Breakfast may be our favorite meal in Sicily. A surprising statement about a place that created cannoli, cassata and Marsala.
Breakfast in Ortygia, Agrigento and even crazy Palermo was deliciously relaxing. We loved flinging open the curtains of our palazzo window at the civilized hour of 9 a.m. to see another perfect day in Sicily, then wandering up to the terrazza for breakfast.
Okay, a confession about our accommodations. Sicily is full of B&B’s, actually small hotels, often carved out of renovated family town houses. Every place we stayed oozed Sicilian style- marble floors inlaid in intricate Arabic patterns, Oriental carpets, tall ceilings and wrought-iron balconies.The bathrooms had been fully modernized and the showers had so many knobs and faucets, it took a mechanical engineer to figure them out. So while we didn’t actually stay in our own palace, I can dream a little, can’t I?
But I digress…We’d fling open the curtains, then head up the broad marble stairs to breakfast. On the internet the hotels may have implied a roll and coffee. Everywhere in Sicily, though, a feast unfolded in front of us. The most lavish was at Francesco’s Terrazze di Montelusa in Agrigento. Yes we could have bread and jam, juice and granola. But who wants a boring breakfast in Sicily? Instead we tried fruit tarts, Italian sausages, cheese and 2 kinds of eggs. Francesco set out baskets of fresh local fruit and plates of cookies, including the traditional Biscotti Regina (covered with toasted sesame seeds with an Arabic sweet/savory flavor) and croccante (Italian almond brittle) which is perfect with a cup of capuccino. Every hotel offered torta rustica, a traditional coffee cake layered with nuts, either pistachios or almonds, and ricotta. And did I mention the marmalade? Sicily’s bold version bursts with tart lemon or orange peel and tastes nothing like muted British marmalade.
At Terrazze di Montelusa, we’d fill our plates, then find a table on the palm-lined terrace which overlooks the Agrigento skyline with the Mediterranean sparkling in the distance. The church bells would start ringing which called for a second foamy cappucino and a close inspection of the street-scene below.
But as content as I was sitting there, I couldn’t linger over breakfast. The tour guide was waiting.
And down in the valley below Agrigento, so were 2500 year-old Greek ruins.
We fell in love with the delicious breakfast cakes in Sicily, particularly the torta rustica. A version of this ricotta-filled pastry was on every breakfast table we visited. My favorite was the almond torte Francesco served in Agrigento.
Of course, I had to try it back home.
This makes a rich, show-stopping brunch offering or dessert, and would be a nice finish to a luncheon with glass of prosecco.
- Chilled pastry dough to line the bottom and sides of a 9 inch spring-form pan. (1½ times this recipe).
- 7 ounces almond paste (not marzipan)
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- ½ cup sliced almonds
- 1 stick (8 ounces) butter
- 1½ cups sugar
- ½ cup good ricotta (preferably homemade or from the specialty cheese section of the grocery store)
- 1½ cups flour
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 eggs
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- ½ cup sliced almonds
- Confectioners' sugar for dusting
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Roll out chilled pastry dough into a circle, 14 inches in diameter and ⅛ inch thick.
- To place crust in pan, loosely roll the dough circle around the pin, then unroll it over the pan.
- Press the dough lightly into the bottom and along the sides of the pan.
- Place almond paste, brown sugar and cinnamon in a food processor and mix. Add almonds, then pulse several times until ingredients are combined. (Almonds should be in large pieces.)
- In the bowl of a mixer, cream together the butter and sugar and then add ricotta, mixing well. Sift together flour, baking soda and salt (or stir together in a bowl). Add to butter mixture, alternately with eggs, 1 at a time, beating after each addition. Add extract and mix to combine.
- On top of pastry shell, add ½ of the ricotta, followed by one half of the dough. Spread the almond paste mixture over these layers and gently press down. Follow with the remainder of the ricotta, then end with dough.
- Bake for 1 hour 40 minutes, sprinkling ½ cup almonds on the cake after 60 minutes. Cake is done when it is puffed and browned and a knife inserted down into the lower cake layer yields soft crumbs.
- Remove from oven. Cool cake on rack for 20 minutes, then remove the spring-form.
- When cake is fully cooled, gently run a knife between the pan and bottom crust.
- Slide cake onto serving dish and dust with confectioners' sugar.
If you’re not in the mood to “BAKE” with a capital B (in other words, a complicated project) or are short on time,You could easily omit the pastry shell and use store-bought ricotta. You’ll have to adjust the recipe a bit, i.e. put a dough layer on the bottom; adjust the cooking time. It will be more coffee cake than torta rustica, but should be delicious. Please let me know what you tweaked.