Torta Caprese

I'm a firm believer that when your birthday rolls around, you should, as per tradition, eat cake, but not just any cake -- it seems only fitting that when you turn a year older, you eat the perfect cake, the exact cake of your choosing, and if you're not a cake person, then I think you should indulge in any other pie/cookie/pudding/sweet you wish. I care an unreasonable amount about this -- to eat a dessert you feel lukewarm or indifferent about on the day of your birth seems just wrong -- and therefore, when baking for the birthdays of my closest friends, I take extra care to be sure that the dessert is special, exceptional, exactly what they want. As a result I've baked everything from birthday pecan pie bars to mini birthday cheesecakes, birthday brownies to birthday lemon squares, red wine chocolate cakes and carrot cakes and banana cakes, and in short: if you're my friend, and it's your birthday, your (dessert) wish is my command.

Last week one of my dearest friends and favorite people, Lavinia L, turned 30, and her Birthday Dessert Quest went a bit like this: she, an Italian, had requested a birthday sweet with chocolate, but as Italians generally keep their desserts simple, was not so keen on the chocolate-y desserts that I proposed to her (butter-and-frosting laden treats like very American Wellesley Fudge Cake and chocolate chunk cookies -- cultural differences, you guys). After a bit of brainstorming I suggested this Torta Caprese, a recipe I'd learned during a class with the one-and-only Carla Tomasi, and finally! We'd found our birthday dessert.

Torta Caprese is a chocolate cake that originates from the island of Capri (hence its name, not to be confused with the more famous insalata caprese). It is one of those rare desserts that gets both the American and Italian stamp of approval, managing to be rich and brownie-like and indulgent and therefore birthday appropriate (check for U.S.A!) but still understated, simple, and not overly sweet (check for Italia!) It is intensely chocolate-y, held together by a heap of mild, crunchy almonds, tinged with sunny bright orange, and topped with a shattery, crackly, lid that contrasts nicely with the fudge-y interior -- when dusted with a shower of powdered sugar, there's perhaps no better birthday dessert. Whether or not you choose to add a sparkly bow to the top of the cake (because your BFF doesn't turn 30 every day, after all) is entirely up to you. Birthday mission accomplished, evidence below. 
A couple of notes: If you don't like orange zest in your desserts, you can always leave it out and add in 1 or so teaspoon of vanilla extract. When processing the almonds, I left a few in bigger pieces (for a little texture) but feel free to process them finer if you want. When beating the egg whites, be very sure that the bowl is squeaky clean and that there is no bits of yolk left in there, as this could impede the egg whites from whipping up nicely (I learned this the hard way). Finally, bonus points: this is a gluten free recipe.

Looking for more chocolate cake recipes? I have this 1940s Wacky Chocolate Cake, this Wellesley Fudge Cake, this Chocolate Fudge Souffle Cake, these Chocolate Lava Cakes, this Chocolate Loaf Cake, and this German Chocolate Cake. Looking for more chocolate-y recipes? I have these Brownie Cookies, this Brownie Pie, these Fudge Brownies, or this Hot Fudge Sauce, this Pecan Chocolate Pretzel Pie, Cioccolata Calda, and this Chocolate Tart.

Recipe from the all-knowing Carla Tomasi

1 stick (125 grams, 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cubed
4 ounces (125 grams) good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 eggs, separated
Zest of 1 orange
10 tablespoons (125 grams) sugar 
1 1/3 cups (185 grams) almonds, without skins

In a sauce pan over low heat, or using a double-boiler if you prefer, gently melt the butter and then add the chopped chocolate. Stir until smooth and then set aside to cool. Using a food processor, process the almonds until fine, but not too fine -- I like the torta to have a a little texture, so I leave some pieces a little bigger. Set aside.
Next, whip up the egg yolks with 80 grams of the sugar and the orange zest. Add the cooled chocolate/butter mixture to the egg yolk mixture and whisk until well combined. Stir in the ground almonds. 
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, adding the remaining 45 grams of sugar slowly as you go. Fold the egg whites in to the chocolate/almond mixture gently, until incorporated completely. Pour the batter in to a 9-inch (20 cm) round cake pan, lined with parchment, and smooth the top over. 
Bake the torta in a preheated oven (350 degrees Fahrenheit, 180 degrees Celsius) for about 30 minutes -- start checking the cake for doneness after 25 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out with no batter attached, just a few moist crumbs. Let the cake cool completely and then serve, dusted with powdered sugar, if you like. Serves 8-10.

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Chocolate Caramel Pretzel Bars

If you've never made the journey yourself, take my word for it: the 10 hour flight (Rome-Boston home, or Boston-Rome to other home) is not exactly what one would describe as fun. The legroom allotted to your assigned seat is so unreasonable its almost laughable; temperatures in the cabin have two settings, freezing (too much a.c!) or sweltering (not enough a.c!); a trip to the bathroom becomes an epic challenge requiring you to navigate your fellow cramped, uncomfortable passengers; sleep is nearly impossible; and almost inevitably, you find yourself behind the notorious Recline-Happy-Passenger in front of you who wastes no time in encroaching on you're already minuscule area of space. 

