Nicola Miller: Nonna’s tortas are far more than simply food - they are works of art
We’ve just returned from Puglia, a region of Italy so civilised that our breakfast table came laden with freshly baked tarts and cakes every day. Many sported a hand-written label describing them simply as ‘Nonna’s Torta’ and the nonna in question could well have been a universally revered Italian trope - the matriarch of the family- or an actual person who inspired the chef in question. As we ate one meal on the terrace of a restaurant in Ostuni, sheltered from the blistering sun by an arbour of bougainvillea, mimosa and plumbago which rose high above the white-stone alley, the patron pointed to his own nonna, who, at a good age, still turned out torta after immaculate torta six days a week, and smiled proudly. Needless to say, her tortas were works of art.
Depending upon the time of day and meal, the tortas changed. First thing in the morning they were delicate: a pomelo, lemon and pine nut; a dainty almond frangipane and a crunchy pistachio version glazed with orange syrup. One morning I even ate a carrot torta with sultanas, ricotta and grated orange which actually seemed more Sicilian than the American-inflected version I was half-expecting. By cena -the evening meal- the torta flavours had deepened: coffee, chocolate or prune were paired with deeply alcoholic sauces made from raisiny marsala or the near-black Nero di Troia wine and the local fruity olive oils further enriched their filling.
The Pugliese love of bitterness manifests itself in the turnip tops and cima di rapa they wolf down year-round in pasta, on pizzas and as a side dish but they also enjoy a little bitterness in their puddings too and we saw and ate plenty of bitter-chocolate tortas and gelatos. The recipe here is not Pugliese, (although very similar to their tortas), but instead comes from a little town in Northern Italy called Vignola. Created in the 19th century as a tribute to Jacopo Barozzi, the official architect of Pope Julius III, and made by the Gollini Bakery, the actual recipe is secret. My version plays with the original flavours, replacing the rum with Frangelico, an Italian liqueur whose blend of Tonda Gentile hazelnuts cocoa, coffee and vanilla is, I think, a better compliment to the coffee-chocolate flavours of the cake. However, should you prefer a fruitier taste, then simply replace the Frangelico with an equivalent amount of Chambord,Raspicello, Tuaca or other fruit-based liqueur: it’s a very tolerant recipe.
250g dark chocolate (of at least 62% cocoa )
150g soft brown sugar
100g of ground almonds
2 tbsp Frangelico
1 tbsp of ground coffee granules.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 C / 350F. Grease a 9inch/23cm springform tin with butter and line the base with baking parchment.
Break the chocolate and cut the butter into small pieces and place both into a Bain-Marie (a small heat-proof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water). Stirring slowly over a low heat, melt the butter and chocolate until they are glossy and combined.
Separate the eggs, placing the egg whites on their own into a very clean bowl, ready for whisking.
Put the egg yolks into another large bowl and add the sugar, beating well until combined, then add the ground almonds and mix them in. Add the Frangelico and the coffee to this mixture and mix. Pour in the butter-chocolate mixture and stir to incorporate then set aside while you deal with the egg whites.
Whisk the egg whites until they attain firm peaks (you should be able to tip the bowl over and not have them slide out) then slowly add them to the batter. Use a large spoon to fold them in, taking care not to over-beat or you will knock the air out of them. This torta has no raising agent other than the air-infused whites so gentleness is of the essence and once they are incorporated, stop folding.
Pour the batter into your prepared tin and bake for approximately 30 minutes and start to check it after 25 minutes. It is important to not over-bake this torta as it must remain moist to the point of being squidgy so don’t worry if your cake probe has a bit of batter clinging to it. Dust with icing sugar.
The flavour is at its best the day after it has been baked but I can’t imagine many people will restrain themselves for that long.