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Italian Potluck

The evening passeggiata begins in Martina Franca when the sun starts to set.

The evening passeggiata begins in Martina Franca when the sun starts to set.

One of the pleasures of sinking into the rhythm of a place involves meeting new people while deepening ties to old friends. It’s not so easily done as an itinerant visitor. You need to engage in the business of everyday life. So we go to the market, walk through town in the early evening during the passeggiata, visit the hardware store and cultivate friendships. When we were invited to a party at a friend’s house last weekend, we were pretty happy about it because it offered confirmation that we are starting to look like part of the landscape.

A friend's party in Cisternino where music is on the menu.

A friend’s party in Cisternino where music is on the menu.

We knew the evening would involve great music—our friend plays in a well-known traditional music group from Puglia and has another band of his own, Foré. We also knew that there would be an Italian version of potluck, which is always intriguing in another culture. Initial consternation: what to bring? Food is really one of the most fundamentally important topics in Italy, a subject on which everyone, at every age, is a learned authority.  And since potluck in the United States is usually such a disaster of mismatched dishes, we expected great things in Italy. Surely Italians have mastered the art of the gracious group meal where participants club together to pull off a stunning, crowd-sourced feast.

Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Olive Oil Cake—perfect every time (Photo credit: www.bbc.co.uk).

Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake—perfect every time (Photo credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk).

After an initial bout of anxiety, I settled on dessert, which is not my usual piatto forte (strong suit). Our host is lactose intolerant but loves sweets, so I happened upon a chocolate olive oil cake from Nigella Lawson made with ground almonds, bitter chocolate and olive oil that seemed perfect. Then I added an antipasto—grilled eggplant with a tonnato sauce—a summer dish more typically served with thinly sliced veal breast. This, too, is lactose-free and practically bursting with flavor and texture. I’ll share that recipe in a subsequent post.

Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Olive Oil Cake is also perfect with lactose-free gelato (Photo credit: foodgawker.com).

Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake is also perfect with lactose-free gelato (Photo credit: foodgawker.com).

The cake couldn’t be easier or more versatile, so you might want to add it to your permanent repertoire, particularly if you’re cooking for gluten and lactose intolerant guests. It can be served as it is with a dusting of powdered sugar or dressed up with a berry coulis. Throw caution to the wind by making a salted caramel sauce and crowning everything with whipped cream or consider serving it in a puddle of crème anglaise if dietary restrictions aren’t an issue. It’s an incredibly forgiving cake, too, so it’s perfect for a beginning baker.

Focaccia is the ever-present party dish in Puglia—everyone knows how to make it and bakeries make great ones.

Focaccia is the ever-present party dish in Puglia—everyone knows how to make it and bakeries routinely produce  great ones.

So how did it go at the Italian potluck? Lots and lots of focaccia of all kinds, which I have come to understand is the go-to item for just about any event in Puglia. It comes in all varieties from with toppings ranging from simple caramelized onions and olives to artichoke, potatoes and asparagus. But beyond focaccia, the offerings were a little less inspired and surprisingly meager. This group clearly came to dance, not eat. The grilled eggplant was inhaled in about ten minutes, the cake in five. But none of that mattered because the music and the company were absolutely brilliant. Next time I’ll bring more food and be a little less intimidated about what I choose to make. Like parties everywhere, the alchemy of great company in a beautiful setting on a moon-filled night make everything else superfluous.

Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

Weigh all of your dry baking ingredients on a kitchen scale for perfect results.

Weigh all of your dry baking ingredients on a kitchen scale for perfect results.

Ingredients:

150 ml (slightly under 2/3 cup) extra virgin olive oil (plus more for greasing the pan)

50 grams (2 oz.) good-quality cocoa powder (sifted)

125 ml (1/2 cup) boiling water

2 teaspoons best vanilla extract

150 grams (1/3 lb.) ground almonds

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 pinch of salt

200 ( 7 1/2 oz.) grams sugar

3 large eggs

Coast the springform pan with the same extra virgin olive oil you're using in the recipe.

Coast the springform pan with the same extra virgin olive oil you’re using in the recipe.

Method:

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.  Grease a 9-inch springform pan with a little oil and line the base with baking parchment cut to fit.

Measure and sift the cocoa powder into a bowl and whisk in the boiling water until you have a smooth, chocolaty, still runny (but only just) paste. Whisk in the vanilla extract, then set aside to cool a little.

If you grind your own almonds, keep their skins on and grind them in the blender or the food processor. My anemic little blender does a fine job of this, but it’s still wise to pick through the ground almonds for any interloping big pieces or, worse, the odd bit of shell. If you must, you can grind skinned almonds, but why?

In another small bowl, combine the ground almonds with the bicarbonate of soda and pinch of salt.

Mixing the cacao with boiling water produces a smooth, satiny mixture you'll add to the dry ingredients later.

