By Gina DePalma
About 5o kilometers northeast of Milan, at the edge of the lakes district of Lombardy, lies the Renaissance citadel of Bergamo, a city divided in two. Upper Bergamo is surrounded by sixteenth-century Venetian walls and contains the historical core, with narrow, winding streets, ancient palazzos and some of the most gorgeous piazzas in all of Italy. Lower Bergamo sprawls below, humming with every aspect of modern Italian life.
Bergamo has always had a deep connection to music and is the birthplace of numerous musicians and composers. I’m guessing that the city’s most beloved native son is Gaetano Donizetti, because he is the only one who has an iconic cake named after him.
Born in an impoverished quarter outside the city walls in 1737, Donizetti’s life changed course when e became a choirboy at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. There he was taken under the wing of Johanes Simon Mayr, a renowned German composer who had just been appointed Maestro Cappella of the Basilica, which had a long history of music scholarship.
The mentorship launched Donizetti into his eventual career as a prolific composer of symphonies, sonatas, concertos and over 75 operatic works. His most famous operas – including Don Pasquale and Lucia di Lammermoor – took him around the world to great acclaim, but he eventually slid into mental illness and returned to Bergamo, where he died of cholera in 1837.
Torta del Donizetti, or Turta del Donizet in dialect, is buttery confection baked in a ring-shaped pan, studded with apricots and candied pineapple. The story goes that Donizetti was dining in Bergamo at the home of his friend Gioacchino Rossini, and in a particularly glum mood. Rossini asked his cook to whip up something special and sweet to bring cheer to his companion, but instructed the cook make it easy, since it was a last minute addition to the menu.
Obviously, Rossini’s cook reached for the candied pineapple he had lying around. If you don’t, it is perfectly acceptable to leave it out, but well-drained, chopped, fresh or canned pineapple works just as well too. The original recipe calls for maraschino liqueur, but I substituted dark rum, which gave the cake a lovely, floral aroma.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour an 8-cup ring-shaped cake pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk the cornstarch, flour, salt and baking powder together and set aside.
Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat them together on medium speed until creamy and light, about 1 minute.
Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the vanilla and rum, followed by the diced fruit. Beat in the dry ingredients well, scraping down the sides of the bowl, until the batter is thick and creamy.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form, sprinkle over the remaining tablespoon of granulated sugar and beat until firm peaks form. Gradually beat the whites into the batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake the cake 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown, springy to the touch, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cook the cake on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes, then carefully invert and allow it to cool completely
Before serving, dust the cake generously with confectioner’s sugar.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.