A million years ago I used to stay in a hotel called the Principe di Savoia in Milan. It was (and probably still is) a very regal, proper hotel. With the most wonderful bar/lounge where they had real barmen who poured old-fashioned cocktails and would never have dreamt of throwing bottles around a la Tom Cruise in Cocktail. There was always a piano player, an elderly man – who told me he had played “with Important Orchestras in Each of the Important Capitals of the World”. The Principe would never have considered piped music. People behaved with decorum, there were sofas to sink into and the rococo decor always made me smile. You could exhale at the Principe.
The rooms were hushed and luxe, the bathrooms had heated floors and the windows had those louvred metal shutters you could throw open in to morning to drink in the (often smoggy) beauty of Milan. Real linen on the beds, impeccable room service and a mini bar with half bottles of San Pellegrino water – all of this added up to make the Principe one of my favourite stops on any promo trip. As the years passed, the Italian record company started to work at different hotels – including the sublime Four Seasons on the Via del Gesu, but the Principe always held my heart.
Because of what I have described above. But more importantly, because of their breakfast.
I seldom order cooked breakfast – my stomach still blenches in horror at the smell of ‘The Full English” as cooked by greasy spoons all over London (wet, pink, floppy bacon: why on earth would anyone want to put that in their mouths first thing of a morning?). Nowadays orange juice (usually a staple) is off the menu – the stomach just can’t handle it. But the coffee that used to accompany it still a must, and as for the food component, it must be carbohydrate. Preferably a couple of pieces of toast with peanut butter or a croissant.
However, at the Principe I looked forward to my prima colazione. Because at the Principe they had cake for breakfast. Not just any cake – two very specific cakes that never varied over the decade or so that I stayed there: Torta di Mele (apple cake, usually the Tuscan version) and a sublime Torta Della Nonna – a tart made with ricotta, lemon and pine nuts.
Regardless of how late the previous night had ended, I would leap out of bed, pull on yesterday’s jeans and a jumper, wash my face and get out of the door as fast as possible. I’d dive into the (slow) elevator, pretending not to see the horrified faces of my impeccably turned-out fellow guests, and race down the pink and gold passage to the sunny restaurant. The maitre always gave me a table in the window: ready set with an International Herald Tribune and a glass of blood-orange juice. As I walked in I would cut myself two generous slices of cake from the incredible buffet, he would bring the best-ever double espresso con aqua calda, and for forty minutes I would pretend I was an heiress. If it was a Saturday or Sunday – I would be offered a glass of prosecco: “Perche no?” he would smile. “Why not” indeed. The most sublime way to start the day. At any hotel. Ever.
When I read this recipe all of that came back to me. Chef Matt Danko – a contributor to Food and Wine magazine uses his father’s recipe to make this sharlotka, a deliciously light and fluffy Russian apple cake. It seemed the perfect holiday breakfast.
So on my recent break in McG I whipped one up. I test my recipes on my neighbours Tash and Rob, and they loved it. It is light as air, crispy on top, easy to make and zesty with the tart apples at the bottom. It can be made four hours ahead of eating but only lasts the morning. So make sure you have someone to share it with
4 Granny Smith apples—peeled, cored, quartered and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of kosher salt
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
Confectioners’ sugar (icing sugar), for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease the bottom and side of an 8-inch springform pan.
2. In a large bowl, toss the apples with the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of the sugar and let stand for 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the flour with the cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the almond extract and the remaining 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar at medium-high speed until thick and pale yellow and a ribbon forms when the beaters are lifted, 8 to 10 minutes. Gently fold in the dry ingredients just until incorporated.
4. Spread the apples in the prepared pan in an even layer, then pour the batter evenly over them. Let stand for 5 minutes to allow the batter to sink in a little.
5. Bake the Sharlotka for about 45 mins – 1 hour, until it is golden and crisp on top and a cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean.
6. Transfer to a rack and let rest for 15 minutes. Unmold and transfer to a serving platter. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve warm, with coffee.
You know …I may not be in Milan anymore, but right here is pretty perfect too.