Mixing the cacao with boiling water produces a smooth, satiny mixture you’ll add to the dry ingredients later.

Put the sugar, extra virgin olive oil and eggs into the bowl of a freestanding mixer with the paddle attachment and beat together vigorously for about 3 minutes until you have a pale-primrose, aerated and thickened cream. I went old school because our only nod to modernity in our Italian kitchen is a basic blender (oh, and that amazing Saeco espresso machine that grinds the coffee beans, steams milk and just about serves it all to you in a sweet little espresso cup that my husband loves more than life itself).

When you use great eggs from chickens that scratch around and don't eat prepared feed, you'll get an egg mixture that looks like this: goldenrod yellow, light and creamy.

When you use great eggs from chickens that scratch around and don’t eat prepared feed, you’ll get an egg mixture that looks like this: goldenrod yellow, light and creamy.

Turn the speed down a little and pour in the cocoa mixture, beating as you go, and when all is scraped in you can slowly tip in the ground almond mixture.

Scrape down, and stir a little with a spatula, then pour this dark, liquid batter into the prepared springform pan. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the sides are set and the very center, on top, still looks slightly damp. A cake tester should come up mainly clean but with a few sticky chocolate crumbs clinging to it. With this cake, underdone is probably a better bet than over done.

The cake is ready for the oven. Just 45 minutes or so and you're done.

The cake is ready for the oven. Just 45 minutes or so and you’re done.

Let it cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, still in its tin, and then ease the sides of the cake with a small metal spatula and spring it out of the tin. Leave to cool completely or eat while still warm.

Note: As with all baking endeavors, a simple kitchen scale is your friend. Invest in one to ensure perfect results. It doesn’t have to be a fancy digital one; mine is pretty old school but it works for me.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Catherine. This recipe looks great. I’m going to try it. I think I remember you saying that you had grapes. Ours are flowering now and the vineyard is so beautiful! Here’s a recipe that if you don’t have, I think you’ll like. It’s one from Le Marche that is made with the grapes as soon as they are juicy and tasty. We serve it for breakfast at our harvest party. –Peggy Alberti

    SCHACIATTA A’L’UVA –Harvest Focaccia
    This easy to make Focaccia is great for breakfast, brunch, dessert or snacking. Good warm or room temperature.

    THE CRUST:
    1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
    1 teaspoon white sugar
    1 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45
    degrees C)
    2 1/2 cups unbleached flour
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 teaspoon salt

    DIRECTIONS:
    1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). In a medium bowl, dissolve yeast
    and sugar in warm water. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
    2. Stir in flour, salt and oil. Beat until smooth. Let rest for 5 minutes.
    3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat or roll into a round and place dough on cookie sheet with about half the dough hanging off the edge of the pan.
    4. (The recipe calls for 3 1/2 cups grapes, but I think it works out better with around 2-2 1/2 cups as this can get really messy in the oven. Best to put tin foil on the bottom of the stove to save lots of time cleaning up.) The recipe: Take about 3 1/2 cups grapes and squish in your hands. Take out as many seeds as desired, but it’s OK to leave the majority of seeds in. When you make this with Pinot Noir grapes the seeds seem to either disintegrate or soften to the point where you don’t notice them. (Other grapes may be different though.) Place about 1/2 the grapes –juices and all–onto the half of the dough on the cookie sheet, then gently fold over the dough and pinch down the remaining ends.
    5.Sprinkle the top of the Schiaciatta with olive oil, leaves from several rosemary sprigs, then 1/2 cup sugar and the remainder of the grapes. Cook approximately 20 min at 400 degrees. (The more grapes you put inside the longer you’ll need to cook it.)

    May 14, 2013
    • Ooohh, Peggy, what a wonderful recipe. With your permission, I’d love to post at harvest time. The Pugliese don’t make this, so it will be especially fun to introduce it here. We don’t have a vineyard–just tons of olive trees and fruit trees of varying types–but we are surrounded by them. Brian would very much like to plant a small vineyard for home wine-making, so we may be turning to you for some tips. You must come visit us in Puglia–you would love it!

      May 15, 2013
  2. do you mix the ground almonds/salt/soda combintation with the cocoa mixture, or add it to the eggy stuff?

    May 15, 2013
    • Hi, Mary–Add the cocoa mixture to the eggy stuff, then add the almonds/salt/baking soda to the now-combined cocoa-eggy mixture. Stir to mix, then pour it into the prepared pan. Easy-peasey. Are you in France at the moment?

      May 15, 2013
  3. Dear Catherine,
    love, love, love this cake recipe!! Had a spur of the moment invite for last night, couldn’t get to the store, etc., etc., and then I read your post. No more panic. It was delicious! And I’m so pleased to hear that Brian still likes the monster espresso machine–you’re very sweet to mention it! Finally gorgeous, gorgeous spring in Umbria…xoxo.

    May 15, 2013

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