Let’s Twist Again – Torta allo Yogurt Farcita

When I started this blog, I knew very little about baking. Obviously there had been a muffin disaster here and there and even an occasional somewhat ok cake. Yet in general me and flours didn’t really mingle on a very regular basis. Hence the very moderate baking skills.

One thing that I knew even less about than baking was Italian baking. Obviously I am still far from an expert (or even at a point when my success rate would clearly be above 50%) but I have seen an almost exponential increase in my experience due to my little blogging adventures. Based on those, I have learned that the fantastic Italian way of utilising little tricks to add to the flavour also applies to baking. At the outset many recipes seem fairly similar to their Finnish counterparts but there is usually always a little twist (or two) that takes the outcome to the next culinary level!

In today’s recipe the twist lies in yogurt that – combined with the lemon zest – gives the cake a lovely fresh yet rich flavour. My own little additional twist to the recipe was to add some blueberries on top of the cake which worked fabulously.

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Yogurt Cake

For the cake:

3 eggs

200 g sugar

1 small package of plain yogurt (~150 – 200 g)

210 g flour

zest of one (preferably organic) lemon

70 ml corn oil (or rapeseed oil)

1.5 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

For the filling:

200 g cream cheese

2 tbsp plain yogurt

200 ml (double) cream

40 g sugar

20 g powdered sugar

Start by preparing the cake. In a bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar (with an electric mixer) until you have obtained a light-coloured mixture (with some small bubbles on top). Stir in the oil, lemon zest and yogurt. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Start adding the flour mixture into the rest of the cake dough in moderate quantities whilst mixing until the dough has a nice, smooth, non-lumpy texture. Pour the dough into a cake tin (buttered and floured) with a diameter of about 26 cm. Bake in the oven at 160C for about 30 minutes.

When waiting for the cake to bake, you can prepare the filling. Whip the cream with the sugar (by using an electric mixer) in a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the cheese with the yogurt and powdered sugar. Add the whipped cream into the mixture and continue to mixing (carefully) to achieve a smooth filling. Place the bowl in a fridge.

Let the cake cool down. Cut it into two halves (lengthways). Spread the filling onto one of the halves and place the other half on top of it. Decorate with powdered sugar (and e.g. fresh berries if you like) and serve.

A Classic Twist – Banana Bread

There is one pastry that I remember having at almost every family gathering of my father’s side throughout my childhood: a banana cake. Apparently the recipe originated from a Canadian exchange student who visited my Dad’s family in the 1960s, and my relatives were hooked from the very first bite (or something like that – I wasn’t born yet)! It certainly is a nice cake although it is a bit hard to objectively rate a dessert that epitomizes your family coffee breaks of several decades, isn’t it?

I have never dared to try that recipe myself yet which – considering my very varying degrees of success when it comes to baking – may be a good idea. However, instead I found a neat, easy and baking-foolproof recipe with a nice Italian twist (i.e. ricotta) from Benedetta Parodi’s book Mettiamoci a cucinare. In this recipe, the softness and sweetness of the bananas is very nicely balanced with the freshness of the accompanying ricotta sauce and crunchiness of the walnuts. I have made this cake a few times now and even if it is yet to become a true family classic, it has also already won over fans of several generations!

Banana Bread

Serves 4-6

For the cake:

3 bananas

250 g flour

150 g sugar

100 g walnuts

80 g butter

75 g ricotta

2 eggs

1 small cup of coffee

½ tsp bicarbonate (of soda)

½ tsp cinnamon

a pinch of nutmeg

salt

For the sauce:

250 g ricotta

50 ml maple leaf syrup

Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl: The flour, sugar, bicarbonate, chopped walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. In another bowl, squash the bananas and add and mix in the ricotta, eggs, butter and coffee. Combine the ingredients of the two bowls and stir moderately (the dough should be lumpy). Pour the dough into a narrow rectangular cake tin (buttered or lined with a parchment paper), and bake it in the oven at 180C for about half an hour. Prepare the accompanying sauce by mixing together the ricotta and maple leaf syrup. Serve the cake with the sauce.

