Torta Mantovana

Few cakes are as Italian, to my mind, as a good Torta Mantovana: light, airy, and tasting of the countryside where I spent my summers as a boy. A cousin of my wife's lives in Gambassi Terme, a pretty town perched on a hill about 40 minutes from Florence; whenever we go to visit we buy a Mantovana to take home from the local bakery. We discovered the hard way that we had to keep it in the oven: When we came downstairs for breakfast one morning, we found the foil peeled back and the crust nibbled away, by our cat.

This is based on Artusi's recipe, and is as easy as it is delightful.

Halve the pine nuts crosswise, and peel and sliver the almonds. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (about 180 degrees C).

Melt the butter in a double boiler. Beat the eggs and the sugar till the mixture turns pale yellow. Add the lemon rind, the flour, a bit at a time, the butter, and, finally, the baking powder. Pour the batter into 9-inch a copper pan that's been buttered and dusted with flour and powdered sugar or bread crumbs, and sprinkle the surface of the cake with the nuts.

Bake the cake for about 50 minutes, or until it a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry (it will also begin to pull away from the sides of the pan, and spring back if pressed lightly with a fingertip).

Dust the Mantovana with powdered sugar and serve it cold. It goes quite well with dessert wine, and will keep for several days, wrapped in aluminum foil. NOTE: Artusi doesn't call for any leavening agent, which makes for a much more compact cake that dips well but has a rather dusty texture. The leavening agent makes it much lighter; baking powder works well as a substitute for what is available in Italy.

Buon Appetito!

© Kyle Phillips, 1996

Kyle Phillips's translation of Pellegrino Artusi's La Scienza in Cucina e L'Arte di Mangiar Bene, the first really successful Italian cookbook aimed at non-professionals (it came out in 1891, and the 10th edition, from 1910, is still selling briskly), has just come out from Random House. It is entitled The Art of Eating Well.