Mamma’s Recipe

Torta Nera

Le ricette della mamma...

There is a paper flour bag that has been sitting on my pantry shelf for months. This is not a typo: I meant to write paper flour bag, not bag of flour. That’s because the paper bag is empty, the flour having long ago given its life in the cause of pizza.

I have the unfortunate habit of holding on to stuff like this, usually because a recipe is printed somewhere on the side. I think I’ve been intrigued by these side-of-the-box recipes ever since I was a kid and saw the famous “Mock Apple Pie” recipe printed on the Ritz Cracker box. I never understood why anyone would make a fake apple pie when the real one was so easy. Yes, the thought of wet, sugary, Ritz Crackers cooked in lemon juice is intriguing, but we’ll save that for another day.

There are times when there is no recipe on the package, but I may have found the shape or flavor of the cookie or cracker pictured inspiring. In those cases I will cut out the picture and add it to a growing but rather random file of similar items. Often these bits of inspiration find their way into recipes, although sometimes it is the “feeling” of the item rather than the actual flavors that makes its way into something I bake. “Homey” or “farmhouse” are adjectives that I may take away from a session of flipping through the file that contains these bits of cardboard.

How often do I actually make any of these recipes? Uhhhhh…I’m not sure that I ever have. Even more remarkable in the specific case of the paper flour bag, is the fact that the printing on the flour bag in question was in Italian, a language with which I have—at best—a nodding acquaintance.

Still, there was enough there that I could decipher, so I neatly folded the empty bag and stuck it in a place where it could occasionally wave, “Hello” to me and remind me of its existence.

Okay, the latter is a very passive explanation of what happened. Here’s what really happened: I am endlessly intrigued with anything that smacks of simple Italian cooking. The recipe on the bag begins with the title, “Le ricette della mamma,” or in English, “Mom’s recipe.”  I was hooked.

I know enough Italian that I could further identify cocoa and orange zest amongst the ingredients; this begs the question, “Why did I wait so long to make this recipe?” Dunno, but clearly its time has come. Hey, I never write about making other folks’ recipes. Leave it to me to choose one that I can barely understand.

Thank you, internet. If it weren’t for you I would have had to dig deep to find someone to patiently translate the recipe. But you did it quickly, and in the comfort of my own home. Very accommodating. And I was truly charmed by your word-for-word translation. Yes, I will “…ascend well the egg whites”, I promise.

The name, “Torta Nera” bodes well. It translates as “Black Cake.” If you love chocolate (ME!, ME!) that sounds mighty good. The recipe was written in metric weight? No problem. I have a scale which will translate into ounces and cups. (PS: I think electronic scales are indispensible for bakers.) Most of the ingredients are your cake-baking basics like milk, flour, butter.

But one ingredient translated poorly: “una bustina di lievito vanigliato.” This translated as, “a sachet of vanilla yeast.” Wha??

Because in my simple mind and imagination all Italians spring from the womb with innately superior cooking skills, my first assumption was, “Good god, these folks are so clever! They even have vanilla-flavored yeast!”

Alas, this is not the case. There’s no such thing as vanilla-flavored yeast. That would be your ultimate niche market item, after all how much Panettone can you make? In the meantime I was puzzled: Did they mean a packet of vanilla? A packet of yeast? Maybe the internet translator meant plain yeast instead of vanilla yeast?

The answer was found via just a bit more internet digging. What the recipe meant for me to use was vanilla-flavored baking powder, a common convenience ingredient used by Italian housewives. An “Aha!” moment, but I couldn’t find that product in New York City, so a bit of plain baking powder and vanilla extract would substitute.

I carefully weighed and measured each ingredient before moving on to the mixing instructions where I encountered a small glitch. Turns out Mamma must have been nipping at the vino. She listed 100 ml of milk as an ingredient, but then neglected to mention when to add it and / or how. That’s okay. I’ve made a cake or two in my time and was able to channel Mamma and figure it out.

A bit of background: in setting out to translate this recipe I was hoping for a cake that would simultaneously be a bit simple and rustic, yet have an unusual mix of flavors and textures. If not, why bother? I already have a chocolate cake recipe, who needs yet another? The fact that the recipe calls for type “00” flour, a finely-milled flour usually used in pizza dough or bread gave me hope for something a bit denser than the springy Hershey’s One-Bowl cake or Duncan Hines’ mix many are used to.

Mamma didn’t disappoint. The cake was dense and dark, with a crust that gives a soft but gratifying crunch when chewed. While she didn’t specify in her recipe how much grated orange zest to add, I assumed that she would prefer the cake to be well perfumed by the citrus and so I used a generous hand.

Since it is not as aggressively sweet as an American-style chocolate cake, I found that it would be eminently dunkable with a spot of Earl Grey or a spirited companion with a bit of Moscato di Asti.

Grazie Mamma!

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Click here for the recipe for Torta Nera.

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