Dessert

The Story Behind Our Most Popular Cake Recipe

December 11, 2017

There are some recipes on our site that inspire hundreds. Others inspire thousands. And then there’s Louisa’s Cake. This simple, fruity, ricotta-laced cake appeared on our site in the spring of 2011. Since then, it’s accrued over 4,500 saves and built up a comments board that teeters into the three hundreds. It remains one of our community’s most trusted recipes and with its simple melange of ingredients, it’s easy to see why.

Yet one mystery always lorded over this perennially popular recipe. Who was Louisa? The recipe’s original description features a small but vibrant sketch of a “family friend, gardener and chef from Castellina in Chianti, Italy” from whom the recipe originates, but otherwise the true origins of this cake remained shrouded in internet obscurity. Until now, that is.

We reached out to Jennifer Wagner, who submitted the recipe to our site so many years ago. She was pleasantly surprised to hear that the cake she and her family enjoy so much—and so often—had left such a hefty impression on our site’s community. When I asked about the cake’s creator, the grand dame of a cake we can only describe as “ethereal,” her voice softened and she told me this story:

Shop the Story

The following has been edited for narrative and clarity.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I've not yet gotten around to making the recipe, although I've had it for a few years with intentions of trying it & so many other recipes on here, but unless entertaining, I'm cooking for one. I will surely make this cake sooner than later. It looked and sounded divine the first time I read the recipe. I love cakes & pastries, but tend to like simple cakes mostly without frosting or icing...like bundt cakes and single layer cakes like this one. Thank you for sharing the story & this wonderful recipe. Can't wait to make it!”
— Babette's S.
Comment

My husband’s family has an agriturismo, a working vineyard with apartments, it’s one of their businesses and we’d spend a lot of time there and actually lived there for one year when our youngest was a baby. So I spent that whole year pretty much with Louisa. The farm is in Castellina in Chianti. It’s in Tuscany between Siena and Florence, right between the two cities. Louisa lives about twenty minutes away in a town called Poggibonsi. It's this funky little city and it’s very un-touristed. She still lives there. She just turned 80 this summer.

Photo by Jennifer Wagner

We had just suffered a lot of loss—my brother had died and my mother-in-law had just died—and here we were in Italy and I really kind of clung to her. She was this nut and no one could understand my connection to her. I’d always been a baker my whole life, so I would watch her because her method was so different than mine. Hers was all gut and instinct and regional cooking, recipes that her family has been doing for hundreds of years. She drove a Renault 1967 and she always had her hair up in a beehive.

At the time she was working for my father-in-law. She and her husband, Gino, both did the gardening and the olive harvests. We did two olive harvests with them. She would do one meal a week for the guests at the agriturismo and would always cook for our family when we visit. I’ve never, I mean never, seen her sit in my entire life. She doesn’t really walk either, she runs.

She doesn’t remember making that cake. It was just off the top of her head. I mean, she always makes torta della nonna for my husband but she just kind of made this one up. I wrote everything down she told me on a napkin or a piece of paper and I tried to recreate it so many times. At least ten times I tried to recreate what she did. I’ve always wanted to try to tell her how much people have felt connected to that recipe, but I think I have to do a better job of explaining this to her.

Photo by Jennifer Wagner

She’s no longer working for the farm because we sort of forced her to retire. Physically it was getting very hard for her. Of course, the minute she leaves she starts growing tomatoes and her garden is just incredible. She's apparently such an amazing gardener she’s making her own sugo and probably just giving it to all her friends. She just has to keep working and keep moving. She’s that sort of incredible force of nature.

The cake with an incredible presence has a narrative of its own. For those of our community members who have made and loved Louisa's Cake, we hope you continue to bake in the spirit of this resolute and convivial woman. And for any who have yet to taste (or bake) the marvel that is this dessert, let Louisa and the video below serve as inspiration.

Have you ever made Louisa's cake? Tell us your story in the comments.

31 Comments

Mmabatho September 7, 2018
This cake and it's story remind me of the book like water for chocolate. I love the cake. I'm happy to make more intricate recipes anytime, but this one I save for very special occasions. I even make my own ricotta for it. Thank you Louisa and thank you Jennifer x
 
NJBernstein December 26, 2017
Well, did bake it after all- very good, but Maialino's olive oil cake is so much better!
 
Michelyn December 26, 2017
Is this cake supposed to be thick and wet in the middle or should it be more cake like? The stick came out dry when I tested it, but once it cooled I wasn't happy with the heaviness. I'm not an experienced baker, how can I make the texture lighter?
 
beejay45 June 24, 2018
I haven't baked this recipe, but just from looking at the pics and descriptions, I'd say this is what it is. If you want light and fluffy, this is not the cake for you. Having said that, you could separate the eggs, whip the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them into the batter before baking. This technique will lighten just about anything, but it's not going to be bakery layer cake light ever. That's not what it is.
 
Cassandra B. December 20, 2017
Oh, my, now I HAVE to make this!!
 
Antoinette December 18, 2017
Help! I have been working on this recipe to make it gluten-free and lower sugar. I keep getting a cake that’s too wet. Is anyone at Food-52 up to the challenge? If I get there first, I’ll let you know. Going through a lotta ricotta around here...
 
Antoinette December 18, 2017
I should have specified grain-free as well. Trying with almond and coconut flour to keep it grain-free, hence not subbing a simple-carb flour as is suggested below. If you’ve got the genius, let me know! Thanks!
 
PegBee December 18, 2017
I’ve made this cake a few times now with Cup-4-Cup GF flour and it is turned out beautifully.
 
