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.

Every morning and afternoon, about two hours in advance of the lunch and dinner meals, a bell rang calling us to the kitchen. It was time to cook.

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.

Rustic Italian Apple Cake

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

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  1. Pam Hochman
    06.07.2012 at 10:45 AM #

    This reminds me of a relatively well known New York Times Plum Torte recipe that my mother has used as her go-to cake for years. But this sounds better as it has some brandy in it! I substitute apples when the plums are out of season, so your pictures resonated with me

    • katiemorford
      06.07.2012 at 7:26 PM #

      Yes, very similar, and I imagine this would be delicious made with butter in place of oil.

  2. Jane McKay
    06.07.2012 at 5:34 PM #

    I love the thought of diving in at breakfast too. Great looking cake!

    • katiemorford
      06.07.2012 at 7:25 PM #

      Thanks Jane!

  3. Jeanne McKiernan
    06.08.2012 at 5:26 AM #

    Such a simple recipe,yet enticing and versatile. Can’t wait to try it with nectarines or peaches.

    • katiemorford
      06.08.2012 at 5:51 AM #

      Thanks Jeanne. Let me know if you do and how it is.

  4. Elias
    06.09.2012 at 6:30 AM #

    Sounds great! One question. Did the original recipe use canola oil or olive oil? Thanks!!

    • katiemorford
      06.09.2012 at 7:47 AM #

      Good question. The original recipe calls for vegetable oil. I’ve also made it with a combination of canola and olive oil as well. I find using solely olive oil creates too dominant a flavor.

  5. christine
    07.17.2012 at 8:53 AM #

    This looks amazing. Our Gravensteins are just coming into season so I’ll try it with those–let me know if you ever need any Gravensteins. As you know, we have more than we know what to do with.

    • katiemorford
      07.17.2012 at 8:57 AM #

      Perfect. My juicebox applesauce recipe is also a great way to use up loads of apples, and no peeling!
      P.S. Thanks for the offer. I never say no to free, farm-fresh, organic fruit.

  6. 08.29.2012 at 6:32 AM #

    Hello! Love your page – finally someone who cooks for & feeds “a family” with appropriately sized recipes. One suggestion – increase your font to 12 & change to black ink – we would all love to browse but very difficult to read. Thanks so much & have a great day!!

    • katiemorford
      08.29.2012 at 6:55 AM #

      Thanks Olivia. I’ve been playing around with the text and appreciate the input.

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