You know a cake is going to be good when it's got chocolate, gangsters, and the image of the beautiful island of Capri all in its backstory.
It was the 1920s. Three Italian-American gangsters visit Capri. As the story goes, they were there to buy a shipment of spats for Al Capone—those elegant, white, button-up protective coverings for your shoes and ankles. This was a man known for dressing in a pinstripe suit and fedora, after all. Anyways, a chef, Carmine di Fiore, makes them a chocolate and almond cake. He doesn't realize until later he forgot to put the flour in it, but the result is a delectable chocolate cake, crisp on the outside and incredibly moist on the inside. The mobsters love it and ask for the recipe—and the chef breathes a sigh of relief.
It sounds more like the start to a comedy act than a memorable cake, but it's the story that the capresi like to tell about their namesake cake, Torta Caprese. The part that's the most believable is that the cake was very likely the result of an accident in the kitchen (like other good things, such as chocolate chip cookies and champagne).
Torta Caprese is a simple cake of even proportions and a handful of essential ingredients: blanched almonds pulverized into flour, unsalted butter, melted dark chocolate, and sugar. Eggs are needed, too—separated and with the yolks stirred through the batter and the whites whipped to fluffy peaks. Other than whipping the eggs whites, all you need is a wooden spoon to mix everything together.
I've found, over the years of making this cake, it's effortless and forgiving. There is, as I mentioned, just one main rule (and even that, as you'll hear about in a moment, can easily be broken): The almond meal, butter, chocolate, and sugar should be equal in weight. This is the time to get out the digital scale. It makes not only preparing this, but also remembering it later, so easy.
It is remarkably similar to Elizabeth David's chocolate and almond cake from French Provincial Cooking, which The Times calls “the best chocolate and almond cake in the world.” (It's also a personal favorite of mine.) David's cake only calls for slightly more chocolate in proportion to the rest of the ingredients, plus a dash of black coffee and rum.
And she's not the only one with similar-yet-slightly-different cakes. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall adapted David's cake during his time at the River Café in the late eighties, upping the chocolate slowly to almost double David's original recipe so that it was “more puddingy," as he says in the forward to At Elizabeth David's Table. On this very site, Molly Wizenberg's wonderful almost flourless chocolate cake appears to be a cousin, too.
But as far as chocolate cakes go, Torta Caprese is the ultimate for me. It's dark and not too sweet, which would detract from the richness of the cake. It has the simplicity of Italian country cakes, but an elegance and decadency that is unique. You only need a small slice, with just a dusting of powdered sugar, and at the very most, some lightly whipped unsweetened cream.
- 125 grams (4.4 oz) blanched almonds (or almond meal)
- 125 grams (4.4 oz) good quality dark chocolate (I use 70% cocoa)
- 125 grams (4.4 oz or 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, chopped
- 125 grams (4.4 oz or 1/2 cup) sugar
- 3 large eggs, separated and left to come to room temperature
- powdered sugar for dusting
Have you made a cake like Torta Caprese before? Let us know in the comments below!