it is important that you use a good quality brand. Not all five-spice powders are created equal. If you don’t have a Chinatown near you, there’s always Amazon. That’s what I did. Despite the existence of a good Asian grocery store in Santa Fe, the five-spice powder that I bought there was not up to my standards.
Chinese Five-Spice Roast Pork
Boneless pork shoulder steaks work well because they contain some fat to keep the meat moist. However, because shoulder steaks contain different muscle groups the texture can change from bite to bite. Well-marbled pork chops with a little fat cap around the edge would work, too. If using bone-in chops, I would use 3 pounds rather than 2 ½ pounds. Be sure to use a good quality five spice powder.
Combine all ingredients except the pork. Mix well.
Boneless pork shoulder steaks
Add the pork and toss to coat with the marinade.
Marinate the pork in the refrigerator for 24 hours if possible. Turn the pork once or twice while marinating.
One hour before cooking the pork, remove it from the marinade and put it in a single layer in a heavy roasting pan.
Allow the pork to come to room temperature for an hour.
Meanwhile, boil the marinade quickly until it is reduced to approximately 4 tablespoons.
Cool the marinade and pour it over the pork.
Preheat the broiler.
Put the pan with the meat approximately 8 inches below the broiler.
Cook the pork, turning once or twice, until just cooked through, 15-20 minutes.
Allow the pork to rest 10 minutes before carving into bite-size pieces.
Unlike the brown sugar typically available in the United States, which is a mixture of white sugar and molasses, the brown sugar available in Guyana is actually a less refined sugar, hence the brown color. There's not enough brown sugar in this recipe to make a difference so feel free to use standard American brown sugar. Closer to what is available in Guyana is this brown sugar packaged for the Korean market that I bought in an Asian grocery store, and this brown sugar that I purchased in Ecuador.