I know, I’ve been silent for a while, but I needed it. In the upcoming weeks I will slowly get back to normal rhythms, to blog, recipes and stories. When the time comes, I will tell you how this unusual, homely, thoughtful August has been a month of exploration, a month which has brought me where I am now, to understand better what I needed.
I missed so much taking some time to read in the morning on the balcony with a cup of coffee and Noa curled at my feet, or the evening in my bed, leaning against a mountain of pillows. I missed listening to myself, to the people next to me, cooking for friends and family just for sheer pleasure. These days of rest have been refreshing like a glass of icy cold water, like a walk in the mountains during the hottest summer that men can recall.
Last year Tommaso and I spent a few days in the Appennino Pistoiese to escape the heat wave which was chasing us right into our suffocating house. This is one of many remedies that the Tuscan people, especially those living in the cities, have to fight the summer heat. Just over half an hour from Pistoia and one hour from Florence and Lucca, here you enter into another world made of chestnut trees (remember the necci?), hiking trails, blueberry bushes and many medieval villages, like those of Popiglio, Piteglio, Sambuca, San Marcello, Cutigliano and Serra Pistoiese.
Today for our Ventura Tuscany tour through the use of nuts and dried fruit in traditional recipes, I’m sharing a humble cake, the almond cake of San Marcello Pistoiese.
San Marcello Pistoiese almond cake
Slicing this cake, you’ll have the feeling to bump into an old fashioned cake, one of those cakes so dear to grandmothers that can be kept covered with a towel in the corner of a cupboard, on the kitchen table or on the top shelf of the pantry, away from stealth and greedy hands.
The almond cake of San Marcello Pistoiese is crumbly and dry, a breakfast cake which demands to be soaked in a cup of tea or coffee or to be spread with your favourite jam. It shines also after dinner. Clean away the crumbs from the tablecloth, place the cake in the middle, slice it and serve it with a glass of vinsanto or any other dessert wine. It has the bashful and rough character of the Appennino Pistoiese.
Do not expect to be won over at first bite: this is a cake that needs time, it moves on the long run, but when it does, then it will never be enough.
Cut a slice of cake, pick the toasted almonds from the surface and eat them right away, you’ll enjoy a first little moment of perfection. Then dunk the cake in a glass of sweet wine, just as you would do with the almond biscotti. The tipsy cake forgets humility and modesty, explodes and reveals its charming aromas: the lingering Strega liqueur, the aniseed, so traditional, the citrusy lemon zest and the toasted almonds. Eat the cake in small bites, a sweet heady pause among chats and confidences.
The recipe is adapted from Giovanni Righi Parenti’s La Cucina Toscana, one of the basic books to discover the real Tuscan cuisine.
- 80 g (1/2 cup - 2,8 oz) of almonds + 2 tablespoons for decoration
- 4 eggs
- 250 g (1¼ cups - 8,22 oz) of sugar
- 600 g (4 cups + 5 tablespoons - 1,32 lb) of all purpose flour
- 16 g (3½ teaspoon) of baking powder
- Zest of 1 organic lemon
- 1 tablespoon of anise seeds
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1 tiny glass (about 60 ml - ¼ cup) of Strega* liqueur
- 200 g of butter (1 + ¾ stick - 7,05 oz), at room temperature
- Toast almonds in a nonstick skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, until they begin to darken. Remove them from the heat, let them cool completely and then grind them in a mortar, or chop them finely with a knife. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F - Gas mark 4).
- Beat eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Add flour, baking powder, anise seeds, grated zest of one lemon, a pinch of salt and a tiny glass of liqueur Strega: stir until all the ingredients are incorporated in a crumbly dough.
- Add now the softened butter and mix until you'll have a thick sticky dough.
- Grease and flour a 25cm round pan, scrape the dough into the pan and level the surface with a spatula, then sprinkle with chopped almonds.
- Bake the cake for about an hour, or until golden and dry.
- Allow it to cool completely before slicing and enjoying it for breakfast or as an after meal treat.
- It keeps well for a few days wrapped in kitchen paper or in a clean towel if stored in a cool, dry place.
The Tuscan tour with Ventura
- Spongata, a Jewish jam and nut cake from Lunigiana. Here pine nuts, almonds and dried figs are mashed with orange marmalade, fig jam and apple jam to create a rich spiced sticky filling wrapped in a pastry coating.
- Florentine quaresimali. The recipe is traditionally free of animal fats, so no egg yolks, only egg whites. You only need a spoonful of cocoa and a handful of hazelnuts to make biscuits that you won’t be able to stop munching away on, spurred on by the idea that they’re not really that bad for you…
- Pisa and a pilgrim cake, torta coi bischeri. This recipe has the added benefit of being quick to make and being filled with a moist filling of rice pudding, chocolate, candied fruits, raisins and pine nuts. A worthy partner to a cup of coffee or a glass of vinsanto after a family lunch.
- Buccellato from Lucca. Buccellato is considered a dessert or a breakfast sweet bread, it is made with bread dough, usually enriched with sugar, raisins and aniseed, another widely used ingredient in Tuscan biscuits and sweet loaves.
- Sweet and sour salt cod from Livorno, with raisins and pine nuts, which perfectly represents the Livornese cuisine, made of poor fish, tomato paste and enlivening influences brought by other cultures, all welcomed and absorbed by a town which is not just a melting pot, but a pot of steaming cacciucco.
- Biscotti with pistachios and white chocolate from Prato. Not only almonds are added to the Pratesi biscuits, but, depending on the occasion, also hazelnuts (and dark chocolate, something worth trying) or pistachios and white chocolate. This is perhaps my favourite combination, elegant, refined and simply irresistible.