My Aunt Adriana’s Rice Cake (Torta di Riso) has been a Christmas tradition for years, one that we all patiently wait for all year long. Once in a long while, she would also make it on request – I think she once made it for one of my birthday parties) – but she would have to be in the mood.
Cooking was not her favorite thing, and she would much rather you cooked for her so she could just eat. Yet there are a few dishes she used to make, that we all associate specifically with her, that were (and are, if we make them) incredibly good. This is one of them. Maybe, if she was not such a casual cook/baker, they would not taste as good.
This delicious cake has a moist, almost pudding-like texture, a delicate flavor and a satisfying bite. We all love it, and it is possibly the only dessert my dad can just eat, and eat, and eat. If you have read any of my other posts, you probably know by now that my dad is the most finicky eater I know. One of my friends thought of himself as a picky eater until he heard some of my dad’s food stories. He relinquished the crown.
I think aunt Adriana (one of two of my mother’s sisters, the middle one) made this cake mostly for my dad. We all enjoy it, of course, but once Christmas is over and we all share the leftovers, it is a known fact that my dad would get the lion’s share of the rice cake.
Luckily aunt Adriana was not secretive about her recipes. She was happy to share it with me some years ago – I am sure in the hope that I would take over baking it – and she also did not mind that I would share it with you. She even baked one specifically so I could take step-by-step images.
The ingredients are pretty basic, except for one, which is the not-so-secret secret ingredient that gives this cake its unique flavor. It is an anise-flavored liqueur that is only produced locally in Modena. Sometimes getting hold of a bottle is difficult even for us, so I have supplied a very acceptable substitute.
AUNT ADRIANA’S RICE CAKE
yields about 12-14 portions
– 500 gr. (1 lb. & 10 oz.) short grain rice
– 2 liters (8 & 1/2 cups) whole milk
– 1 lemon, cut in half
– 6 large eggs
– 7 to 9 Tablespoons sugar
– 1/2 cup Sassolino or Sambuca liqueur
– 200 gr. (7 oz.) chopped almonds
– 300 gr. (10.5 oz.) crispy amaretti cookies (Amaretti di Saronno)
– 1 small handful (ca 2 Tablespoons) sea salt
– softened butter for the baking pan
You will also need a 10×14″ ca. rectangular baking pan
As you will see in the photos, she used a stainless steel roasting pan for this cake. Up to you whether you want to use something similar or a regular cake pan.
Let’s start the first phase.
Bring the milk to a boil in a large saucepan or soup pot. Add the salt, then add the rice and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook semi-covered (lid on, but partly open) till the rice is al dente, approximately 17-18 minutes. Halfway through the cooking, add the lemon cut in two halves.
DO NOT leave the stove because milk boils over at the speed of light and makes an unbelievable mess that is a nightmare to clean up.
Let the cooked milk rice cool to room temperature in its own cooking pot. Then reach in, squeeze in the juice of the lemon halves, and then discard the lemon.
While the rice cools, finely crush the amaretti cookies in a food processor, and prepare the baking pan by buttering the bottom and the sides, and dusting the bottom with half of the crushed amaretti.
Preheat the oven at 320F (160C) and then…
1. Add the sugar, about 7 to 9 heaping Tablespoons.
2. Add 4 eggs and
3. Add the liqueur
4 Gently stir until all nicely blended. As you can see, she blended with her hand. You can use a large wooden spoon if you prefer, but hands are good, too.
5. If the mix feels too stiff and not creamy enough, you can add one more egg.
6. Add the chopped almonds and stir.
7. Pour out into the prepared baking pan, making sure to evenly distribute the rice mix and smooth out the top.
8. Beat an egg in a bowl then
9. Spread it evenly over the top of the rice mixture.
10. Sprinkle the remaining amaretti crumbs evenly on top of the cake. Do not make the amaretti layer too thick: keep it even, but light. If you have any leftovers, then so be it.
11. Place the cake in the oven, on the center rack, and bake at 320F (160C) for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. This cake is not intended to rise, so you might want to test it close to the end of the baking time, as you do not want it to over bake and become too dry.
12. Last and most importantly: lick the pot!
Let the cake cool completely on a rack. Cover and refrigerate for minimum 3 hours before slicing.
The way my aunt used to slice this cake was by running the knife in slanted cross sections, so that the pieces came out in the diamond shapes you see in the photos.
Start by running the knife blade around the edges to loosen them, then criss-cross the cake. Working gently, remove the corner pieces first. Be prepared for the first few pieces to break, so you will just have to eat them.
Arrange the pieces on a pretty plate and serve. Any leftover cake can be stored covered in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days. If you are not planning to serve all the cake at one time, you might want to leave some in the pan, so the cut edges remain in contact with each other, maintaining the moisture.
This cake could be gluten-free, but you would have to avoid using the amaretti cookies and figure out a different topping. If I think of one, I will post about it here.
I photographed this recipe in February 2008, and it was possibly one of the last times my aunt made this cake. It was certainly the last time I ate it. Aunt Adriana flew over the rainbow on March 9th of this year (2014), just three months after her husband, who left on January 1st. She was eighty-two. I miss her very much, and this recipe is shared in her honor. Here she is, in one of her favorite images I captured of her a few years ago while vacationing in Porto Venere.
For the first time this year, Christmas will be different for my family, and not just because two more of its members are missing, but because the location will change. My mom’s other sister, the oldest of the three, Luciana, who has been hosting Christmas and various family events for over forty years, has finally admitted that, even with everyone’s help, it is all too much for her eighty-four-year-old knees, and relinquished the scepter.
Maybe a new tradition will be born, maybe one in which every year Christmas will be different. We will have to wait and see. I will not be there, as I am here, once more surrounded by moving boxes and packaging paper, but I keep my eye on things from a distance, usually via Skype.
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Although modified and updated to suit the current changes, this article was originally published on August 3, 2012 in my Food Journey blog, which is now being integrated into this one.