Torta di Mele – An apple cake and sweet comfort!

I know the turbulence created by the political elections lately here in the United States has been hard and difficult to beat down no matter what the results you were hoping for, but if I asked you for one short afternoon to forget it all and bake away merrily…will you do so?

My mother’s apple cake, or torta di mele, is a classic and quite simple. Yet like all simple things, it is difficult to get right and easy to mess up. I became obsessed with recreating the flavors and textures of my mother’s cake as I remember those afternoons when I would return home from school to find a beautiful fluffy, yet buttery cake chock full of sweet apples! I know that memories distort things more than a bit, but I remember this cake to be wonderously wide (maybe 12 inches!?), three inch high, and light and airy – enormous! With my teenage hunger in full gear, I would easily pack away three slices. Since then it has been difficult to reproduce the same lightness as the cakes my mother used to bake in Rome. When she came to the States, she had to recalibrate the recipe and I never succeeded until now. After much discussion, we decided that several things were different, essential ingredients such as the butter, the flour, the leavening, even the apples! And so we went from the original recipe from the quintessential Italian cookbook Il Talismano della Felicità by Ada Boni to the rough notes in my mother’s hand to the version I have below.

What I have here to share with you is the result of some tinkering with the basic recipe to produce a very satisfactory result. Begin with some good apples, sweet and juicy. I tried several kinds, but ended up with the Golden Delicious as my favorite because they remained juicy, yet still somewhat tangy when cooked. Notice I suggest Crisco or vegetable shortening to lighten the butter and I used potato starch, a basic in Italian baking, to produce a fluffier cake.

Torta di Mele della Nonna

Yield: Makes one 9-inch round cake

INGREDIENTS

3-4 Golden Delicious apples – peeled and cored

7 tablespoons room temperature unsalted butter (5 tbl. for the cake, 2 tbl. for greasing the pan)

2 tablespoons Crisco or vegetable shortening 

¾ cup sugar

3 eggs (room temperature)

¼ cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup all-purpose flour or Italian flour tipo 00

1/4 cup potato starch flour

¼ teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

Powdered sugar as needed to decorate

EQUIPMENT

1 (9 x 3) inch round springform pan (non-stick works well)

Parchment paper (optional)

Stand mixer with  2 bowls, two other small bowls to hold ingredients

Spatula

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Heat the oven to 350°F and prep the 9 inch round springform pan. If you do not have a non-stick pan, it is best to place a parchment disk at the bottom of the pan. Use 2 tbl. to grease the bottom of the pan and sides. 

2. Organize your ingredients according to how you will use them.

I know, I know…this looks like organized chaos!! This is not publicity for Morton Salt…oops.
  • Sift the dry ingredients (the flours, the baking powder, and the salt) in a small bowl.
  • Separate the eggs, the yolks in a small bowl and the whites in a mixing bowl.
  • Peel and core the apples. If you want more fruit, more “appley” cake, use 4 apples, or if you like more cake, use 3. Cut 2 or 3 apples laterally and thinly. The other two apples, cut lengthwise. These will be used for the decoration on top.
  • Place the butter and Crisco in the mixing bowl and keep the measured sugar, vanilla, and milk near your mixer.
  • Spread the laterally cut apples evenly on the bottom of the greased pan.

3. Whip the egg whites with the mixer at high speed  until stiff and light. Set aside.

3. Cream the softened butter and the Crisco with the mixer. Add the sugar slowly until the butter mixture and sugar are light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time and the vanilla.  Then gently  add the four, slowly mixing. The mixture will be very thick. Add the milk to loosen it up a bit. Then by hand, gently fold the egg whites into the batter with a spatula until they are just incorporated paying attention to not overbeat the batter.

4. Pour the batter into the pan over the laterally cut apples,  using the spatula to smooth the top. Tap the pan gently to release any gaps. Then place the slices of apple in concentric circles tucking each slice inside another and pushing slightly downward in the batter.

5. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the top of the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Baking will vary according to the apples and heat of your oven.

6. Cool on the counter or on a rack for 10-15 minutes. Gently run a butter knife around the edges, then remove the springform circle. Cool completely before sprinkling powdered sugar on the top.

