I expected eating in Italy to be a carb-tastic experience - pizza, pasta, gnocchi. What I wasn’t prepared for were the sweets. Pastries and nutella at breakfast, gelaterias and crepe shops literally around every corner, thick pudding-like hot chocolate, and tempting dessert menus that we never got to because dinner was so filling.
It’s fascinating to see which flavors are favored in different countries. The yogurt section in a grocery store can give a surprisingly good sense of them. So can sodas and juices. In the case of Italy’s sweets, hazelnut and chocolate seemed to reign supreme, flanked by orange, lemon, apricot to one side; walnut, almond, pistachio, and pine nuts to the other. Berries and other fruits were popular as well, along with creamy cheeses - ricotta, mascarpone.
There are so many desserts I want to make now, inspired directly by something I ate or more loosely by association: ricotta tart, perhaps with a swirl of honey and a scattering of pistachios on top; nutella anything; a “fruits of the forest” tart like the one below; tiramisu spiked with tea instead of coffee; and a rosemary-scented pine nut tart, because you can never have too many tarts.
This chocolate orange almond cake, the first of the bunch, has been on my to-make list for nearly a year, since What’s For Lunch, Honey posted a version with hazelnuts and a caramel ganache. Why it’s taken so long escapes understanding - with a food processor, the batter comes together in a couple of minutes. The one plan-ahead point is simmering the oranges. It’s an intriguing operation that lasts two hours and leaves you with orange-scented water and gently cooked fruit ready to toss into the food processor, peel and all. This step can be done the day before, and the oranges refrigerated until you’re making the batter. Burnished with an apricot glaze, the cake is moist, light, not too sweet, and redolent of chocolate and orange. It’s gluten-free and dairy-free, and dare I say it, would make a great Passover cake - one that you’d want to eat year-round.
Chocolate Orange Almond Cake with Apricot Glaze
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast via What’s For Lunch, Honey
2 small oranges, total weight – 13.4 oz/375g
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups almond meal
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
Apricot jam, for glaze
Rinse the oranges. Leaving them whole, place them in a pot and fill with just enough water to almost cover the oranges. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for about 2 hours, until soft and tender.
Drain and cool the oranges, then cut in half and remove the seeds. Put the whole oranges, peel and all, in a food processor and process to a pulp. Set aside to cool, or place in the refrigerator overnight.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9” springform baking pan with a sheet of parchment paper - most easily done by cutting a square of paper slightly larger than the pan, placing it over the bottom, then attaching the top of the pan over it. Grease the bottom and sides of the pan.
In the food processor, add all of the remaining cake ingredients – eggs, baking powder, baking soda, almonds, sugar, cardamom, cocoa powder and the orange pulp – and process until smooth. There will still be bits of puréed orange in the batter.
Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for about 45 to 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. If you notice the top of the cake beginning to darken too quickly, cover it with some aluminum foil to prevent it from burning.
Allow the cake to cool completely in the pan. Remove the sides of the pan. Use a knife to spread a thin layer of apricot jam evenly over the surface of the cake. I chose to just glaze the top, but the sides can be glazed too if you wish.