MODENESE CRUMBLY CAKE
by Gina Depalma
Sometimes, you just decide to wing it and see what happens. This month’s Dolci recipe is just such an example on my part.
Dessert traditions in Italy vary from region to region, and in Emilia-Romagna, they are especially fond of crumbly, sometimes nutty, buttery cakes that are the perfect foil for their wines and regional specialties, such as Aceto Balsamico di Modena, or as a partner with the fabulous peaches, plums, strawberries apples, pears and cherries that are grown in the region.
Sbrisolona, or crumbly cake, is found not only in Emilia-Romagna but also in Tuscany and Umbria. It varies from region to region, but generally involves a cake with a pleasantly dry, sandy-textured cake, sometimes made with semolina, ground nuts, or even polenta. Bensone, a sweet specific to the city of Modena, is a lemony, spongier version of crumbly cake, sometimes baked in a spiral or the shape of the letter “S”. Tradition dictates that you break it off into small pieces and dip it in sweet wine. When baked in the shape of circle, jam is baked in the center and cake becomes known as a Ciambella.
Long ago, I set out to create my own special version. “Crumbly” reminds me of actual crumbs, most often taking the form of streusel topping on yummy coffee cakes. So taking my cues from the familiar, I created my Modenese Crumbly Cake back in 1999, when Babbo was still in its infancy. It became an instant hit and one of my all-time favorite recipes, included in The Babbo Cookbook.
The below recipe suggests pairing the cake with a sweet and peppery ricotta cream, as well as some sautéed fresh figs. By all means, create your own classic combinations; the cake is delicious on its own, and is also perfect for when partnered with strawberries, peaches, plums, or some poached pears.
To make the streusel: Combine ½ cup of pine nuts, sugars, and flour and pulse to combine. Add the melted butter and pulse until the mixture is combined and forms pea-size crumbs. Set aside.
To make the cake, preheat the oven to 325 F degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray.
Spread the ¾ cup of pine nuts evenly onto a baking sheet and toast in the oven until light golden brown, approximately 10 minutes. When the pine nuts have cooled, place them in the bowl of a food processor along with the flour, salt, semolina, baking powder, light brown sugar and half cup of the granulated sugar and pulse to combine. Add the cold butter cubes and pulse until the butter has dispersed and the mixture is finely textured.
In a small bowl, combine the eggs, olive oil, lemon zest, and vanilla. Add this mixture to the pine nut mixture and pulse to combine, then process for about 30 seconds to completely emulsify the batter. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan and sprinkle evenly with the streusel.
Bake the cake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until it is golden brown and cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan and allow the cake to cool completely.