The final dish of the Techniques of Italian Cooking class was, not surprisingly, a cake. Rules of modern dining say that nothing seals a meal (or a deal) better than dessert, and no dish epitomizes dessert more than the classic, round, epitome of sweets – the cake. And, because good things come to those who wait, this final cake was a Torta Di Amaretti – a low rising cake that is better eaten the second day, rather than just hours after it comes out of the oven.
But like all good finales, the baking of Anna Teresa Callen’s Amaretto Cake was not without a good dose of drama and some finicky foreigners. I have no idea who Anna Teresa Callen is, but I’d imagine she must have been one hell of a woman to have a cake that could cause such a ruckus named after her.
Were this not the last day of our five-week course at ICE, perhaps the Tale of the Torta would not be quite so dramatic, but because this was to be the last dish of the last class, during the eating of which we would no doubt celebrate our newfound culinary skills and reminisce about the anecdotes of our time in the kitchen, there was a fair amount of pressure. On this last day, our class was surprisingly two members short, down to just nine members from our usual eleven. The quiet, cold Bulgarian couple that often came and went as they pleased had apparently forgone the last hurrah.
As such, my particular team was reduced to two members – just I and a middle-aged, red-haired woman whose behavior, especially when it came to desserts, was somewhat questionable. Let’s just say there had been a lot of suggestive moaning and murmurings when it came to enjoying the week-three-tiramisu, during which I had the “pleasure” of sitting next to her. When I was paired with Ginger to make the Torta, my eyebrows went up. But working in the kitchen requires one to keep a constant open mind, so with a smile, we headed over to our station.
We were in the midst of picking apart sticky amaretti cookies and dumping them into a food processor when in waltzed the Bulgarians, airy and aloof as ever. Chef Loren, our thorough-bred Italian and fully gay chef-instructor, rolled his eyes and
with a flick of his wrist, waved them over to our station. I too conducted a mental eye-roll; the Bulgarians were notorious in our class for botching recipes – and not just the ones they were responsible for.
Let’s take a small break for a side story: In our first week of the course, some veal required for a Pasta Incaciata went missing. After several minutes of most of the classmates and Loren searching high and low for it, the Bulgarian husband finally asked what everyone was doing. We explained that we were missing about a half pound of veal, and suddenly the Bulgarian husband shifted his weight and stared at the ceiling, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes. Chef’s gaze immediately went to a bubbling pot of Bolognese sauce at the Bulgarians’ station – a pot that looked way too full, with way more meat than tomato, rather out of proportion. At that moment it was clear – and when Loren questioned the Bulgarian on how much veal the Bolognese sauce called for, he responded defensively at nearly a shout, “What?! It calls for veal, I use veal! I don’t see problem!”
So, it was with a tentative hand that I forked over a container of eggs for the couple to separate, practically flinging a small glass bowl at the wife to prevent her from cracking the eggs directly over the already creamed sugar and butter. I’m fairly certain that a few small fragments of eggshell were tossed into the cream along with the egg yolks, but I decided I’d rather keep her secret than ruin our last supper.
It wasn’t until we gave the wife the task of beating the egg whites that any trouble arose (the husband had been relinquished to the stove to “take care of” another dish, which required exactly ten minutes of aiding several pounds of spinach in wilting). Despite all of the wife’s furious whisking efforts – and in her defense, she was certainly putting her back into it – the egg whites refused to whip up into soft peaks, let alone stiff ones. Loren was once again to the rescue, seizing the bowl from Bulgarian’s hands, adding a dash of Cream of Tartar, and whisking vigorously as the mixture started to condense and fluff. The wife’s face only darkened as she watched Loren’s success, and she eventually skulked away to the pantry in the corner, where she busied herself under the pretense of finding confectioner’s sugar for garnish.
I have to say, I thought it nearly a miracle when the entire cake batter seamlessly came together, was poured into a buttered tin, and set in an oven without a single hiccough. The cake was left to bake for 45 minutes, and we were able to tell it was cooking perfectly from the delightful aroma that oozed from the oven in the last ten minutes of baking. As they say at ICE, “You know the cake is done when it is done.”
So out it came. Ginger and I tag teamed the effort – I held the oven door open while she retrieved the smoking hot tin, now filled to the brim with a moist, golden brown cake – and we retreated back to our station. There, we had a cooling rack ready for our masterpiece, and we placed the cooling rack on top of the hot pan, turning both over together, so that the cake came easily out onto the rack with as little disruption as possible.
Upon setting the rack and cake down, Ginger, the Bulgarian Wife, and myself studied it. The fact was, it didn’t look all that pretty – but it was upside down, after all, and we were sure that once we turned it right side up and topped it with a snowfall of confectioner’s sugar, it would look as pretty as the picture we imagined it to be. We could be damn sure from that smell that it would taste good, I thought to myself as I headed back to the pantry to get a serving plate that we would eventually flip the cake onto.
