Last week at Eataly, I spied a curious item in their pastry case. It was Sbrisolona, a regional Mantovan cake my friend Laney told me about last year. She's the author of the blog Ortensia Blu, http://blog.ortensiablu.com, and owner of the online Italian goods shop of the same name. I knew she was a huge fan of Sbrisolona, and having never had it, I figured I should get one, try it, and report back to Laney. It was good -- not great, and I knew I could make a better version at home. So I started with Laney's recipe from her blog. I adapted it to include semolina flour, as I'm not crazy about the crunch of cornmeal, and I added orange zest and anise seed, two of my favorite flavors in Italian desserts.
Traditionally made with flour and cornmeal, Sbrisolona was a peasant dish created out of very few ingredients. It kind of developed its own cult status in the region of Lombardia, specifically the town of Mantova, near Lake Garda. The word "sbrisolona" sort of translates to "crumble and break apart." It's meant to be eaten without slicing, so just get in there and break it apart with your hands. It's perfect with an espresso or glass of vin santo, and a bunch of friends at the table. Cin cin! —mrslarkin
Test Kitchen Notes
WHO: Mrslarkin’s Cinnamon Scone Bread recently won our contest for Best Breakfast Baked Good.
WHAT: A crunchy, crumbly, and nutty tart from Mantova (a.k.a. Mantua) in Northern Italy.
HOW: Toss together pulverized almonds, flour, semolina flour, sugar, orange zest, and anise seed. Mix in softened butter and egg yolks until you've formed a lumpy dough. Spread into a pan, scatter almonds and anise over top, and bake until golden brown. Invite friends over, then have at it with your hands.
WHY WE LOVE IT: The holiday season has us exhausted by super sweet, soft cakes. But this traditional Italian dessert, which has more in common with an extra-clumpy granola than with a chocolate cake, is the type of treat we’re excited about this time of year. —The Editors
Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a 10-inch springform pan or a tart pan with a removable bottom. Line with parchment and grease the parchment. (I may try it without parchment next time, as this cake has quite a bit of butter, and parchment might be irrelevant. But it's always nice to play it safe, isn't it?)
Reserve a handful of almonds, then finely crush -- but don't pulverize -- the remaining ones.
In a large bowl, mix together the nuts, flours, sugar, salt, zest, and anise seed.
Using your hands, mix in the butter and egg yolk until incorporated. The dough should be at the large clump stage -- not a uniformly smooth dough.
Lay the crumbs in the pan evenly. It should be craggy, so don't sweat it. Scatter reserved almonds and extra anise seed on top of cake.
Bake on the middle rack for 30 minutes. If the middle of the cake hasn't reached the golden-brown stage, place the pan one rack up in the oven for another 10 minutes. Let cool completely and remove to a large serving platter -- it might get messy.
Alternatively, bake in three 6-inch cake pans for giving as gifts. I've also made this in five mini 4 x 4-inch paper baking pans/molds (the kind with the plastic snap-on lids). Reduce baking time and start checking cakes at 15 to 20 minutes. The cakes are done when they are golden brown on top.
When cool, dust cake with powdered sugar, if desired. The cake keeps well, wrapped in wax paper. I keep my leftovers in an unzipped ziploc bag.