The Heavy Weight Champion – Torta di Limone

As I think I mentioned earlier, in addition to my more and less successful cooking adventures in my own kitchen, I recently also took a series of Italian cooking classes. And I certainly learned a lot! Now I am more familiar with the culinary differences between different Italian regions and have a nice collection of fab recipes from many of them. I also discovered that with my limited patience I am not a big fan of making fresh pasta – at least if it doesn’t include any filling (poor effort/ added flavour ratio compared to nice dry pasta IMO). And to my utter amazement I concluded that my baking skills really are improvable!

In fact I might go as far as to suggest that I am finally over my trauma of torta della nonna as I think I now know what went wrong. When making a custard containing eggs/ egg yolks, you need at least 10-15 minutes of stirring it on a low heat for it to thicken. This same gem of information is needed with today’s recipe (one from my cooking classes): an Italian lemon pie. I have eaten different versions of this pie before and it has long been one of my favourites. I’m not even sure which country can actually claim to be the originator of this splendido concept of combining a hearty crust with a fresh lemon custard filling and a smooth meringue topping. However, I can safely say that this is certainly the best one out of the wonderful bunch of lemon pies that I have ever eaten.

The secrets of this recipe are very simple: gigantic quantities of butter and sugar. Yet due to the freshness of lemon, there is a lightness of flavour in this pie even though it probably contains more calories than… well, than you really care to think. On the other hand, although this pie tastes simply fantastic, it is so heavy that it is quite challenging to consume it without a considerable group of sweet teeth available. Hence, since my household is fairly limited in its size, the pie that I made this time ended up making quite an impressive and successful tour around Helsinki area by visiting five different locations before it was finally completely eaten..!

Lemon Pie

Serves: Many (depending on the size of their sweet teeth)

For the crust:

250 g flour

200 g butter

2 tbsp sugar

3 tbsp lemon juice

~1 tsp salt

For the custard:

6 egg yolks

125 g sugar

1 tbsp potato starch

150 g butter

2 tsp grated lemon zest

5 tbsp lemon juice

For the meringue topping:

6 egg whites

1 tbsp lemon juice

200 g sugar

salt

Combine the flour, 175 g butter, the sugar, the lemon juice and salt and stir until you have obtained a soft pastry. Leave it to rest for a half hour. On a floured surface, roll out the pastry to a circle about 0.5 cm thick. Move it into a pie dish/ mold so that the sides of the pastry are about 3 cm high. Melt the rest of the butter and pour it onto the pastry. Cover it with a piece of parchment paper and add some dried peas/ beans/ lentils on top of the paper. Bake in the oven at 200C for 15 minutes. Take the crust out of the oven and remove the parchment paper and the dried peas/ beans/ lentils. Return the crust into the oven and continue baking it for another ~10 minutes. Let it cool down.

Prepare the custard: mix the egg yolks with the potato starch and the sugar in a saucepan. Combine the butter (in small pieces), the lemon zest and lemon juice. Place the pan on a medium heat and stir continuously until the custard thickens (it can take 10-15 minutes). Remove it from the heat and once slightly cooled down, pour it onto the pie crust.

Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt and the lemon juice until you have obtained “soft peaks”. Add the sugar and continue whisking a little bit until the mixture is smooth and easy and firm enough to apply on top of the pie. Bake the pie in the oven at 225C for about 10 minutes until the meringue has obtained a golden colour.

Twinkle Michelin Star – Fondente al Cioccolato Speziato con Gelato di More E Zenzero

I don’t understand what happened with Christmas this year.

I do know that it has a tendency to sneak up on you but this time it seems as if it was even slier than usual and very quietly crept behind my back and then suddenly yelled loudly “Hello – here I am again!!!” only a few days ago.

I had all these big plans for this Christmas season. I was going to send all those Christmas cards that I always forget to send. And this time even on time. I was going to clean my floors so spotless and shiny that they would serve as spare mirrors if needed. And obviously I was going to cook all sorts of Italian Christmas dishes and write very expertly about them.

But then something unexplainable happened and as a result, the quantity of Christmas cards sent and Italian Christmas dishes tested is now zero whereas the amount of spots on my floors is not currently publicly disclosable.

