Many Italian desserts are worth their calories but they are all steeped in the so-called “cucina povera” tradition, which poses a bit of a problem when you are looking to end an Italian meal with a visual show stopper. The farther South one travels down the boot, the more the French and Arabic culinary influences can be felt, and desserts tend to be heavier and more elaborate, but in the rest of Italy cakes are invariably made with a few wholesome ingredients and not many frills. For the show stoppers, I hate to admit, we have to borrow from the French.
To keep the Italian tradition alive, even when it comes to desserts, I often start with peasant recipes and dress them up depending on the occasion. I also love to research the roots of dishes, especially cakes, and I can spend an inordinate amount of time online poring over pages of old cookbooks, that each municipality gladly makes available. The recipes are usually haphazard and impossible to replicate as they are written but one can glean origins, substitutions and the different steps that were added over the centuries.
A little while ago, just after the passing of Marcella Hazan, the Italian maven who tirelessly worked to establish real Italian cuisine in the States, sofagirl posted Marcella’s recipe for the simplest (and uber-delicious) tomato sauce. Marcella Hazan grew up near Cesena, what used to be a fishing town on the Adriatic Sea, less than an hour east of Bologna, where I come from. Her choices of ingredients and basic flavors are reminiscent of my mother’s kitchen, which is why I hardly refer to her books when cooking. What Marcella shared is what I knew, via my mother.
But, recently, while planning a dinner party that would feature arancini di riso, chicken involtini, roasted endive and other Italian side dishes, I wanted to feature an Italian cake at the end, something I might not have made before, and came across Marcella’s Orange cake – Ancona style. I had never heard of it and was intrigued by the “Ancona style” reference. Ancona is also on the Adriatic, farther south in the region of Marche and, hard as I tried, I could not find this cake listed as typical of Marche anywhere. What I did find is a ciambella (a sort of round pound cake with a hole in the middle), often made near Pesaro and Urbino (also in the Marche region) whose star ingredients are anise seeds (or anise liquor) and citrus. I have a feeling Ms. Hazan adapted and substituted to suit her New York kitchen.
The end result is a very dense cake, similar to a pound cake in density but with a fraction of the butter, made moist by buckets of freshly squeezed orange juice poured over it while still warm.
I baked it in a bundt pan for prettiness and served it with vanilla ice-cream, orange julius style. Simple, easy and yes, elegant too.
RECIPE – Yields about 10 slices
2 C + 2 T Flour (300 grams)
Zested peel of 3 oranges
4 T butter (60 grams)
1 C + 3 T sugar (220 grams)
2 T ouzo liqueur (I used some brandy and a tablespoon of anise seeds instead)
1 T milk
2 1/2 ts baking powder
2 C freshly squeezed orange juice (add some sugar to it if oranges are not very sweet)
1. Heat oven to 350F (180C)
2. Mix the flour, eggs, orange zest, butter, sugar and liqueur in the bowl of a standing mixer, using the paddle attachment, until well amalgamated.
3. Add the milk and baking powder. Mix well. The cake batter will be very stiff.
4. Spray or butter very generously a tube pan or a bundt pan. Spread the cake batter in the pan and smooth the top.
5. Bake the cake for about 40/45 minutes or until golden.
6. Invert the cake while still warm and place it on a rimmed plate. Poke many holes with a chopstick and pour the orange juice all over the cake. Whatever juice ends up at the bottom of the cake, leave it there, it will be eventually absorbed. Serve at room temperature. Cake keeps in the fridge, covered, for a week.