I wish you the joy of making this cake to share with your friends and family. Buon appetito!

Figs! Figs!

“There was an Old Person of Ischia,
Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier;
He danced hornpipes and jigs,
and ate thousands of figs,
That lively Old Person of Ischia.”
Edward Lear (1812-1888)

An English writer known for his ‘literary nonsense’, Lear’s silly limerick captures the moment of where we are today. I have had a bumper crop of figs this year and they keep coming! We keep eating them and finding ways to put them away. All I can say is ….

This Italian expression, not easily translatable in English in a literal way, sums up what enthusiasm we have for anything cool. It is with a certain sense of urgency that I post what I have been cooking with figs as it is September, fig time about to run out. My tree has been most bountiful and the figs keep coming and coming! I’m not too crazy about figs right off the tree, but I do like them when they have matured a bit on the kitchen counter. They seem to pick up in intensity of flavor and versatility. I started the season by experimenting with using figs as an hors d’oeuvre.

This photo was one of the first batches I made this summer. These look a bit of a mess, but other batches came out more bundle-like and neater because I used a full slice of prosciutto.

Barbecued Fig Bundles with Feta and Prosciutto

6-8 ripe figs (I peeled some – others I left intact)

feta (or other cheese of your liking)

8 slices of prosciutto

Make a small slit down the side of the fig and stuff with feta. Wrap the fig in a slice of prosciutto. Do the same for the remaining figs, then massage each with a little olive oil. Place on a heated grill basket and barbecue for a few minutes until the prosciutto begins to soften. Remove right away or they will stick to the grill and fall apart. Serve warm with a little drizzle of honey (optional). These bundles are delicious as a side dish to grilled meats and, I have found, delicious the next day as leftovers. I really like the different flavors – the salty from the prosciutto and feta, the sweetness of the figs. And they are so quick to make!

Another fig recipe that I have been toying with are small individual foccacce with figs such as these I made a few weeks ago.

I had seen the idea on my favorite magazine La Cucina Italiana and thought I could adapt it using ingredients readily available in my kitchen. I used the frozen Bridgford Ready-Dough as a base, thawed and worked it a bit, then cut it into mini pizza sized discs. I put it on a lightly oiled parchment paper, cut the figs as shown below. I added a little honey for sweetness, a very light drizzle of olive oil, let the focacce rise, and put them in a 400 degree oven for 15-20 minutes.

They came out fragrant and delicious, perfect for an appetizer with cheese.

You can experiment with the concept as I did by tucking some blue cheese under the fig to give it a bit more kick. One of my favorite testers, Luca, my youngest son suggested that using a made-from-scratch focaccia dough might be even more flavorful and a bit crunchier. All points well taken as I will make this again and again as I have figs on the tree.

In my adventures working with figs, I tried a Fig Meringue Semifreddo as a birthday cake for my oldest son, Alex. Again I was inspired by a recipe offered by La Cucina Italiana, but I adapted all of the ingredients because I can’t find the same here.

Fig Meringue Semifreddo Cake

Individual meringues purchased (about 22 depending on size)

Frozen Pound Cake (I used the Sara Lee brand) – half of the package, cut in 1/2 inch slices

2 cups heavy whipping cream

2 egg whites

1/4 cup sugar

1/4-1/2 cup grenadine

12-14 figs

  1. Take 4-5 of your more mature figs (I peeled them lightly) and mash them with a fork. Add some sugar if you like. Set aside.
  2. Whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of sugar until firm and stiff. In a separate bowl whip the heavy cream until it too has stiff peaks. I added another bit of sugar, but not too much. Then add the mashed figs by gently folding into the whipped cream with a spatula. Add the egg whites and gently fold into the mixture.
  3. Cut a round of parchment paper and place at the bottom of a springform pan. Arrange about 10-11 meringues on the bottom. Take the remaining figs, peeled and cut in half, and place them against the side of the pan.
  4. Add half of the cream/fig mixture and smooth to form the first layer of the cake. Place the pound cake slices on top of the cream layer to form another layer and drizzle the grenadine all over it.
  5. Add the rest of the cream mixture and smooth the surface. Place the remaining meringues on top. Cover with foil and place in the freezer for at least 4 hours.
  6. When you are ready to serve it, take the cake out of the freezer and let it warm a bit until it is easy to handle. Add a few more fresh figs for garnish if you like!

