Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Torta di riso alla Carrarina - Tuscan rice cake with rum and custard

My mom is visiting from Italy. Her presence has of course been a great help with my two children, but has also turned into an opportunity for me to rediscover old recipes–both from my childhood and from the land of my grandparents. My maternal grandfather was from a tiny town in the north of Tuscany called Montignoso, an adorable little place that I remember fondly for the cute-as-a-button farm behind my grandparents' house (bunnies everywhere) and the amazing food we got to eat everyday. My favorite memories concern a fantastically oily and delicious farinata (a simple triumph of chickpea flour and olive oil), the soft and sweet donuts filled with pastry cream called bomboloni, and the torta di riso alla Carrarina, a custardy rice cake infused with rum that I would savor in slow, meditative bites in a state of generalized gratefulness. 

It is this rice cake that my mother and I decided to prepare a few weeks ago. We used the recipe from our relatives in Tuscany and we set to work right away, following the original recipe to the letter in excited and deferential expectation. Two hours later we were both kneeling in complete awe before the most beautiful and perfumed cake we had ever baked in our lives. The top of the cake was perfectly caramelized, almost brûlée, and smelled of rum and lemon and vanilla like a mythical Arcadian paradise. We then tentatively tasted it, and there it was, the wonderful physical manifestation of my childhood's torta di riso in all of its starchy, custardy, and boozy glory. The rice worked as a soft crust, and above it was the perfectly firm custard that gently yielded to the pressure of our spoons. It was a complete success, with a touch of divine apparition.

But as much as this success made me proud, there is the dark side of this story. A week later, I decided to make the rice cake again for friends, and I had the gumption to add my "personal touch" by cutting the original amount of sugar and substituting rum with bourbon. I mixed the ingredients quickly, distractedly, arrogantly–leaving some unbroken lumps of egg white in the custard ("It'll work fine"), and threw the cake into the oven. When it finally came out, an unsettling feeling grabbed the pit of my stomach, telling me that the gods of Italian food had decided to punish my insolence. The surface was not as caramelized as the first time, and the lumps of egg white had solidified independently into an unappealing reminder of scrambled eggs. When I finally tasted the cake (in the company of my guests, no less), I had to admit to myself with great shame that the bourbon was almost undetectable, and that the lack of sugar had allowed the eggs to dominate in flavor. It was a half sweet, eggy frittata with a base of lumpy rice, a grotesque imitation that filled me with shame and my guests with useless cholesterol.

I apologized to my friends and family for the botched rice cake, and then closed myself into my confessional pantry—my altar to Italian food—and promised to never again take lazy initiatives with perfect Italian classics. No rash substitutions, no presumptuous subtractions, no distractions. Just humble, grateful respect. And you, reader, should do the same.

Read about another of my baking fails in Happy Easter, Bitter Memories.
Torta di riso alla Carrarina - Tuscan rice cake with rum and custard
A slice of the good torta di riso.


1/2 C short-grain white rice (Arborio or Carnaroli, but I used sushi rice and it worked fine)
5 eggs
1 1/4 C sugar + a tbsp for dusting the pan
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 lemon (zest and juice)
2 C whole milk
1/3 C rum
a pinch of salt

  • Cook the rice in 2 cups of lightly-salted water for no more than 10 minutes. Rice should be al dente. 
  • Drain the rice and let cool.
  • Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  • Butter a 10'' cake mold and dust it with sugar.
  • In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest and juice, milk, and rum. Use a spoon for this, and make sure all of the egg white is broken to avoid a scrambled-egg top (no big lumps, just very small patches).
  • Add the rice to the mix. It will be very liquid.
  • Pour the mixture into the cake mold.
  • Carefully transfer the cake into the oven, and bake for one hour, or until custard has set and looks brûlée like in the picture above (do not skip the browning!). If you're using a glass mold, it will take you up to 90 minutes.
Serve cake lukewarm or at room temperature, or the next day (it really shines after resting for a bit).


  1. Hi! how do you store it - in the fridge or at room temp? And how long will it keep? Mine has just come out of the oven - I made it with demerara sugar as I had run out of granulated white, and so it turned out a little darker than yours, but the smell is to die for, and I'll have a hard time waiting until tomorrow morning's breakfast :)

    thank you for a super easy recipe! will keep you posted on the taste test ;)

  2. (scusa, so' tonta, anche se sono abbonata ai tuoi post mica mi ricordavo che sei italiana. Perdona la sbrodolata anglofona. E dimmi per piacere se devo tenere la torta in frigo oppure no ;)

    1. No figurati! Anche perche' la sbrodolata anglofona era perfetta e non mi sarei mai accorta che eri italiana. Cmq la torta va benissimo in frigo!! Ciao e grazie!

    2. Ottimo! E fammi sapere come va! (Cmq, ripensandoci, il fatto che sia più scura non dovrebbe essere un problema. Quella che mangiavo in Toscana era anche più "brûlée" della mia!)

  3. Ciao Giuliana,

    stavo cercando una sagoma per fare il San Martino per il mio bimbo e sono capitata sul tuo blog. Sembrerebbe che abitiamo nello stesso posto e veniamo dallo stesso posto! Mi piacerebbe conoscerti, ma non riesco a capire come contattarti. Non vorrei mettere in piazza tutte le mie informazioni. Forse e` perche' e` mezzanotte e sono stanca, ma non trovo un indirizzo email. Come posso fare? Laura

    PS: Il tuo blog e` bellissimo!

    1. Ciao Laura! Fantastico! Anche tu a Washington?? Grazie per il commento e per avermi ricordato che San Martino è alle porte. Di nuovo mi tocca ricalcare dallo schermo del laptop!

      L'indirizzo email non lo trovi perché non c'è. Cmq puoi scrivermi qui: lajules(at)gmail(dot)com

    2. Ti scrivo e ti spedisco anche un link per trovare una sagoma stampabile.