On the night of 12th December we received the telephone call we had expected but dreaded. Dear nonna Lucia had passed from this life aged 98. Nonna Lucia is my husband's grandmother, she is my children's great grandmother. But to me she was friend, a confidante and a mentor. From nonna Lucia I learnt about honesty, I learnt about pride and I learnt about giving without receiving. We spent many hours chatting about her life and I absorbing her knowledge that comes from a century of experience.She was, as many nonnas are, a great cook and baker. From poor, humble beginnings, a servant girl by the age of 9 and then travelling far from home across the seas to Australia to be with her husband at 19, she knew how to make the most of life.
Nonna Lucia food was simple, wholesome and delicious -typically Italian. Most of her recipes were in her head. In Australia she learned to make the quintessential Australian cake - the sponge. And how well she mastered that recipe. However ask her the quantities and she would show you a teacup and say it would depend on the eggs - how large, what type (hen, bantam hen, duck) as to whether it is a heaped teacup or level. She just knew by judging the batter when it was just right,
One of her specialities was her Torta di Zucca made especially for Christmas. This is made by many in our town and each has their own recipe - some better than others though all claim theirs the best. This Torta contains a strange combination of ingredients and I often wondered where it originated as I had never seen such a torta in any Italian recipe book. Recently while googling I found something very similar at As Strong As Soup. Finally I found someone else makes this strange torta and loves it as much as I do.
This year I made this on my own for the first time - without nonna Lucia's guidance, without her making new suggestions and with her tasting and giving me her approval.
I miss you nonna Lucia.
Torta di Zucca
Keep in mind that while we can use a food processor to crush and puree, nonna Lucia made this completely by hand in great quantities to be lovingly wrapped and given to family and friends at Christmas. It was a great effort for her and she continued well into her 90's preparing this by hand.
It is only meant to be about 2 1/2cm/ 1 inch in thickness.
200g dried apricots
200g dried peaches
5 cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped coarsely
2 tablespoons sugar
4 cups steamed, mashed pumpkin, use something like butternut
1 200g packet amaretti ( the crunchy type)
375g sweet plain biscuits (cookies)
2 cups sugar
7 eggs, beaten
90g butter, melted
1 cup sweet sherry
1 cup marsala
1/2 cup brandy
50ml almond essence
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 lemon, rind only, grated
1 tablespoon instant coffee
Simmer the apricots and peaches in a little water with the 2 tablespoons sugar for 10 minutes. Add the apples and cook until the apples are soft. Drain, reserving the liquid.
Crush amaretti and plain biscuits with chocolate in the food processor.
Puree the fruit in the food processor.
Process the pumpkin also to ensure it is smooth.
Preheat the oven to 275F/135C.
Grease and line with nonstick parchment two 30cm x 20cm baking pans.
Cool the fruit and pumpkin then add to the crushed biscuit/ chocolate mixture.
Slowly mix in the remaining ingredients.
Pour mixture into prepare pans and bake for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. The mixture should come away from the sides when it is ready. Turn out onto paper lined board to cool. Once cool wrap in baking paper and keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator. It will keep for several weeks.
This torta is meant to be cut into small squares or portions and consumed as almost a "spoon sweet" with coffee as it will be enjoyed in my home this Christmas.
My best wishes to all for a happy and joyous Christmas.
If you too have experienced loss this year and will feel it at Christmas, let us remember to give thanks for the gift of our loved ones and for the gift our Lord gave us - his only Son.
Ti voglio bene, nonna Lucia.
Dormi in pace con Dio.
Sempre nel mio cuore.