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Cooking Off the Cuff: A Flourless Chocolate-Almond Cake From Naples Via London

It was every bit as good as anything we ate in Naples, and almost, but not quite, a match for the Café Murano version.
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Back in May, over at Huffington Post Travel, I made a passing reference to the excellent chocolate-almond cake - torta caprese - on the breakfast buffet at the Hotel Excelsior in Naples. It was in the back of my mind that I might make one for a dinner party some day, but I never put it on my virtual to-cook list.

Then, on our latest visit to London, Jackie and I ran into the cake again, this time as a dessert at the new Covent Garden edition of our buddy Angela Hartnett's Café Murano. The properly crumbly - but not dry - torta was even better than the ones we'd had in Naples: it was made with rich chocolate (some are made with cocoa powder or a mixture of both) and contained a bit more butter. We asked for the recipe just in case we ever decided to get down to baking, and the response was, "It's in my second book"; and so it is, duly credited to Salvatore Scotti, who is from the island of Ischia and knows a thing or two about southern Italian cooking.

It was Jackie who took the cake-baking initiative, just a few days after we got back home. She used the Hartnett/Scotti recipe as a solid basis and remained faithful to its proportions and technique, but she scaled it down for a smaller cake pan and adjusted a few details to accord with her way of working. (Note: The recipe calls for ground almonds, which are readily available in many places but are not found in our local supermarket; we could have gone to a specialty shop about a 20-minute walk away, but a trustworthy weather app noted that the temperature outside felt like 103 degrees F / 40 C, so leaving the house was out of the question. It was easy enough to cook some raw almonds in boiling water for 30 seconds, drain them, slide the skins off, then let them dry thoroughly before grinding them fairly fine - but not to powder - in a food processor.)

Because it uses the same quantity of each main ingredient, the recipe is so easy to remember in grams or ounces that I am not going to give cup-and-tablespoon equivalents. If you absolutely refuse to get a scale, you can look up the approximate conversions on line or in a book.

After heating the oven to 350 degrees F / 175 C, or a bit less in a convection oven (warmer than Hartnett/Scotti) and buttering an 8-inch (20-cm) cake pan and lining it with a circle of parchment paper (also buttered), Jackie melted 150 grams (a bit less than 5-1/2 ounces) of dark chocolate pieces in a bowl set over a pot containing simmering water. Try not to let the bottom of the bowl touch the water, though this isn't as important as a lot of people would have you believe so long as you don't leave the chocolate unattended. Once it had melted and while it cooled (it mustn't be hot when it is added to the batter), she used an electric mixer to beat 150 grams of sugar and a little salt (absent from this and many other recipes) into 150 grams of softened butter; she continued until it was smooth and a little fluffy, and beat in three egg yolks one by one. Then, using a rubber spatula, she incorporated first the chocolate, then 150 grams of ground almonds. (See what I mean about the memorable measurements?)

Using a wire whisk and a clean, dry bowl, she beat three egg whites, with a little salt, until they formed stiff peaks but had not dried out. With her rubber spatula, she folded them into the chocolate-almond mixture after stirring some of the whites in to loosen the batter. She scraped the batter into the prepared cake pan, spread it fairly evenly with the spatula and baked it for 30 minutes before testing with a thin bamboo skewer and returning the cake to the oven for another four. The pick should come out clean but not completely dry, and the top should feel slightly springy (don't press too hard lest your fingers leave ineradicable impressions).

She let the cake cool in the pan for a few minutes before turning it out onto a plate and inverting it onto a cardboard cake circle for slicing. Decoration consisted of sifting on some confectioner's (icing) sugar; that is not obligatory, but it is pretty and disguises the probe holes.

Once it was cool, we had wedges of it with a glass of cold milk, a drink pairing that would surely baffle a Neapolitan, who would probably opt for a short espresso. You can serve your torta caprese with a blob of whipped cream or crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream; we were in too much of a hurry for garnitures. It was every bit as good as anything we ate in Naples, and almost, but not quite, a match for the Café Murano version. I think it will be a staple in our house.

(For a 9-inch / 23-cm cake pan, use 200 g / 7 oz of each principal ingredient and four eggs.)

Egg yolks being added to the fluffy butter and sugar
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Melted chocolate, then almonds, added to the mixture
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Folding in the beaten egg whites
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Batter in the buttered pan
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
The batter spread with a spatula and ready for baking
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Fresh out of the oven
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
The cake should rise a little but will remain quite dense
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Torta caprese with its confectioner's sugar decoration
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Properly crumbly, but moist and intensely chocolaty
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
A terrible phone snapshot of the delicious version at London's Cafe Murano
Phone snapshot by Edward Schneider.