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Rita, Nigella and me: in praise of imperfection. Torta margherita with limoncello

We were still teenagers, we had just entered high school, we were sitting at our desk full of hope, fear and expectations. Professor Lanfredini came into our class to announce us she would stay with us for two years, teaching us Italian, Ancient Greek, Latin and History.

She was with us for so many hours a week that we would see her more than our parents. She soon became almost a second mother to us: she was severe, demanding, she was expecting all our best from us, but she was also able to push us further, instigating curiosity. She was all a good teacher is meant to be, and she was so fun.

Her quotes are still memorable, as her unique way of reading I Promessi Sposi, one of the most important novels in the Italian literature, which might result slightly boring to a group of teenagers: not only I loved that book, but every time she was reading it aloud I could not help but laugh out loud!

Pasta margherita al limoncello

She was a lover of biographies and thanks to her quotes we discovered Rita Levi Montalcini’s autobiography, which gave us a new perspective on life, amazingly useful to a group of young people facing the arduous search for an identity.

The book is titled In Praise of imperfection: Rita Levi Montalcini was an Italian scientist and a remarkable woman, she shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine for her part in the discovery of a protein that stimulates nerve cell growth. Her praise of imperfection should have a shuttering effect on the constant and fruitless search for a fragile perfection in which we labour, often for a lifetime.

Rita Levi Montalcini affirms that imperfection has always allowed continuous mutations to that wonderful as well as imperfect mechanism that is the human brain. The imperfection is an essential component of evolution. Without imperfection there would not be change, there would not be improvement; without imperfection we would not be who we are today. That’s why imperfection deserves a praise.

A few months ago I stumbled upon this article, Nigella Lawson: I’m very much a survivor. Everyone should be, and Rita Levi Montalcini’s praise of imperfection came to my mind. That’s for me, the focal point of the whole interview:

If you want to cook well, you must not strive for perfection but, rather, acknowledge your mistakes and work out how you can rectify them: it is in rectifying your mistakes that you actually go on to make something you’re happy with, that is really your own. I firmly believe that although the “point” of cooking lies in the end result, its meaning resides in the process.

Pasta margherita al limoncello

Nigella also admits to love her style in the kitchen: it is never perfect but messy, a wonderful adjective which implies clumsiness and imperfection but that lately has also acquired a positive value. Nigella’s dishes are not flawless, they always bring a trace of humanity and imperfection that makes them unique.

I see myself in her way of cooking: egg yolks fallen off the stand mixer – a scene we quickly cut out in the recipe video –, an everything but flat cake surface, which you can easily hide underneath a generous dusting of icing sugar, scorching hot strawberry jam splashing everywhere in the kitchen as I turned on the blender without the lid – never ever do that at home! My dishes are imperfect but alive and loved.

Today, celebrating my 34th birthday, I celebrate that imperfection which makes me so unique, so special, so myself. I celebrate the piles of clothes which demand to be ironed and the stack of already ironed clothes which remain for days on the table before finding their right place in the closet. I celebrate my extra pounds, which come and go in a see-saw, my perseverance in staying on a diet which comes and goes just like my extra weight, my love for healthy and wholesome food and my soft spot for chocolate cakes and eggplant parmigiana, my food intolerance to gluten, dairy products and yeast and the three pounds of pizza that I make almost every week, my untamed curls, my rumpled clothes often paired at random, my chipped nail polish, the cobwebs in the corner of our house, my good intentions to walk daily which is frequently won by laziness, my joy and my optimism, and my moments of fear, discomfort and weakness. I celebrate my devotion to this blog but my inconstancy in posting new articles and recipes, my terrible delay in responding to emails and comments but the sheer joy I experience when I receive one.

This cake is for us, imperfect and accomplices, constantly searching for something better, never satisfied and yet proud of the results we have achieved until now. Happy birthday to me, and thank you to all of you for being so kind to my, our, imperfections.

Torta margherita with limoncello

How can you celebrate a birthday without a video recipe?

The recipe is the classic Artusi’s recipe for torta margherita, but lemon juice has been replaced with limoncello, home made, imperfect, robust, intense. The cake and the custard are both gluten-free, light and scented by the freshness of limoncello. I wanted to make a proper royal icing, nice and smooth, but I eventually opted, as you can imagine, for a generous and forgiving dusting of icing sugar, imperfect but sweet.

