It was a year ago today that we took off for several weeks on a trip that included a few adventures. Among them was booking our family into Fontana del Papa, a bed and breakfast that doubles as a cooking school in the countryside an hour north of Rome.
I was a little worried taking up two precious days of our holiday for a selfish little cooking side-trip. This was clearly for me more than anyone else in my crew. Plus, I was uncertain about the suitability of the place for kids, and knew nothing about it beyond a few photos viewed over the internet.
But two days of learning to cook Roman food in a rustic Italian setting? It was worth the risk.
Owned by an Italian couple with three grown children, Fontana del Papa consists of a handful of bedrooms, lush gardens to keep the kitchen in steady supply of vegetables, an olive orchard, dogs, cats, chickens, and a pair of mildly aggressive geese that wander the property.
The first day, we ambled down, coaxing our reluctant trio of girls along. After that, the kids were the first to come running; eager to cook alongside Mathilda, our wonderful teacher who spoke no English but was terrific with emotive hand gestures and encouraging smiles.
We loved it so much, we booked a third night.
I hadn’t given much thought to the desserts we might bake, more focused on the simple pastas of the region. In fact, I’d never much cared for Italian sweets, thinking there wasn’t much to them beyond cannoli and amaretti cookies.
But that first class, Mathilda set me and Rosie to work on this Torta di Mele, which I’m calling Rustic Italian Apple Cake, and my bias was corrected. We ate it after dinner that night and for the two breakfasts to follow. Every Italian sweet we made after that was equally delicious. I was an Italian pastry convert.
This cake has basic ingredients and a simple technique, yet the results will make you look like a professional. That’s my kind of baking.
You start by beating the batter all together in one bowl. Then, press thinly sliced apples in concentric circles into the dough. Enlist a kid or two to help with the peeling. We abide by the “little red hen” school of cooking….if you want to eat the cake….
For flavor, the Italians use Sambuca, an anise-scented liqueur. I had none the day I made this so used brandy instead and imagine orange or apple juice would do in a pinch.
The result is a mildly sweet, sturdy cake, studded with tangy apples. It’s the perfect sort of dessert to bring to a potluck or serve as part of a brunch. With stone fruits coming into the marketplace, I’m thinking of giving it a go with “just ripe” plums or nectarines. And every time I make it, I’ll think of our cooking school, and be right back there with Mathilda…and the geese.
This cake is made in a nine-inch spring form pan. You can also use a 10-inch pan as long as you decrease the cooking time by five to 10 minutes. If you don’t have Sambuca, you can substitute brandy, or use orange or apple juice.
• Butter and flour for dusting the pan
• 3 Granny Smith apples
• 2 eggs
• 1/2 cup canola oil
• 2 tablespoons Sambuca
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
• 1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Coat a 9-inch spring form pan with butter. Lightly dust with flour. Set aside.
Peel and core the apples. Slice into ¼-inch-thick wedges. Set aside.
Crack the eggs into a medium bowl. Add the oil and use a whisk to mix it together until one even consistency. Add the Sambuca, flour, sugar, and baking powder, and whisk until creamy and smooth.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Set the apples in the batter in a circle around the edge of the pan, overlapping slightly. Gently press the apples into the batter. Lay an inside circle of apples into the batter as you did the first.
Bake until the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes.
Take out of the oven and cool for at least 30 minutes.
Remove the outside of the spring form pan and serve.
Makes 10 servings.
Reprinted with permission from Fontana del Papa