The cake held up well even the next day. Interesting flavors and very good! Speaking of interesting flavors, I was intrigued by Domenica Marchetti’s Brandied Fig and Chocolate Crostata from the June/July issue of Fine Cooking magazine. Oh my! I highly recommend you check it out here

A very delicious conclusion to my adventures in cooking with figs! The chocolate crust is rich and very satisfying. It combines unusually well with the brandied fig jam which has chocolate notes in it as well. I made the jam a few days before making the crostata and thought that letting it sit a bit allowed the flavors to mellow. On this note I leave you with some final thoughts about my musings and journeys with figs this September. Even though after all these trials I don’t quite feel that frisky like the Old Person from Ischia, I do want to be reminded that Romans considered figs to be the food of the gods, a hopeful and sweet sign of the bounty of nature and good times ahead.

Strawberry Tiramisu`

If you are a classicist about tiramisu’, stop here and don’t read any further! But if you like an interesting twist on an old favorite, I think I have something for you. I had been toying with an idea of making a strawberry tiramisu` in a cup for a while, but couldn’t find a recipe and an appropriate occasion to serve it. Then voila`! My friend Betty was hosting a bridal shower for her niece and had ordered some cute glasses to give to her guests as favors. A perfect solution! I practiced on my family to find the right combination of fruit, cream, and sweetness and this is what I devised with a little trial and error. This is a dessert you can make in very little time and fuss. Notice there are no egg yolks in this recipe, so it is lightened up a bit. The measurements for the ingredients can vary depending on how many servings  – you can easily make this for two people. I made this for six.

Strawberry Tiramisu`

2 lbs. (or three containers) strawberries hulled and cut/diced finely. Sweeten with a tablespoon of sugar or to your liking. Cover and refrigerate so the strawberries will have time to macerate. Reserve a few whole ones for the garnish.

1 small container mascarpone

1 pint whipping cream

1/2 cup (More or less) sugar

1 package savoiardi (or ladyfingers) – you will probably only use 6-12

1/2 cup (more or less) grenadine syrup

white chocolate (optional)

As the strawberries macerate in the refrigerator, prepare the other layers. Whip the cream with at least two tablespoons of sugar until peaks are firm.

In another bowl whip the mascarpone. You can do this by hand if you have a small quantity. Add a 1/4 cup of the strawberries to make the mascarpone cream turn slightly pink. You can add more to your liking. Sweeten with a few more tablespoons of sugar until it is sweet, but not cloying so.

Divide the whipped cream in two parts. Add one to the mascarpone mixture, the other will be used as the topping. I put the mascarpone cream in a pastry bag to make it easier to fold in the cups.

Then begin the assembly. Place  a tablespoon of strawberries at the bottom of each of the glasses. Then break a savoiardo in half and dip in the grenadine.Place either one or two halves on top of the strawberries. Cover with a swirl of mascarpone cream. Add another layer of strawberries. Top with the whipped cream and garnish with a slice of strawberry and a whispy curl  of white chocolate. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Here I was getting the 24 cups ready for the final touches.

The final touch, a curl of white chocolate and a sliver of strawberry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dessert was a perfect end to a lovely bridal shower luncheon.

A mixed green salad

Egg and cucumber open-faced sandwiches

A fruit salad in a watermelon bowl and a spiralized zucchini salad with a tomato-basil vinaigrette

 

A farro salad – more about this in my next few blogs!