Torta Margherita with limoncello and custard

5 from 4 votes
Print Recipe Pin Recipe
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 1 hour
Course Cake, Gluten free
Cuisine Italian
Servings 8 - 10


To make Torta Margherita

  • 8 eggs, whites and yolks separated
  • 240 g of sugar
  • 240 g of potato starch
  • 1 tiny glass of limoncello

To make the Italian custard

  • 2 eggs
  • 500 ml of whole milk
  • 1/2 vanilla pod
  • 4 tablespoons of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of corn starch

To decorate

  • Icing sugar
  • Lemon verbena flowers
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  • Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until white and light. Add potato starch and limoncello and whisk with an electric mixer for about ten minutes. Fold in the whipped egg whites.
  • Preheat oven to 180°C, then butter and dust with potato starch a 26 cm round baking tin.
  • Scrape the batter into the tin and bake for about 30 minutes, until golden brown on the surface and dry inside. Test with a toothpick to be sure it is ready.
  • Let it cool and in the meantime make the Italian custard. Heat the milk over medium heat with the the vanilla bean until simmering. Remove from the heat.
  • Meanwhile, whisk the eggs with sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan until smooth and creamy.
  • Pour the hot milk in a thin stream into the beaten eggs and stir with a whisk to avoid eggs from curdling. Put the saucepan back on low heat and cook stirring constantly with a whisk for about 5-10 minutes, until thick and barely simmering. Remove from the heat and let it cool down.
  • When both the cake and the Italian custard are cool, slice the cake horizontally, brush with limoncello mixed with the same amount of water and spread it with custard.
  • Dust with icing sugar and decorate the surface with lemon verbena flowers. Keep the cake in the fridge for a few hours before serving, then enjoy it and happy birthday!
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Link Love

  • As you know, every year I love to celebrate my birthday with a different cake. For decades my birthday cake has been a sponge cake with custard and chocolate, my dad used to decorate it with chocolate and icing and drawings, then it came to me to make my own cake. Since I have the blog, I love to use it to keep trace of my birthday cakes, as looking back I have a powerful insight on what I was experiencing every year. Here you can find a few examples: poppy seed buckwheat cake for my glorious 30th birthday, a mixed berry and rhubarb crostata to celebrate my 31st and an important book, an American cheesecake for my 32nd birthday, a memorable one as it was the first I spent with Tommaso…
  • This is the book I was mentioning before, In praise of imperfection, Rita Levi Montalcini’s autobiography, a pleasant reading for these Summer days.
  • Here you can read the whole article Nigella Lawson: I’m very much a survivor. Everyone should be, a memorable interview to Nigella. You can appreciate or not her or her way of cooking, sometimes a bit too excessive for my taste, but the interview is still interesting and enjoyable.
  • Today we’re celebrating also another birthday. On July the 16th dishesonly celebrated the firs year of activity with a precious gift to everyone: 15% discount valid on every purchase that will be made until September the 30th. How to have it? Simple: enter the code UNO when you are checking-out your purchases.
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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Carissima Giulia!

    Happy happy birthday! I wish you all the nice things in the world and hope you will delight us with your wonderful creations for many more years to come 🙂 <3

    Plus, I want a piece of that cake please, with a shot of limoncello! Looks (and definitely tastes) amazing!

  2. Happy Birthday! A wish for all good things in you life.
    The cake looks devine, may just have to make it for a bunch of ladies in two weeks.

  3. Tanti auguri Giulia! Your post reflects the life of a quality person. I look forward to trying the cake very soon.

  4. Buon Compleanno! I look forward to trying out your delicious looking torta. May your upcoming year be filled with many delightful surprises and all the good stuff this life has to offer! :)) ~ Jeannie

  5. Buon Compleanno!! La tua torta è bellissima come ti. Sorry if I am grammatically incorrect — I’m trying to recapture the fluency of my youth. I made a Tiramisu cake with Zabaglione topping for two birthdays several weeks ago — my daughter demanded it for hers. I think if she saw your limoncello she’d want that. Have a wonderful coming year!!

  6. Happy Birthday Julia – what a lovely way to celebrate this day and put life into perspective! You have a good one and stay as imperfectly perfect as you are!
    Big hug,

  7. 5 stars
    Happy Belated Birthday, Giulia! I hope it was a wonderful day with this lovely torta.
    Thanks for your lovely post—imperfections—yes, I have so many I don’t know where to start. I used to tell my art students at the university to strive for perfection in their work, but don’t ever expect to achieve it. There is always something you could do a little better. I would like to read Levi-Montalcini’s book and have added it to my reading list. Thanks for the Nigella recipe, we love her and I hope to make it soon, as part of my Italian ricette repetoire—Bob

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