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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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.