Ada Boni’s eggless, butterless chocolate cake

I’m always looking for interesting recipes in old cookbooks, things that are perhaps a bit forgotten and old fashioned or even a bit quirky. Even the classic things that haven’t changed for decades or centuries interest me for the fact that they don’t change. It’s something of a passion of mine and I’ve managed to make it the theme of my new column for Cucina Corriere, the food blog of Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera.

ada boni's egg free, butter free chocolate cake

It’s called I Classici a Pranzo, which doesn’t sound as good when you translate it literally into English but the idea is having the classic cookbook writers of Italian cuisine over for lunch and cooking out of their cookbooks. Twice a month I’ll post a recipe (both in Italian and English) inspired by a classic Italian cookbook and bring the recipes back to life – things like Artusi’s Florentine meatloaf, an oldie but a goodie, Elizabeth David’s Risotto in Cantina and Nonna Genia’s hazelnut cake.

This chocolate cake, fished out of Ada Boni’s The Talisman of Happiness (1929), is one that has quickly become a favourite of mine once I tried it. When I first read the recipe it almost looked as though a mistake had been made – no eggs, no butter.

During its time, when this recipe first appeared in Ada Boni’s cookbook, this chocolate cake would probably have been considered a simple, inexpensive, every day cake, the perfect thing to have beside a cup of tea or coffee for breakfast or a treat. Because that is truly what it is: dark, bittersweet and dense with a good crumb, it’s simple on its own but easily dressed up with some whipped cream or a dusting of powdered sugar and fresh fruit. It can be made with basic staples from the pantry and can be prepared in just minutes, with little fuss (you don’t even need beaters – a bowl and a spoon will do!).

Ada boni's chocolate cake (egg free and butter free)

Today there is something rather remarkable about this cake – it’s almost unbelievable how fluffy and moist this is. It’s made with things you would probably always have on hand. And it can be whipped together in literally minutes. No doubt it also appeals to people now as a cake suited to a special diet because of the lack of eggs and butter.

I’ve found it’s also an interesting cake to play with, transforming it into a vegan or completely dairy-free cake by simply replacing the milk with an equivalent. I experimented a bit, using almond milk and coffee (and substituting half the flour for almond meal, leaving out the cinnamon and orange and using some vanilla instead). It’s a winner, perhaps even better than the original, remaining moist for days with the unmistakeable aroma of almonds. Even better was the version with coconut milk, so soft and buttery, you would never guess it was indeed butter-less. In both cases I needed to use about 100ml extra liquid but think of the potential here with other substitutes too. Next time I’ll add a splash of rum to it too. Or – for those who don’t have a problem with dairy – buttermilk in place of regular milk.

I’m sure it’s easy enough to turn into a gluten-free version too. Suddenly, this cake has become the model for my favourite ‘alternative’ chocolate cake. Except that it’s not just for alternative diets – this cake will make anyone happy.

torta bilbolbul ada boni's chocolate cake

Ada Boni’s Chocolate “Bilbolbul” Cake from The Talisman of Happiness (1929)

  • 200 grams flour
  • 250 grams sugar
  • 100 grams bittersweet cocoa powder
  • 2 grams (½ teaspoon) ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder (or 1 sachet of Italian leavening or 1 teaspoon bicarbonate soda plus 1 teaspoon cream of tartar)
  • 250 ml milk
  • zest of 1 orange

Sift all the dry ingredients together, in particular the cocoa. Add the milk and zest and stir to combine until smooth. Spread the mixture in a round cake tin (22-24cm diameter) greased with butter and lined with baking paper. Bake at 180ºC for 35-40 minutes or until springy when touched on top. Remove from cake tin when cool enough to handle and serve dusted with powdered sugar, if desired, or some whipped cream.

You can also make it into cupcakes – spoon the mixture into a muffin tray and bake for about 20 minutes.

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Comments

23 Responses to “Ada Boni’s eggless, butterless chocolate cake”
  1. June Burns says:

    That looks wonderful! I love how light the ingredient list is, I’ll have to try it :)

  2. Sophie says:

    This looks delicious, and I’ve passed this on to my friends with eggs and dairy sensitivities. I love that it’s an old recipe, and I’ll be sure to try it soon. But Nonna Genia’s hazelnut cake might have to come first!

  3. Viviana says:

    This is amazing, really no eggs or butter? I have to try it, specially the alternative with almonds you mentioned.