However, although I hence don’t currently have any Italian Christmas classics – such as panettone – at my disposal for blogging, I do have a very worthy substitute recipe with fittingly Christmassy flavours. The recipe is also related to stars – even though in this case they are Michelin (and TV) ones.

It orignates from another Italian cookbook “Via Emilia, via da casa” I recently bought. It is authored by an Italian celebrity chef called Bruno Barbieri. His restaurants earlier earned seven Michelin stars in total. More recently he has been starring in many TV cooking shows (such as MasterChef Italia).

Many of Bruno’s recipes in the book look fabulous but unfortunately many of them are also too challenging to test in Helsinki due to their very special ingredients. However, this dessert was a fantastic exception with the Christmassy twist as I mentioned. There are quite a few flavours in it but they work superbly together!

So I suppose all the remains to be written this time (accompanied by a solid intention to investigate different Italian traditions for New Year next week…) is:

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all!

Spiced Dark Chocolate with Blackberry Ice Cream And Ginger

Serves 4

For the chocolate:

100 g dark chocolate

1 tbsp sugar

100 ml milk

100 ml cream

1 small dried red chilli

1 cinnamon stick

2 cloves

2 seeds of cardamom

fresh ginger

For the ice cream:

ice cream (home made or not)

2 punnets of blackberries

1 glass of sweet Lambrusco wine

2 tbsp sugar

zest of one orange

For the chocolate: In a kettle, gently heat the milk without boiling it and add the sugar and all the spices. Mix and remove the kettle from the heat. Leave to infuse for 3-4 hours. After that, filter the spiced milk through a strainer. Move the milk back to the kettle with the cream. Heat well, then switch off the heat and add the crumbled chocolate. Remove the kettle from the heat and stir well until the chocolate has melted into the mixture. Cool the sauce down in the room temperature.

For the ice cream: Rinse and clean the blackberries. Move them to a pan with the Lambrusco wine, sugar and orange zest and cook for 7-8 minutes. Filter the sauce and let it cool down. Combine the sauce with the ice cream.

Presentation: Spoon some chocolate sauce into a glass. Add a scoop of the blackberry ice cream on top and sprinkle with grated fresh ginger.

Cold Chocolate – Torta al Cioccolato

Some days are perfect for cooking. Whereas some certainly not.

Today is one of the latter. I have a terrible cold and a congested nose and feel like just sitting on my couch and being grumpy. Hence I decided to skip cooking this evening and go for a Chinese take-away instead. I had never tried my local Chinese restaurant earlier and I think it is somewhat unlikely that I will do that again in the near future. The place was completely empty and almost as soon as I had placed my order, I could hear the sound of a microwave oven humming in the background. And I’m quite certain that the food I got would be considered some kind of a criminal offense at least in Italy.

So today is definitely not about culinary experiences. However, I can browse my new Italian cookbook (by an Italian celebrity chef called Bruno Barbieri), and reminisce about earlier successful baking projects (yes, I think I can use plural by now) in my kitchen.

One of them is this fantastically easy yet delizioso chocolate cake that I made a few weeks ago. I got its recipe from “Le Ricette della Prova del Cuoco“. I served the cake with some vanilla ice cream although it is quite fab also on its own. Hmmm, in fact, this cake is so nice that I am sure that it is bound to have medicinal qualities. Maybe I should consider baking today after all..?

Chocolate Cake

Serves 6

125 g dark chocolate

100 g butter

100 g sugar

4 eggs

40 g flour

salt

Melt the chocolate together with the butter, 70 g sugar and a pinch of salt in a bain marie (i.e. a water bath/ double-boiler).

Combine three egg whites with the remaining sugar and whisk them until stiff.

Remove the chocolate mixture from the heat, add three egg yolks and one entire egg and stir for a few minutes. Add the flour (sieved) and the beaten egg whites. Mix with a spoon gently until you have a uniform batter. Pour the mixture into a cake tin (greased and floured or lined with a parchment paper) and bake in the oven at 180C for about 20 minutes (when there are cracks on the surface, the cake is ready).

I Found My (Baking) Skill, on Blueberry Hill – Crostata di Mirtilli

Yes, I did it! After more than six months of food blogging, I finally managed to make a pie presentable enough to share it as a recommended success story rather than as a warning example. Not sure what my secret was this time. Maybe it was the foolproof (and very simple) recipe of my new book “Voglia di Cucinare“. Or maybe the encouraging moral support of my friend who also took the flattering picture of the dish above.

