My two grandmothers are both good cooks, albeit in different ways. They both cook for themselves every day, have fed their families (and extended families) for many years in the past (occasionally the present too) and both managed to easily cook up a feast for countless Christmases and other celebrations. My paternal grandmother is quick and a bit chaotic in the kitchen. She has a good repertoire of favourites (like her fantastic rabbit with polenta) but likes to improvise and she gets ideas from cookery magazines and TV programmes – to varying degrees of success, truth be told. My maternal grandmother’s kitchen is orderly and her dishes are well executed, simple traditional local recipes. She too has a repertoire, but hers is more traditional and fairly predictable, as the choice of dish will always be based on both the season and the occasion of the meal.
Everybody seems to have memories of their grandmothers’ cakes and biscuits. This crostata comes from my maternal grandmother Ivonne. She only made it a couple of times for us – I’m not entirely sure where the recipe comes from in the first place. I remember her preparing it one year for my birthday party. I have no idea where the party was, but I can still see the large tray of crostata squares. I’ve never forgotten how addictively good they were. My friend Daniel called them ‘crack squares’, not without reason. I guess here you would call this a tray bake. It’s called crostata because, even though it’s square and not round, it has a shortbread-like base, and a topping. The topping itself is unusual. It’s a a bit like a loose and quite rough version of macarons batter, as it’s a mix of whipped egg whites, chopped nuts and sugar. And it does have a layer of jam between the base and the topping, so perhaps it’s not such a distant relative of the classic lattice-topped crostata. Of one thing you can be sure: it’s going straight in my repertoire.
Make the base. Prepare a large, rectangular, shallow oven tray by lining it with baking parchment. I used a 38×26 cm tray, only about 2 cm high and it worked a treat. Anything with rougly the same measurements will be fine. Cream the butter in a bowl using a wooden spoon. When fluffy and airy, add the sugar and cream until you can’t feel any sugar granules on the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks one by one, mixing after each addition. In a separate bowl, mix flour, ground rice and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture all at once, and slowly incorporate in until the mixure is sandy and even. Do not overmix. Spread the base in the baking tray and pat down, then even it out with a rolling pin and place in the fridge for about 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 170°C. When it’s ready, bake the base until golden brown – it took me about 20 minutes but start checking after 15. Take out and cool down.
While the base is in the oven, prepare the topping. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks, then chop the nuts (in a food processor or by hand), mix them with the sugar and add them in small batches to the egg whites. Spread the apricot jam on the crust base, then cover with the nuts mixture. Return to the oven (this time at 140°C) for about 30 minutes, until golden brown. Cool in the baking tray for a couple of minutes, then cut into squares. Let it cool completely in the tray before taking out. The squares keep for a few days in an air-tight container.