Thin slices of filet mignon and a firecracker grilled salmon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As John Ruskin once said, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”

 

 

Torta Margherita

It has been a long winter correcting papers and essays, away from my blog, fretting until the day I had the time to spend writing for fun. But…but… I never left the kitchen and I am ready to share my adventures again! Over the time I have been away, I have created new dishes, cooked tried and true ones; I have replaced some aging appliances and updated favorite gadgets. I’m all set to go! I succumbed to the popular rage of the Instant Pot and can’t wait to share some of my findings. I thought hard about what recipe to share for my first posting of the summer. Torta Margherita is an easy  re-entry into the food blogosphere. I was reminded of this cake  last week as I browsed the Cucina Italiana website http://www.lacucinaitaliana.it/ricetta/dolci-e-dessert/torta-margherita/#step-1. I was drawn by many memories and a desire to bake it!  A classic homespun Italian cake, its perfume redolent of vanilla and lemon, its texture soft and fluffy, reminds everyone of childhood. Many call it a Genoese sponge, but where it differs from a classic sponge cake, which has no fat, is that the Torta Margherita has  a small amount of melted butter added to the batter. From a simple cake served as is with a little powdered sugar or topped with fruit, to layered with whipped cream, or frosted with chocolate ganache, its versatility makes it a favorite in the Italian kitchen.

I looked around for a good recipe to share with you and alas, once again, some of the hardest recipes to convert from Italian are desserts…particularly cakes!! The reason for this is that most Italian cakes use a leavening called “paneangeli.” It looks like this if you can find it in a well-stocked grocery store like Corti Brothers. Called “bread of angels” it is essentially baking powder with vanilla flavored powder. Really nothing…but not having this little packet has driven me more times than I’d like to remember to say, “aw, forget about it!” and move on.

No more! I have found the exact substitute – forever more, this will never be a problem!

1 packet = 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

 

So here is the recipe that I converted from the Cucina Italiana version which looked the simplest and requiring the least amount of flour and baking time. I’m giving you the Italian version as well if you prefer to work in grams.

Torta Margherita

150 g zucchero semolato                                         ½ cup + 1 Tbl granulated sugar

120 g farina                                                               1 cup flour

50 g burro fuso                                                         ½ cup unsalted butter (melted)

40 g frumina                                                             ¼ cup cornstarch (or potato starch)

6 tuorli                                                                       6 egg yolks

2 uova                                                                         2 eggs

limone                                                                        the peel of I lemon finely grated

vanillina (paneangeli)                                            1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

sale                                                                             ¼ teaspoon salt

powdered sugar (optional)

1.Preheat the oven to 350 °. Prepare a 9 inch round baking pan. For good measure I used parchment on the bottom of the pan, then buttered it and the sides, lightly floured as well. Sift the flour, the cornstarch, and baking powder together and set aside.

2.In a double boiler, place the yolks, the eggs, the salt, and the sugar. Over gentle heat, begin to beat the eggs with a hand mixer for about 5 minutes until the eggs are slightly warm and fluffy. Take it off the heat and continue mixing at medium speed for 10-15 minutes until the egg mixture is thick and pale. The beaters should trail the mixture in a ribbon that holds its shape. Add the grated lemon and vanilla extract. Gently mix.

3. Add the flour mixture, little by little, folding it in carefully with a rubber spatula. Lastly, add the melted butter and gently fold it into the batter. Pour into the prepare pans and bake in the oven for about 30-35 minutes. The surface will spring back when ready. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, pull off the parchment paper and turn it on to a cake rack to cool. Sprinkle the cake with powdered sugar or use in a variety of other ways!

torta-margherita_34464990534_o

 

 

 

A Jewel in June

image_27213458243_o (2)

 

School is out and I am back, eager to return to my blog and share some of my explorations with recipes and food finds! Here is my latest craze – a spectacular upside down cake perfect for a large gathering or potluck (it serves 12 to 19). Taken from one of my favorite sites, the kitchn.com, this recipe is not only visually outstanding, but is delicious as well. I love the glistening jewel tones that the blackberry and nectarines provide. I also threw in some apricots to round out the correct amount of fruit in the recipe. The cake is moist and buttery…it stands out on its own, so I imagine the recipe for the batter should work well with other fruit such as pears…cherries…or even your classical pineapple!

Here’s the link to the recipe:

http://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-blackberry-and-nectarine-upside-down-sheet-cake-232006