I had my moments of self-doubt, desperation and slight panic this time too though – most notably when the filling didn’t seem to thicken as needed. However, my baker friend calmly advised me that actually it is normal for a pie filling to be a bit too mushy and runny when taking it out of the oven and that it will obtain its more solid form after cooling down for some hours or until the next day. Miraculously, that is also what happened in this case, and in addition, the flavour of the pie improved over night.

There are plenty of Finnish versions of blueberry pies too but the really nice twists of this Italian one originate from the ricotta cheese of the crust and almonds and hazelnuts in the filling. Yumtastic!

Blueberry Pie

150 g flour

150 g soft ricotta cheese

150 g butter

2-3 tbsp hazel nuts, chopped

750 g blueberries

pinch of salt

For the filling:

2.5 dl double cream

2 eggs

30 g sugar

30 g almond flakes

pinch of cinnamon

Combine the flour, ricotta, butter and pinch of salt and mix until you have a smooth dough. Place the dough into a refrigerator to cool for 30 minutes.

Roll the dough into a thin round with the diameter of about 4 cm longer than in your cake/ pie tin.

Grease the tin and add the rolled dough. Sprinkle with the hazelnuts. Clean the blueberries and place them onto the pie crust in the tin.

Beat the eggs in a bowl and mix in the sugar, almond flakes, cream and pinch of cinnamon. Pour the mixture onto the blueberries. Bake in the oven at 225C for 15-20 minutes.

The Fruity Mystery – Macedonia di Anna

After a few weeks of fintastic and italovely holidays, I’m back in the kitchen office again! Yes, I did spend a week in Italy too and now my mind is buzzing with new ideas on recipes to try. You can expect me to get quite a bit of inspiration from this pile of souvenirs within the next months too:
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I’m especially quite proud of this apron that I bought (ok, maybe there is a teeny bit of photoshopping included in the picture…):

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Anyway, prior to getting my hands on my fabulous new cookbooks, let’s continue with something simple to celebrate the strawberry season i.e. a fruit salad. The Italian word for fruit salad (macedonia) is somewhat baffling. Why not insalata di frutta like in all the other four languages that I know? Apparently the theory is that this word really refers to the country Macedonia and it originates from the time when the area was populated by different people (such as Albanians, Greek and Armenians in addition to the Macedonians). During that period, someone felt that drawing an analogy between a fruit salad and Macedonia would make sense as both consisted of different “pieces”. My 21st century Finnish logic may fail to see the ingenuity in this comparison but I suppose that would really be beside the point…

The recipe I’m sharing today is actually my own which I have been making during the strawberry season for quite a few years now. As far as I remember, I invented this “from scratch” but interestingly enough the first Italian recipe I glanced today seems to include almost all the elements of my recipe. Well, Italian or Finnish – does it really matter as long as you ensure that you enjoy the fabulous fruits and berries of the season?

Fruit Salad with Strawberries

Serves 4

1 liter fresh strawberries

2-3 nectarines

1 chunk of melon of your choice

juice of 1 lemon

fresh mint, chopped

icing sugar

Peel and slice the fruits and strawberries and mix them with the lemon juice. Add fresh mint and sprinkle icing sugar to your taste. This fruit salad is even more flavoursome and juicy if you store it in the fridge for a few hours before serving.

The Peach Party – Pesche Noci Grigliate

Summer has arrived in Helsinki! Each year it surprises me how fast the weather changes from the freezing stupid winter to the beautiful full bloom of the fabulous May and it is fantastic to see my fellow often grumpy citizens of Helsinki to actually raise a spontaneous smile. Yes, I am not exactly a fan of all four seasons (another motive for my Italian studies in addition to the fantastic cooking) so this time of the year makes me almost lyrical. However, as my talents for writing poems are at least as well hidden as my baking skills, I’d better focus on today’s recipe now and channel my inner Yeats at another time.

