The One True Apple Cake
Torta di Mele
There is a cake that almost every mother and grandmother in Italy makes (the sister of the yoghurt pot cake which featured in Bitter Honey) which is one of the simplest cakes of all, and that cake is Torta di Mele. It is to the Italians what Victoria Sponge is to the English: the epitome of comforting, nostalgic home baking.
This cake is a soft, simple, sweet sponge dotted with pieces of foamy and fragrant apple, with a slightly crunchy topping. It’s the kind of cake you don’t want to mess with, or there will be tears. I had a lengthy conversation with a Sardinian colleague about Torta di Mele in which he admitted that he did indeed cry when his mother put chocolate chips in it once, which shows just how holy this cake is, and also just how much passion many Italians feel for their food. Another friend told me he refused to eat it unless his mother filled it so full of apple there was hardly any cake there at all. It is a domestic institution, and is most often eaten for breakfast or merenda, with a strong coffee.
All this being said, I had to make about a million versions of this cake until I developed one I was really happy with. Sometimes the simplest things can be the hardest to achieve. I wanted it full of apples, really brimming with apples, but also cakey – of course – and moist and crunchy at the same time. No spices or brown sugars, this cake is designed to have the gentlest of flavours. Many of the versions I have eaten here in Italy have been made with sunflower oil, which gives the crumb a lovely moist texture, but can have a slightly fried flavour of which I’m not fond. There are many cakes which use veg/seed oil as their main fat, and it works well if the cake has strong flavours (in a spiced carrot cake for example) so that the oil is purely a textural rather than a flavourful addition, but in a cake with such simple and delicate flavours I find you can taste the oil, so I have made a compromise and used some butter for flavour, and some oil for softness. Choose whichever apple is your favourite to eat, and keep the skin on, the colours look lovely.
Makes 1 x 9 inch cake
250g 00 flour
170g butter, room temperature
30g oil (light olive or seed oil)
220g sugar plus 2 tbsp for sprinkling
1 lemon, zest and juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 tsp baking powder
A pinch of salt
5 eating apples, cored
Grease and line an 9 inch cake tin.
Peel (or don’t – the choice is yours) and core 3 and a half apples, and cut them into small chunks. Cut the remaining apple and a half into crescent slices to decorate the top of the cake.
Squeeze the lemon juice over the apples to stop them going brown.
Beat the butter with the sugar, lemon zest, vanilla extract and salt until pale and fluffy. Add in the eggs a little at a time and beat well until smooth. Beat in the yoghurt and the oil and then fold in the baking powder and the flour and finally the apples. Mix together until you have a nice smooth batter.
Pour into the prepared tin, decorate with the apple slices and sprinkle over the extra sugar.
Bake in the oven for 45-50 minutes until risen and golden.
Serve warm or cool.
extreme soft foaminess captured by Charlotte Bland, recipe and photos from La Vita è Dolce.