Monday, February 16, 2009

Biscuit Tortoni

Amanda Hesser's food column for the New York Times Magazine this week was about the Italian dessert, Biscuit Tortoni, that she says arrived in the US in the late 1890s, was popular until about the 1950s, and then "evaporated from our culinary memory." She does go on to say, "At least, I think that’s what happened."

Hesser consulted a British ice cream expert, Robin Weir, who declined to tell her the history of tortoni over the phone, because the research on the dessert for his forthcoming book, “Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati” he says took him four years - Weir's new book must be must be an update of this 2006 edition.

I guess none of these people grew up in Pittsburgh, nor have ever been into one of the oldline Italian places in Bloomfield in Pittsburgh, like the Pleasure Bar - or went to an event catered by one of those restaurants. Tortoni - pronounced Bisca Tortoni in the 'burgh - was always a dessert choice when I was a kid in the 1960s going out to eat - and especially if it was some kind of catered affair; the little cups of it would just appear on the table for dessert. I remember the sort of powdery, honey and almondy taste of it - I loved it, unless it had too much other, bitterer nuts (like hazelnuts) besides ground almonds in it.

I think we always knew Pittsburgh is the land that time forgot.

And I've been fooling around looking for tortoni and Pittsburgh, and have turned up a ton of recipes (and an article by Rachael's mom, Anne L. Bower, about community cookbooks) - I like this Food Network one, where they tell you to make your own macaroons, but don't makes such a big deal about it, and there is no messing around with hot syrup and egg white (making the Italian meringue). Although on reflection, I think whipped egg whites are crucial to the nougaty texture, so this one might be better. They're both frozen in paper cups, or muffin cups, which is what I remember.

So I just have to conclude no, Amanda, I don't think that's what happened - I think there's plenty of culinary memories of tortoni out there - and plenty of people making it and serving it and eating it.

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