Right. In addition to the changes in weather, another thing that surprises me each year is re-discovering how much more fun cooking gets when you suddenly have a lot broader and tastier range of fresh fruit, berries and veggies at your disposal. It also makes cooking easier since you do not need to resort to all sorts of gimmicks (and sometimes even desperate pleas) to bring out the flavour of your ingredients. Today’s recipe is one example of that simplicity. It is from an Italian food blog. I discovered this dish when I was looking for a dessert and noticed that fresh peaches had arrived in my supermarket. I am not a very big dessert person but this one certainly hit the spot! Rosemary and vanilla were two perfect companions to complement the flavour of the peaches and mascarpone gave the dish a creamy finishing touch. I didn’t manage to halve the peaches as instructed in the blog (apparently mine were mostly too ripe) but since this wasn’t a baking assignment, I didn’t panic but sliced them into a tin foil instead. The end result may in fact have been even nicer since this way the sugars and the juice of the peaches formed a tasty sauce during grilling.

Grilled Peaches

Serves 4

4 peaches

250 g mascarpone

Granulated sugar flavoured with vanilla (or cane sugar/ granulated sugar and vanilla sugar)

Fresh rosemary

A knob of butter

Maple syrup

Rinse the peaches and dry them well. Halve them and remove their pits (in case you fail, like I did, you can also just slice them but obviously still remove the pits; after this, move them onto a tin foil). Add the sugar into the holes of the peach halves previously occupied by the pits (or sprinkle it onto the slices). Press a sprig of rosemary into the central part of the peach halves (or the slices).

In a bowl, mix the mascarpone with the maple syrup to your taste and store the mixture in a fridge.

Heat a grill and melt the butter gently on its surface/ grill pan (obviously no need for this step if you are using the tin foil). Put the peach halves onto the grill with their sugary side facing the grill and press them gently for a few minutes (in case of slices, wrap the tin foil and move it to the grill). The peaches are ready when the sugar has been caramelised (in case of slices, grill for some minutes; the end result will be peaches with a sauce rather than caramelised peaches). Serve immediately with the flavoured mascarpone.

Creamy Calories – Panna Cotta al Pistacchio

One of the side effects of learning Italian is that it brings new meanings to Italian dishes that I have eaten before. Take panna cotta for example which I always found a nice and fresh dessert. Well, when I realised that it actually translates as “cooked cream”, suddenly the image of its freshness evaporated as fast as my dreams of winning the Great Finnish Bake Off.

On the other hand, now that any illusions regarding the lightness of panna cotta have been cleared up, why not go full monty (I have no idea if you are supposed to use this phrase this way but it sounds funny; in case not, I apologise…) and throw calorie counting out of the window of my Helsinki apartment all the way to Stockholm. In fact, this recipe (from the March edition of La Cucina Italiana) with pistachios and white chocolate probably includes the annual energy intake of your average Hollywood star. However, I did reduce the amount of cream of this recipe though by substituting some of it with milk and I think you could quite safely use 450 g milk and 150 g double cream (instead of 150 g milk and 450 g double cream).

There were a couple of practical challenges when making this dish. Firstly, I did not manage to find any pistachio paste in Helsinki. Fortunately the cooking site Giallo Zafferano came to my rescue with a separate recipe for the paste. Secondly, as I am still in the planning phase of buying new batteries to my kitchen scale, I failed to estimate the amount of gelatine correctly. Hence, I ended up with a dessert which was served as a custard rather than a cool, pretty and sophisticated “loaf” as in the picture of the magazine. It was quite delicious nevertheless!

Pistachio panna cotta

Serves 6

450 g double cream

150 g full fat milk

150 g (caster) sugar

120 g white chocolate

80 g pistachio paste

9 g gelatine sheets

crumbled pistachios

Soak the gelatine in cold water. Heat the milk, 300 g of the cream (or alternatively just 450 g milk in total) and the sugar in a pan but do not bring the mixture to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Squeese the excess water from the gelatine sheets. Add the gelatine and pistachio paste to the pan. Stir well and let the mixture cool down and filter it.

Whip 150 g cream. Add it to the mixture, stir gently and pour it into a rectangular cake/ bread loaf pan (to achieve that loaf-like shape). Put the panna cotta into the fridge for at least 3 hours.

