Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Torta Caprese

A food stylist would have removed
the crumbs. The yummy crumbs.
If the slice of torta caprese that I had on Capri wasn’t my first one, it was certainly a memorable one. There I was, sheltered under a tree on the patio of a trattoria, ready for something to eat and drink. We paired it with espresso, which is a wholly non-Italian thing to do, but the Italians aren’t sticklers in matter of food and drink. Its possible that it was my first piece of torta caprase, since it probably falls into the category of “Italian desserts that don’t show up much in American restaurants.”

There are hundreds of Italian desserts—dolci—but the same ones keep showing up on the menus of Italian restaurants again and again. There’s always the tiramisu, which (according to Wikipedia) isn’t terribly old. Then again, neither is torta caprese, which seems to be another invention of the twentieth century. One site notes that none of its ingredients are specific to Capri. The principal ingredient—chocolate—is foreign to Italy. (Wikipeida notes that Italy produces about 110,000 metric tons of almonds per year, but Italy is not among the countries where the cacao tree is grown.)

If I wanted to go for actual obscure Italian desserts, I could go for torta di riso, the traditional Italian rice cake of northern Italy. Repeated Internet searches show that it seems to be rising out of its former obscurity; only a few years ago, the only sites referencing it were in Italian, now I find many sites in English providing recipes for one variant or another of this dish. Unlike tiramisu or torta caprese, torta di riso is a true family dish, and one that I’ve been meaning to write about since I started this blog. (I’ll get to it.) But my most recent Italian dessert has been torta caprese.

A few years ago, while preparing for Passover, I was stuck on the idea of what to make for dessert. Traditional cakes won’t cut it (since you can’t use flour), and I really don’t like Passover cakes (made with matzoh meal or potato starch). The thought hit me of making a nut cake, and there are lots of good recipes for cakes made with nut meal instead of flour. That took me to almond cake, and I found plenty of recipes, mostly Italian, for almond cake. I was one step away from torta caprese.

It’s a flourless chocolate cake. Almond or hazelnut meal forms the body of the cake, and it gets it lift from beaten egg whites. It’s a fairly easy recipe and though it works on Passover, it’s perfect for just about any other occasion as well. Every year, I find myself thinking, “this year, I’ll make something else,” but I always end up making the torta caprese. It’s an easy dish.

I use a recipe that I found online from Gourmet magazine. They’re all basically the same: almond meal (or you can pulverize blanched almonds in a food processor), chocolate, butter, sugar, and eggs (which are separated because you get your minimal loft from egg whites).

Torta Caprese — Chocolate Almond Cake
1¾ sticks unsalted butter
7 ounces almonds (either almond meal or blanched then ground)
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar

Confectioners’ sugar
Whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350°.
Butter a 10-in cake pan, line bottom with wax paper or parchment, and then butter paper.

Melt butter and cool. Grind chocolate and almonds together in a food processor. Separate eggs.

Beat yolks with granulated sugar until thick and pale. Beat in the almond/chocolate mixture and the butter.

In a separate bowl with clean beaters, beat the whites with a pinch of salt until they just hold stiff peaks. Whisk one fourth into the batter. Fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly and spread finished batter evenly in pan.

Bake in the center of the oven for 50 minutes, or until it begins to pull away from the side of the pan and a toothpick comes out with moist crumbs. Cool for 5 minutes then invert onto another rack. Discard paper and let torte cool completely.

Prior to serving, dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve with whipped cream.
The result is a somewhat dense, but moist and flavorful chocolate cake. It’s an easy recipe to make, and its well worth the effort. I'd serve it with a glass of ice-cold limoncello.
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