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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:
The following has been edited for narrative and clarity.
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.
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.
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.