Recipe: Torta di Zucca from Moneglia, Liguria
Almost the only parts of Thanksgiving dinner I ever liked were the Italian dishes my family made to go with all the American stuff, sausage-stuffed artichokes, breadcrumb-and-herb-stuffed mushrooms, broccoli rabe with fennel seeds and garlic. But I really like cranberry sauce, too, especially the way my mother made it, with lots of orange sections and Triple Sec. Now that I think of it, it tasted very Sicilian.
Every year I try to come up with new Italian dishes to slip into the occasion. Currently I happen to be going through a deep attraction to Italian savory tarts, and recently while searching around for regional ones I didn’t yet know, I came across references to torta di zucca, an excellent-sounding pumpkin torta from Liguria, made in the town of Moneglia for its annual Sagra di Zucca pumpkin festival. It’s flavored with Parmigiano and marjoram, a signature herb in Liguria. I was immediately intrigued.
I love the idea of non-sweet, non-pumpkin pie, spiced-up pumpkin. It seems that even in Italy that’s hard to come by. Whenever I’ve had pumpkin-filled ravioli or other pasta it has also contained something sweet, such as amaretto cookies or sugar and cinnamon. I also associate such as pasta with a sage butter sauce, something I very much like, but marjoram struck me as a good change.
I went about gathering up as many recipes as I could for this fine-sounding torta creation and weighed their pros and cons as I saw them. Never actually having tasted the thing on its home turf, I had to imagine what would make it the best it could be. The recipes varied greatly, so I knew that every cook made it a little differently. One was a double-crusted pie with lots of onion, another included dried porcini mushrooms. In one the pumpkin was baked and puréed; another had it cubed. Some contained garlic, which I immediately nixed. Several were open-face torts with breadcrumbs baked on top. That sounded great, so I went for it, along with marjoram, one of my absolute favorite herbs, and the Parmigiano, both of which were present in every recipe, and I came up with a version that felt right for me. Someday I’ll have to get myself to that Sagra di Zucca in Moneglia, but for now this will have to do. And it really is quite wonderful.
Happy Thanksgiving from your personal Italian cook.
Torta di Zucca from Moneglia, Liguria
For the crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup dry Marsala or dry vermouth
For the filling:
½ a small pumpkin (I used one of those squat, tan cheese pumpkins), you’ll want enough to get about 1½ cups of puree
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
A splash of dry Marsala or dry vermouth
Freshly ground black pepper
2 jumbo eggs, at room temperature, lightly whisked
½ cup whole milk ricotta, drained if watery
¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
A handful of lightly toasted pine nuts
6 marjoram sprigs, leaves lightly chopped, plus a little extra for garnish if you like
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
You’ll want a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
To make the crust: Put the flour in a large bowl. Sprinkle on the sugar and salt, and mix it around. In a small bowl, mix the olive oil with the Marsala. Pour this over the flour, and mix with a wooden spoon until you have a sticky mass of dough balls. Tilt it out onto a work space, very briefly give it a few kneads, and then press it together into a ball. Wrap it in plastic, and let it sit, unrefrigerated, about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Remove the seeds from the pumpkin half. Drizzle it with a little olive oil, and wrap it in aluminum foil. Place it on a sheet pan, and bake until it’s tender when poked with a knife, about 40 minutes or so.
When the pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scoop out the insides into a bowl, measuring out 1½ packed cups.
In a small skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and sauté the shallot until it’s soft. Add a tiny splash of Marsala to loosen up cooked-on bits, and pour the mix over the pumpkin. Add all the other ingredients for the filling, except the breadcrumbs, and mix well. Taste for seasoning.
Toss the breadcrumbs with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and season them lightly with salt and black pepper.
Roll out the dough, and drape it into the tart pan, trimming any overhang. Build the sides up a bit with your fingers so it sticks out a little from the rim.
Pour the filling into the dough, and smooth down the top. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs.
Bake at 400 degrees until the crust is lightly browned and the filling is firm and golden, about 40 minutes.