This woman began her day by going to the lab for tests. It turns out living in a highly health conscientious culture and being pregnant means repeated monthly tests. I have come to know the lab well these last few months, any qualms about having blood taken or peeing into a plastic pot now quashed. The joys of an Italian pregnancy: at the lab by 8 o'clock sharp.
N.B. Whenever I have these conversations with my older brother (who lives in France) he says it's not the Italians, it's us (as in The English). We are remarkably cavalier about our health (especially so in my family where an illness was generally either ignored in the hope that it would magically disappear or an opportunity for my father to delightedly retrieve his father's dog-eared medical dictionary which he'd had as an army curate during the war, and which was full of gruesome diagrams and redundant remedies. My father loved this volume so much he kept it by his bed, and studied it often, more as an illustrated horror novel than anything particularly applicable to real life. Anyway, it seems that the Italians are rigorous about looking after themselves and their health, which probably explains their impressively long life spans and generally immaculate appearances (of course it goes without saying this is a gross generalisation).
So, suddenly my health has become paramount, which is an odd feeling after the stoical English upbringing I had, which taught me to abuse it merrily and ignore any consequences. But the lady who sticks a needle in my arm was so amicable and commented on my height and the whole business was painless this time, taking no more than 20 minutes, which is a personal record. Then I went home to give my indefatigable mother-in-law Monica her mimosa sprig and finish the cake I made yesterday. As I was driving my friend sent me a link to a song by another woman, Ornella Vanoni. The song was L'Appuntamento, and I have heard it before somewhere long ago, because it is the kind of song that everyone will think they have heard somewhere long ago, because it is haunting and beautiful and probably appeared on some crass Cornetto advert at some point but the memory of its lilting loveliness is what stuck, like waves breaking on the sun-bleached sand. It is like being in an exquisite dream.
After a dream of a song there was a sonnet of a cake. A Mimosa cake, a thing I'd spotted in pastry shop windows for a few years now and then the cake Lorenzo presented me with for my first birthday which we spent together, two years ago. It's a wonderful object, totally unique, and as light and floofy as a yellow feather duster. I adore it, with its oddball beauty and retro associations, and I can't believe it has taken me so long to make one. I think - owning a one shelf oven which burns almost everything I cook in it - I was put off by the idea of having to evenly cook multiple cakes (to create both layers and the characteristic fluffy sponge topping) but I was unnecessarily panicking, for this recipe requires just one, high and aerated cake which is then cut into three, two layers being sandwiched together and the third forming the decoration.
The mimosa is a curious and captivating looking cake with a fluff of Easter chick about it, what with its daffodil-yellow, furry crumb coating deliberately designed to resemble sprays of Mimosa. The Mimosa blooms at the very cusp of spring, usually the first few days of March, and I see it here by the roadside either shining in the blithe Spring sun or battered by fickle March winds. The cheering little pom-pom flowers the colour of scrambled egg have become the symbol for International Woman’s Day, or La Festa della Donna, as it is called in Italy, where it is customary to give mothers, grandmothers, daughters, wives and girlfriends a small, yellow spray of mimosa, heady with honey-sweet scent.
Dreamt up in Rieti in the 1950’s, the enterprising pastry chef Adelmo Renzi entered his invention in a cake competition at Sanremo in 1962 which it won, and thus achieved nationwide fame. (Once one knows it was a product of the 50s/60s it makes all the more sense, and justifies further the retro but delicious addition of tinned pineapple). It is now used as a festive spring-time celebration cake, most often associated with International woman’s day but also served at Spring weddings and birthdays. It consists of simple but winning flavours, a perfect emblem of spring; lemon scented custard and a simple, egg-rich sponge (pan di spagna).
To achieve the most yellow results, make sure you opt for good eggs. I also go for a pineapple addition which makes it extra fresh, light and floral tasting, and gives me a chance to rediscover a long-lost nostalgia for tinned pineapple, which works wonderfully in puddings (think of the classic upside down cake). I have also been fed a surprising white tiramisu once, which involved pineapple, and it is my life’s ambition to recreate it. Here it accentuates the lemon and lightens the whole assembly beautifully.
Some recipes call for perfect cubes of sponge to decorate the cake but I find a) it is tiresome to cut perfect cubes and b) mimosa is a more natural pom pom shape anyway, so the effect is better mirrored by fluffy crumbs than cubes.
Crema diplomatica is a simple pastry cream lightened and enriched with whipped cream, and the most wonderful filling for tarts and cakes. I make this two layers but you could easily double the recipe and go for four if it’s a really special occasion, a party or wedding perhaps.
For the sponge:
200g of 00 flour
Pinch of salt
A few drops of vanilla extract/seeds from a vanilla pod
For the filling:
1 tin of pineapple in juice (optional but I love it)
4 egg yolks
A few strips of lemon zest
A pinch of salt
200ml double/whipping cream
2 tbsp icing sugar
Begin by making the sponge. Preheat the oven to 170 and grease and line a 20 cm cake tin with first butter and then a light sprinkling of flour.
Whip the eggs and sugar with an electric beater until they have tripled in volume, are smooth, yellow and moussey, and lifting the whisk the falling mixture holds its shape for a good few seconds (this will take about 10 minutes of good whisking). Fold in the flour, salt and vanilla gently, making sure not to lose all of the air you have incorporated.
Decant into your prepared tin and then place in the oven and cook for around 40 minutes, until golden and just set.
Remove and allow to cool.
Now make your cream. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar, cornflour and salt together in a bowl until smooth. Heat the milk with the lemon zest until just at a scald, then whisk it into the egg mixture. Now return the whole lot to the pan and cook over a low heat, whisking continuously until you have a smooth cream the consistency of mayonnaise.
Remove from the heat, take out the lemon strips and discard, and allow to cool completely. Whisk the cream with the icing sugar until you have stiff peaks and then fold into the cooled pastry cream.
Remove the cooled cake from the tin and slice it horizontally in three equal slices (you can use thread or a sharp, long serrated knife to do this). Place the bottom slice on a serving plate.
The middle slice will become your ‘fluffy’ mimosa topping. Remove the outermost brown bits of the sponge and break up the yellow inner sponge into small, pea-sized crumbs with your fingers.
Now using a pastry brush dampen the top and bottom layers of the cake with the juice from the pineapple, lightly anointing rather than soaking. Chop a few slices of the pineapple into small pieces and scatter over the bottom layer.
Now spread around just under two thirds of the crema over the bottom layer and then place on the top layer. Spread the rest of the cream around the sides and top and then cover in the crumbs, sticking them onto the cream.
Serve, with a sprig of mimosa.
Keep in the fridge covered if you do not want to serve it immediately.