I see a lot of sachertorte in Roman pasticceria, but the other day I spotted a torta Caprese in the window of a place that seems to just be called Pasticceria Trastevere. It’s a pasticceria. In Trastevere. Not very imaginative. (Specifically, it’s on Via Natale del Grande 50, opposite the wonderful Cinema America building. Currently Occupato).
It’s not a cake I’ve encountered before, oddly considering I love chocolate cakes. And love cakes made with ground nuts. (And considering even a certain middle-class UK supermarket even does a brand version, I discover now.) My friend Rachel described it – and frankly it sounded much like a sachertorte, but without the apricot jam and chocolate glaze. That is a rich, flourless chocolate cake made with ground almonds.
Now that was something I had to try. And make. Without ever having eaten it before.
I scoured the internet for recipes, mostly in Italian. There seemed to be a some variation, notably in the question of what sort of almonds to use. Some used pre-ground almonds (or farina di mandorle – almond flour), some used blanched almonds that you then ground, others used skin-on almonds that you blanched and peeled yourself (a labour intensive job) before grinding, and others used skin-on almonds, ground as is.
I liked the idea of the latter, not just as it’s less labour intensive, but because the skins add depth of flavour. (Much like I prefer my peanut butter wholenut, not skinned. Even though peanuts aren’t nuts, of course.)
The other key factor with a cake like this is the egg whites. The most important thing is to get the egg whites whisked to soft peaks, then be very gentle when you add the egg white to the nut/choc/fat/sugar/tuorli (egg yolks. Such a nice word. Sounds a bit like “twirly”). Seriously: be gentle when you fold in the egg whites, as this is only your way of lightening the cake, as there are no raising agents and it’s full of fairly dense ground nuts. Sure it’s going to be a fairly heavy cake, that’s the nature of nut-based, flourless cakes, but you don’t want it totally dense and biscuit-like.
I have seen a few recipes with some baking powder, but it shouldn’t really be necessary for a cake with whisked egg whites. Plus, if you’re hoping to make a gluten-free cake, adding baking powder can be problematic. Why? Because baking powder often contains some starch, which absorbs moisture during storage. This can be from potatoes, or corn/maize, but it can also be from wheat. The stuff I’ve got in my cupboard, is clearly labelled: “Ingredients: Disodium Dihydrogen Diphosphate, Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate, Wheatflour (contains Gluten)”.
The other variable is how the other ingredients are combined. Obviously. This is interesting as frankly, I’m not sure it would make much difference if you did any of the following – as long as things are well mixed and you were gentle with the whites.
So, the recipes I read involved these various approaches
1 melting together the butter, chocolate and sugar, then adding the ground nuts, then beating in the egg yolks, and folding in the egg whites.
2 melting just the chocolate. Creaming together the sugar and butter, then adding the egg yolks, then the nuts, and melted chocolate, then the whisked egg whites. (This is how it’s described on English Wikipedia, but not in the majority of the Italian recipes I’ve looked at.)
3 melting together the chocolate and butter, beating together the sugar and yolks, then adding the ground nuts, then the liquid chocolate and butter, then folding in the whites.
4 Reversing the addition of liquid choc/butter and ground nuts. Theconcern here is that if the melted liquid is still hot, it could cook and scramble the egg yolk, unless you’ve cooled it somewhat first. So I’ve plumped for 3.
The torta Caprese in Pasticceria Trastevere had slightly sloping edges – ie, it’s not baked in straight-sided cake tins. I was planning to use a 20cm straight-sided cake tin for this, to make a deeper cake, but my wife had left it at work. Which turned out to be helpful in the end, as I looked around for other tins and found one (not mine I believe, but belonging to our landlady) that seemed more appropriate, despite being somewhat shallow. I suppose it’s more like what we’d call a flan or pie tin in the UK, though it’s not got fluted sides.
Also, the version I saw in Pasticceria Trastevere had flaked almonds on the top. Though this top was clearly the bottom, which was then inverted for serving. This seemed like a lovely idea, though I didn’t really use enough almonds, so I also decorated the finished cake with some icing sugar, which seems to be the norm.
Use good dark chocolate, at leat 65% cocoa solids. I used Venchi Cuor di Cacao 75%. Serious stuff.
One final note. Some of the recipes also call for some Strega (“witch”), a digestivo liquer traditionally made with herbs, but these days is probably mostly just made with E-numbers (as most of the “traditional” liquers seem to be). Not many of the recipes I’ve looked at, and indeed none of the Italian ones, include it. So I’m not bothering.
4 eggs, separated
250g almonds, shelled but skin on
200g dark chocolate
170g caster sugar
A good handful of flaked almonds
Preheat the oven 180C.
1 Grease and line the base of a 22cm round tin.
2 Generously sprinkle flaked almonds in the base of the tin.
3 Grind the whole almonds to a coarse powder in a food processor. (If you’ve not got a food processor you could, for example, use half ground almonds and half whole almonds that you’ve chopped… fairly comprehensively.)
4 Melt together the chocolate and the butter in a bowl suspended over a pan of gently simmering water.
5 Beat together the sugar and egg yolks. It’s quite a thick mix, but beat until creamy.
6 Beat the ground almonds into the sugar and egg yolks.
7 Add the melted chocolate and butter to the eggy-almond mix and beat.
8 Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. That is, when you lift up the whisk, and a peak is formed, it sags over slowly.
9 If the main mixture feels particularly stiff, you can beat in one tablespoon of the beaten egg whites. Gently fold in the egg whites.
10 Gently pour into the prepared tin.
11 Bake for around 45 minutes, until firm to the touch. This time will vary according to the character of your oven. With a fan oven, you might want to lower the temp to 160C.
12 Leave to cool in the tin on a wire rack.
13 Turn out and serve inverted. Decorate with sieved icing sugar if you like.
Addendum, 27 Feb 2013.
I want to try this again, but with an extra egg. Not sure I’ll have time for a while though, as I’ve started volunteering on the Rome Sustainable Food Project, and it’s pretty full-on, hours-wise. After separating four eggs for this recipe the other day, yesterday I seperated 120 for 6kg of pasta… My home baking will be a bit of a back burner for a few months, so the blog might be a bit quiet.