1natalplum December 18, 2017
My husband, son and I spent three weeks in Tuscany this fall helping a friend with the olive harvest on their family property, and while the sightseeing excursions were wonderful, I loved the worker's lunch the best. Just like I've read, Mama served up a huge meal accompanied by red wine and finished off with espresso and grappa. On Fridays, one of the pensioners we worked alongside, Francesco, would bring a treat baked by his wife, including this cake. It was wonderful, and now I have an authentic recipe! Thanks so much!
 
waccababe December 15, 2017
This cake is just PERFECTION on every level! I can't add anything more to the comments already submitted. but just rest assured this ethereal yet homey cake is as good as it gets!
 
laurenlocally December 15, 2017
One of my favorite, go-back-to frequently cakes!
 
NJBernstein December 14, 2017
I haven't made the cake yet, not having been aware of it (but now I can't wait to do so). However, I have been in Poggibonsi. In 1996 - 21 years ago - my husband and I were frequently in Poggibonsi, or more accurately, we passed through it on our way from the villa outside San Gemingano where we were staying, to wherever we were exploring in Tuscany, and back again. We had a car, and no matter where we went on our outings, we had to drive through Poggibonsi, and on each outing we would say, "oh, look, Poggibonsi again." and "Poggibonsi again" and "Well, Poggibonsi again," and we thought the whole thing was hysterical after a while. Still, years after, one of us will look at the other and say, "Poggibonsi." I have not heard or seen mention of that word, apart from my husband and I fooling around saying it, since our visit in 1996. And here we are, with Poggibonsi, again.
 
Laurence T. December 14, 2017
This is my “go to” cake for almost every occasion. Just delivered one to a dear friend who just lost his husband of 44 years, and he said it was just the perfect thing to have on hand for the family and visitors who dropped by. Its so versatile....breakfast, a pick-me-up for morning or afternoon, or a not too sweet dessert (I scatter raspberries around it when in season, or halved fresh figs). Best cake, ever!
 
Rachel P. December 14, 2017
I have been making this cake for several years and think of this dear woman each and every time. It is so nice to put a face and see Louisa as a real person. Thank you for sharing the history behind the cake!<br />
 
Babette's S. December 14, 2017
What a wonderful story & what a wonderful lady! I've not yet gotten around to making the recipe, although I've had it for a few years with intentions of trying it & so many other recipes on here, but unless entertaining, I'm cooking for one. I will surely make this cake sooner than later. It looked and sounded divine the first time I read the recipe. I love cakes & pastries, but tend to like simple cakes mostly without frosting or icing...like bundt cakes and single layer cakes like this one. Thank you for sharing the story & this wonderful recipe. Can't wait to make it!
 
Elizabeth K. December 15, 2017
I used a 9 inch springform. The cake came out perfectly. I served it with fresh whipped cream and blackberries. Going to make it again for Christmas.
 
Colin December 14, 2017
Hi...new to all this baking. What is the best size(diameter) pan/tin to use for this recipe? Regards to all!
 
Baywife December 14, 2017
I haven’t tried this cake, but from just eyeballing the pictures I’d say it’s 10”.
 
Colin December 14, 2017
Thanks for the reply...it looks a bit smaller than that to me...hopefully someone who has made it will comment...regards C
 
Colin December 14, 2017
Hi again...just found the original article/recipe from 2011...it mentions a 9"-10" tin...so all good! Colin
 
kareema December 14, 2017
This brought tears to my eyes. We had a wonderful babysitter for our kid who was from Texas (the way our kid pronounced her name and her husband's cracked us up. We live in WA state and hearing a Texas accent from our 3-year old was SO fun. This was the best decision I think we ever made for our kid on SO many levels.<br /><br />She also made the best fried chicken EVER. I would pay serious money to make something closely approximating her. I've tried the internet, Cooks Illustrated (not bad), and anything else I can think of, and hers. Was. Better.
 
S T. December 14, 2017
I made a gf version of this cake using enjoy life's gf all purpose flour blend. It was lovely and delicious, everyone really liked it and asked for the recipe.
 
PegBee December 14, 2017
I made it exactly as written with exception of using Cup-4-Cup gluten free flour (my favorite) and it was divine. I ate just about half the cake myself when still warm! Highly recommend.
 
Morningside H. December 12, 2017
This cake is absolutely delicious. I make it with a tad less sugar, homemade lactose free ricotta and I use a fragrant, floral tahitian vanilla pod (the seeds scraped from a whole pod) which works wonderfully with the lemon zest. I've been known to float a few fresh raspberries in it as well. It's so moist and squigy and delicious. I sometimes quarter the recipe and bake it in a miniature springform just for me alone!
 
Pat December 12, 2017
How do you make that ricotta? What miracle is that?
 
Diana W. December 14, 2017
yes please I would love to see what you do. Cabot Cheese is Lactose free and there are a few other lactose free items out there - Green Organics, but no ricotta.
 
beejay45 June 24, 2018
I Googled around a bit, and it looks like you just use a lactose-free milk and proceed as for regular ricotta. There are videos on YouTube if you want to see it done, but it looks just like the way we usually make it.
 
holly December 12, 2017
I use King Arthur Flour Measure For Measure blend. I think this gives the best results for baking. I also back off on the sugar to scant cup for high altitude baking changes.
 
holly December 11, 2017
I make this cake for myself gluten free and it's great that way. I made it at Thanksgiving for my co workers and added chopped walnuts and dried cherries and received raves. Such a beauty of a cake.
 
Kaitri December 11, 2017
Please tell me you just swap the flour 1:1! If so, what GF flour (or blend of flours) do you use?
 
Shannon December 11, 2017
Great cake. I make it for friends during the holiday season. It remains one of my favorite recipes from Food 52 and I have saved a lot of recipes. Try it, you will be happy you did.