(Some day, I'm sure teleportation will become a thing, right?)

At this point my sister and I have both made the Rome-Boston-Rome trip so many times that we've learned a few tricks to make the trip a little easier. We take advantage of the airplane WiFi (even if it's decidedly not free!); we watch anywhere from 3-4 movies from a pretty decent selection; and we bring snacks. Snacks on an airplane, I've found, make everything better, brighter, more bearable, and when coming back from the U.S, we bring a decent stash, most usually peanut butter M&Ms, Triscuits, a few pieces of fruit for balance (snore), and our staple: Flipz. If you're not from the U.S, you won't be familiar with these, but we're talking crunchy mini pretzels coated in milk chocolate and drizzled with white chocolate. They're not the most elegant snack, but they're downright delicious, and nostalgic, too, a treat that made recurring cameos in elementary school lunchboxes and later, during exam time at our college dorm. In short: they're just the sort of thing you can count on to get you through a total 14 hours of travel, and just what you reach for when a R-H-P strikes.

But alas! Just a few weeks ago, upon our return to Rome, my sister and I, once settled in to our seats, looked at each other (think the famous scene in the movie Home Alone) and came to a jarring realization: we had left our Flipz at home. I could visualize exactly where they had been left on the kitchen counter, too, and after a moment of shock (a whole plane ride to Rome, no Flipz?!) we got through our trip -- a few packages of sad airplane crackers stepping in -- but both of us swear the hours ticked by a little slower without the presence of the usual bright blue bag of chocolate covered pretzels.

But today's recipe! These Chocolate Caramel Pretzel Bars are an ode to our forgotten-at-home Flipz, or rather, Flipz taken to a completely new level, an edible apology to my sister (apparently I was in charge of the snacks -- I refuse to comment at this time). As the title suggests, these bars are not for the faint of heart -- here we've got a tantalizing mix of crunchy, salty pretzels, toasty, buttery caramel, crisp pecans, and a good layer of bittersweet chocolate. They mix salty with sweet and are therefore inevitably addictive, magical, and in fact they disappeared in no time in the presence of my hungry sweet-toothed colleagues. In short: I think a batch of these could make a 10 hour flight seem like 10 minutes, they're that good. Make these and you won't be sorry.

A couple of notes: The recipe as written in the NYT says to use a 9 inch square pan, which I guess would make for bars with a really thick pretzel crust. I opted for an 11x7 inch rectangular pan and that worked just fine, though with a slightly thinner crust. Since I used a rectangular pan, I melted a bit more chocolate (maybe another 100 grams?) to make sure I would cover the whole top of the crust. The pretzels on these become a little less crunchy and a little more chewy the day after baking, so try and eat them the day of. Finally, if you don't have a food processor (I don't, at the moment) feel free to do what I did, which is place your pretzels in a freezer sized bag placed in another freezer sized bag, and crush them with a rolling pin. It takes a little more elbow grease but is just as effective.

Looking for other desserts that use pretzels? It just so happens that I've got this Pretzel Chocolate Pecan Pie. Looking for other bar desserts? I've got this Blueberry Pie Bars, these Fudge Brownies, these Blondies, these Coffee Chocolate Chip Blondies, these Dulce de leche Brownies, these Dark Chocolate Gingerbread Bars, and these Lemon Squares

Recipe from NYT Cooking

Ingredients for the crust:
6 cups (225 grams) pretzels
1/4 cup (50 grams) sugar
8 tablespoons (115 grams or 1 stick) unsalted butter, melted 
4 ounces (115 grams) pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped

Ingredients for the caramel:
10 tablespoons (140 grams) unsalted butter
2/3 cup (160 mL) heavy cream
2/3 cup (145 grams) dark brown sugar, packed
3/4 teaspoon salt

Ingredients for topping:
1 1/4 cups (215 grams) semi sweet chocolate, chopped
2 cups (75 grams) pretzels, crushed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch square baking pan (or a 11x7 inch rectangular pan, if you're me) with parchment paper leaving a leaving 2-inch overhang on two sides. In the bowl of a food processor, combine pretzels and sugar and process until you have fine crumbs. Add melted butter and process until evenly moistened. Transfer mixture into a prepared pan and press down into a compact even layer. Bake until the crust is fragrant and edges are browned, about 17 minutes. Sprinkle with pecans and set aside.

Time for the caramel! In a medium saucepan, combine butter, cream, brown sugar, and salt. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the butter melts and everything is well combined. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Cook for two minutes. Pour over pecans and prepared crust. Bake until caramel is bubbling and has darkened slightly, 13-15 minutes. Transfer to a rack.

While the caramel cools slightly, melt chocolate in short bursts in a heatproof bowl in a microwave or using a double boiler. Let chocolate cool for a few minutes, then spread evenly over the caramel. Sprinkle with crushed pretzels and let cool to room temperature. Transfer to the refrigerator to set for 30-60 minutes.

To serve, lift the bars out using the parchment overhang and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 16-20 squares. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.