For the chocolate topping: melt 100 g of the white chocolate in a bain marie. Remove from the heat and add 20 g of the chocolate. Spread the warm melted chocolate on a parchment paper. Sprinkle the crumbled pistachios on top. Once the chocolate has cooled down and “re-frozen”, cut different shapes of it to decorate the panna cotta.

Pistachio paste

120 g unsalted pistachios

60 g sugar

14 g water

Shell the pistachios and gently roast them on a pan to remove the brown thin peel of them (as much as possible). Blend the pistachios into a small crumble. Heat the water and sugar in a pan and bring them to a boil of 121C degrees. Pour the hot mixture onto the crumbled pistachio and blend again until you have reached smooth(ish) paste.

Piegones – Torta della Nonna

Sometimes I never cease to amaze myself. I had one of those moments last weekend.

In the field of baking, my success rate is about 50 percent when I try new recipes. In addition, although I tend to be fairly optimistic by nature, I have learned in life that if you hand Mr. Murphy a chance on a silver platter (or should I say a baking tray), he will usually grab it. So, I really don’t know what I was thinking when I offered to make this pie called torta della nonna to my Dad for his birthday. Obviously I had never tried it before. And obviously I still have no confidence issues in baking although some firemen might beg to differ.

It all started quite beautifully. I was even quite proud of the smooth pastry I managed to make. Then something got lost in translation or possibly in the recipe. What I or my recipe (from “Oggi Cucino Io 4”) missed was the mention of the custard properly thickening before pouring it onto the pastry.

At this point, I called my parents to start considering alternative sources for birthday treats this year:

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Yet, being that optimist (or maybe in this case stubborn), I still refused to give up, cleaned up the mess and transferred what was left of the pie into the oven. What came out wasn’t an entire disaster. It had very little to do with torta della nonna, so maybe I will name this one torta di Anna instead. Torta di Anna had two layers of crust each followed by a layer of the custard. As there was no top crust available to add almonds on (as advised in my recipe), I roasted some afterwards and placed them on the ready pie. My mother told me that with the added help of some strawberry preservative, it was even nicer.

I am quite sure though that if I had managed to follow the nonna‘s advice as intended, this would have been a bigger success. Have a try yourself and let me know how it goes! Finally here is one example what it was supposed to look like…

Torta della Nonna

Serves 8-10

For the pastry:

300 g flour

100 g sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

150 g butter

1 egg yolk

1 egg

salt

For the custard:

5 eggs

120 g sugar

75 g flour

5 dl milk

1 vanilla pod

1 slice of lemon peel

salt

To decorate

almonds

icing sugar

Prepare the pastry for the crust: Sieve the flour into a bowl and mix it with the sugar, salt and baking powder. Add the cold butter (sliced into small chunks) and rub it into the dry ingredients until you have obtained a granular even mixture. Add the egg yolk and the eggs and continue working on the pastry for a few more minutes. Divide the ready pastry into two different-sized parts (one slightly larger than the other). Roll each out to circles about 3 mm thick and place them on two sheets of parchment paper. Move the parchment papers with the pastry into a fridge.

Prepare the custard: Whisk 2 egg yolks (keep the egg whites for later use) and 3 entire eggs with the sugar and a pinch of salt until smooth. Add the flour and stir well. In a kettle, bring the milk to a boil with the vanilla pod and lemon peel. Take the kettle of the heat and pour the milk into the egg and sugar mixture continuously stirring. Move the mixture back to the hot stove and cook for one minute still continuously mixing (as mentioned, at this point the sauce should (hopefully) thicken but yet please be careful not to exceed the time any more than necessary as you may also end up with scrambled eggs instead of a lovely custard…). Remove your custard from the stove and let it cool down stirring occasionally.

Move the larger part of the pastry together with its parchment paper into a pie dish to line its base and sides. Pour the custard onto first part of the pastry. Slightly fold the sides of the pastry to cover the custard, and brush the sides with the egg whites (mixed with a small quantity of water). Add the top layer of the pastry to the pie and fold its sides behind the bottom layer of the pastry. Decorate with the almonds. Bake in the oven at 180C for 45 minutes whilst ensuring that the pie won’t burn on top. Cool down for at least 15 minutes and dust the pie with some icing sugar before serving.