Just then, I heard a woman shrieking.
“No! No! Stop, what are you doing?! Stop!” For a moment, I just paused. I big part of me didn’t want to know what “she” was doing, for I had a good idea of who “she” was. But then, I woke up and grabbed the dish off the shelf, spinning on my heel and breaking back into the kitchen. As I headed for our station, I saw Ginger with her hands on her forehead, shaking her head and moaning (not the same way she did for the Tiramisu, I promise you). And there, the Bulgarian wife stood, with a slightly dazed expression on her face. Her fingers were sunk deep into the amaretti cake, which now lay in several jagged pieces on – and below – the cooling rack.
The cake was essentially ruined. Anyone could see that – and everyone did, as Ginger’s shouting had roused the whole class and Chef Loren from their concentration to see what was the matter. Some people were shaking their heads, others were glancing around awkwardly as if to say, “Should we get back to work and pretend that didn’t just happen?” Loren started for our station and then stopped several times, as if he thought better of it. Finally, he threw up his hands, spun on his heel, and retreated into the pantry (for a cigarette, I’d guess).
All I could do is say, “Why? Why did you try to move it?” The Bulgarian, now channeling her husband’s defensiveness, shrugged and said, “I wanted to flip it over like we said, so it would look pretty. I didn’t know it would break.”
I grimaced. “It’s a hot cake. It’s extremely soft, it has to cool before you can move it.” She just stared back with a blank expression.
“Okay,” I said. “It’s okay, we can fix this. It’ll still taste good, it doesn’t matter what it looks like…” and I moved in, starting to gently retrieve the fragments of cake and place them on the plate, piecing them together like a puzzle. The Bulgarian wife dove back in, haphazardly grabbing pieces of cake in what was, undoubtedly, her attempt to right a wrong, but she did more harm than good as her rough movements caused even more crumbling of the cake.
“Stop, just – stop,” I said, suddenly stern. I looked at her. “This is a mess, just let me fix it. I’ve got this.”
In retrospect, perhaps I was a bit harsher than I should have been. Perhaps I should have let her clean up her own mess. But the thought of serving a pile of amaretti crumbs alongside Loren’s homemade limoncello as our last dessert of the class was more than I could stand, and so I intervened. The Bulgarian wife stared daggers at me, and then finally backed off. Later, I spotted her frantically copying recipes from Loren’s master binder into her own notebook at the long family table we would later dine at, speaking to know one and sporting a fierce expression. The cake has been put back together again, and with a dusting of powdered sugar, it almost looked whole. I sighed, and carried it delicately over to the serving table, where it sat, stoic and alone, as the rest of our dishes came together.
The Bulgarians didn’t stay for supper. As soon as the last dish was plated for service, they vanished quietly, quickly, disappearing into the hallway while we were all busy photographing the food, not saying any goodbyes. After they left, we toasted to them and the entertainment they had brought us over the past five weeks – it was the least we could do.
And when we finally arrived to dessert, Loren retrieved an unlabeled bottle of limoncello from a cabinet, launching into a tale of how he had traveled to New Jersey to purchase the grain alcohol so he could brew it himself in his home. The process took months, he explained as he poured us all a small liquor glass full. We sat, sipping it slowly, eating our puzzle pieces of torta di amaretti with our hands, savoring the absolutely complementary flavors of the limoncello and this cake, which was sweet, yet comforting – like a hot cup of spicy tea in the winter. At that moment I knew, that for someone who does not particularly like limoncello, I would never serve this cake without it. And I must say, it was the most delicious dessert I’ve ever had.
Anna Teresa Callen’s Tora Di Amaretti
Amaretto Cake – This lovely, low-rising cake is better the second day
Makes 8 servings
- 10 amaretti (Italian Macaroons)
- 4 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate
- 1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1/2 cup of all purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon of Aurum or orange-flavored liqueur
- Confectioner’s sugar (for garnish)
- “Amarettini” or Miniature amaretti (for garnish)
- Orange marmalade
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 10 inch cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper (to prevent sticking, which is what left our cake “less pretty” than we imagined).
In a food processor or blender, combine the amaretti and chocolate and process to pulverize. Set aside.
Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg yolks one at a time. Beat for four minutes to incorporate air bubbles. Should be a frosting consistency.
Gradually add the flour and the amaretti mixture, beating after each addition on the lowest possible speed. Add the liqueur and mix.
Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the amaretti mixture. Pour into the pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out dry, about 45 minutes, maybe less. The cake should be firm, golden brown, and pulling away from the side of the pan. In other words, it should be “done.” Let the cake rest for five minutes in the pan (our crucial mistake) and then let completely cool.
Before serving, sprinkle the torta with confectioner’s sugar. Spread a little orange marmalade on the bottom of the amarettini and place them around the circumference of the torta. Place one amaretti in the middle. Serve with a small glass of Lemoncello, and of course, eat with your hands.