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A couple weeks ago our dear friends from Umbria came over on Saturday night to play cards. It was going to be a simple dinner as we wanted to get in a few rounds of Briscola after our meal. I grew up playing cards and if time allowed, I could easily play most nights of the week. Italian cards are my favourites. You may not know much about these unless you also grew up playing them. They are quite different from regular card packs. For starters, there are 40 cards rather than 52 cards. The suits are coppe (cups), bastoni (sticks), denari (coins) and spade (swords). They remind me a bit of tarot cards. Different regions have cards of different appearances. The packs below (in a clockwise pattern starting from the upper left) are the “piacentine” (from Piacenza), “trevigiane” (from Treviso),  “triestine” (from Trieste) and “napoletane” (from Naples). You generally play with the cards that are from an area close to where your family is from. So I grew up playing “le triestine” and our friends grew up playing with the “piacentine”. It can take some time to get used to the different packs and recognise what they are, especially the aces. In the image below I have placed the ace of spades (asso di spade) in the most central position of the four packs and as you can see, they look nothing alike.

The games are quite different too. Apart from Briscola, there is Tresette, Terzilio, Scopa (the easiest and the one I would often play with my mother) and one that my zio Mario taught us to play but no-one else seems to know about, Trick. In several of the games, you must remember what cards have gone out, and when the suits looks different from what you are used to, and you have had quite a few glasses of wine with dinner, it can be a bit of a challenge. But such fun!

For dinner I had prepared the simplest of antipasti – Rizzoli anchovies on this rounds of bread with italian butter, followed by cabbage risotto (recipe from Adriatico) and a salad. And my friend brought a cake. She told me it was a very simple one and had a kilo of fruit in it. She had also made an orange custard to go with it. She called it “torta di nonna Tilde”, and as I knew her grandmother’s name was not Tilde, I wanted to know more. She had found it in one of her old recipes books and she promised to send the recipe. It is indeed simple but very very good. In addition to a kilo of fruit, it has crushed biscuits/cookies, eggs and only a couple more ingredients. It has a very Italian taste, is dense, satisfyingly sweet and was just delicious with the custard. She had used pears and apples as the fruit in the cake, though when I made a it a couple of weeks later, I only had apples so I added tinned peaches instead (which I think are a brilliant addition for appearance and taste). It makes the best breakfast, after lunch cake and after dinner cake too. And the method is actually foolproof. I think you will like it!


In other news, I am so excited to have a copy of my new cookbook Istria (fresh off a plane)! It feels wonderful to hold it in my hands and read the stories and recipes on the pages. The official publication date is 1 October and I am currently organising launch events. it is a very exciting time. I cannot wait to show it to you.

Baci, Paola X

torta di nonna Tilde

500g apples (I used Pink Lady)
500g tinned peaches, drained
25g unsalted butter
50g brown sugar
100ml white wine
200g amaretti biscuits
200g savoiardi biscuits
1 lemon, juice and zest
4 eggs, lightly beaten
extra butter to grease baking tin
orange custard:
2 eggs, yolks only
60g caster sugar
330 ml whole milk
1 small orange, zest only

Peel and core the apples and cut into medium sized pieces. Place in a bowl with the lemon juice to prevent browning. Chop the tinned peaches into pieces that are a similar size to the apple pieces. Place the butter in a saucepan that will eventually fit all the fruit, on medium heat. When it melts, add the drained apples, the white wine and scatter on the brown sugar. Cook at medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring so that the apple pieces are well coated in butter and the sugar is evenly distributed. Next, add the peach pieces and cook for another 7 minute or until the liquid has evaporated. Set aside to cool.

Place the savoiardi in a large shallow metal bowl and bang gently with a meat mallet to crush them into small pieces (some will be fine like flour). Do the same for the amaretti. Reserve 3 tablespoons of crushed amaretti, then add the cooled fruit to the remaining crushed biscuits. Add the zest of the lemon and the eggs and stir well until homogenous. The mixture will be thick.

Preheat the oven to 180C conventional. Grease the base and sides of a 25-26cm cake tin (mine was springform). Dust with the reserved crushed amaretti so that the crumbs stick to the butter and form a coat on the base and sides of the tin. Spoon the cake mix into the tin, flattening the top with the back of a large tablespoon. Bake for about 50 minutes until golden and firm. Allow to cool in the cake tin before unmoulding. You may like to run a small silicon spatula along the sides of the tin to loosen the cake if it has stuck before unmoulding.

Serve at room temperature with orange custard. Torta di nonna Tilde will last 3 days in a sealed container in a cool spot (my laundry in winter is fine but in summer I would put it in the fridge).

To make the orange custard, place the yolks and sugar in a bowl that will eventually fit all the milk and whisk well by hand until incorporated and slightly foamy. Add the orange zest and whisk. Set aside.

Place the milk in a small saucepan at medium heat until it is close to boiling. Remove from the heat and pour the hot milk in to the egg/sugar mixture a bit at a time, stirring or whisking as you go so that the heat does not scramble the eggs. Once all the milk has been incorporated, pour the lot back into the saucepan and place on medium heat. Stir continuously with a heat-proof spatula until the custard starts to thicken. How long you cook it for depends on how thick you like your custard to be. I like mine thick so I cook it a bit more than most. Once it has thickened to your linking, remove from the heat and pour into a bowl and stir occasionally as it cools. Store the custard that you do not use in a jar in the fridge for a couple of days.


  • Elena M says:

    I shall definitely make this using the packet of amaretti that has been sitting in the pantry for more than a year. Also I have pre-ordered Istria from Dymocks – fortunate timing as my newly formed Italian book club will be discussing a couple of novels set in Istria.

    • Sounds like it was just meant to be Elena. I would be really interested to know what novels you are discussing with the club as Istria, as you know, is very close to my heart

  • Jo O'Mara says:

    What a fabulous post! I love the stories of the cards and remember the Scopa game. It makes me think of the way your mum used to stuff the chicken by making up a special stuffing and pull away all the skin and put it between the skin and the flesh! I remember telling my family of this wonder, as my grandma/mum always stuffed the chicken in the middle! Leading, of course, to the famous saying, “There are more than one ways to skin a chicken”!

  • Lisa Casey says:

    I will try this, it sounds delicious, and here, now in the U.S. I can use fresh peaches. Or apples and pears in the fall – that would make the kitchen fragrant with autumn. One thing – since you save 3 tbs of the amaretti cookies, recipe wise, I think it would be better to say to crush the amaretti first, reserving 3 tbs and then crush the savoiardi cookies. Otherwise you’d need two bowls instead of one. I’m looking forward to your cookbook arriving in the U.S. Congratulations!

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