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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