  4. Dulcistella says:

    woha… are you sure 250 mL of milk? Because today I tried to make it, I mixed in 250 g of milk (I know, I KNOW, milk’s density is not 1 g/mL, but try to understand, I’m far from home without a graduated glass) and it was practically concrete. So I added some more and in the end it was barely pourable… let’s say very dense. Is it how it is supposed to be? Also, 20 min 180°C is it for USA-sized muffin tins or European? I mean, the big 6-holes tray or the 12-holes one? Because I think that in the end they were a little undercooked… So many problems, sorry!

    • Emiko says:

      Yes, that’s right, the original 1920s recipe is for 250 ml of milk (the difference between grams and ml of milk is so tiny it doesn’t make any significant difference) and I’ve tested it plenty of times (it has become my favourite chocolate cake!) with fine results. In the case of using other milks such as almond or coconut, I found I had to use about 100 ml more for it to be fluid enough to smooth out into the cake tin and perhaps you’ll find if you add a bit more you can work with it better. But the original recipe is just as you see here. I am not sure exactly of what you mean by US or European muffin tins but the ones I refer to are regular cupcake sized tins (smaller, I imagine). As always, ovens cook differently in every kitchen so check the cakes first by checking to see if the tops are springy and then by inserting a skewer into them — if they come out clean, they are done!

  5. Gaia says:

    The Talisman of Happiness is one of those books that never get old. I will try your coconut milk version – it sounds interesting.

  6. Sabry says:

    FANTASTICA! I want to try it immediatly. Dear Emiko always surprise me with your good recipes. I have open my own blog, it’s simple for now, just 5 recipes… please have a look and leave a message, I would be happy!
    Sabry / Firenze

  7. Nasreen says:

    I was excited to try this cake, I love a simple chocolate cake recipe, but I had the same issue as Dulcistella. I added a lot more milk to even be able to stir the batter. The cake had a lovely aroma of dark chocolate and orange, looked lovely and sliced nicely, but the texture was disappointingly dense with a stick-to-your-palate dryness. Italian flour must have changed since Ada wrote her recipe! Any suggestions?

    • Emiko says:

      Yes, I find that I often end up adding more milk (about 100 ml) more to this cake too. Perhaps it’s because we are used to a more fluid batter now, or yes, as you say, perhaps the flour we use is a little different to the one Ada Boni used in 1929?! Also, my personal favourite version is with coconut milk in place of the regular milk. I find it adds richness and softness to the cake, and have been making it this way ever since trying it!

  8. Lauren says:

    I can’t believe it’s so fluffy without eggs and butter. Looking forward to trying this! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Roger says:

    Just found this whilst searching for polenta biscuits… just found you I guess! I’ve just come back from the market with some creme fraiche and some rhubarb and was looking for something with crunch to accompany it for dessert this evening. I love the idea of the polenta biscuits but I only have the coarse polenta in the cupboard. Then I found this fabulously simple sounding chocolate cake and I’m thinking forget the crunch, thus sounds like the near perfect accompaniment. So, bookmarked and looking forward to making and tasting… and I think I’m going to be back to your site over and over ! Thank you.

    • Emiko says:

      Thank you! This is a great cake that I make over and over again but like others have found, you may need to add more milk than what Ada Boni specified in her recipe (it’s a good lazy cake for when you don’t have enough eggs or butter in the fridge but want to make a cake quickly and easily!). I’ve made the polenta biscuits with the coarse polenta too and it comes out just fine, albeit with a good bite to it (good for those that like a crunchy biscuit!).

  10. Ann says:

    Emiko, made this last night. Didn’t have regular milk and drank the last of my almond milk so improvised with about 1/4 cup of greek yogurt and thinned it out with it out with espresso and water to make 8 oz. Also added about 1/2 tsp of baking soda since the dairy was a soured product ( it’s been my experience recipes add a bit of baking soda that have buttermilk or yogurt it). Added a bit of vanilla extract because I felt it needed it but other than that I stuck with the recipe. The batter was rather dry so I slowly add about 4 oz. more water to make the batter more like a cake batter. Then poured it in a 9″x 5″ loaf pan lined in parchment paper. I baked it for 40 min. and stuck a steak knife in it to test it and the batter still was batter consistency so I left it in the oven for about 20 min. more. It was finally done. It came out moist and fine textured. Not super sweet which was perfect. I think adding a bit more liquid would be the main thing to change in this recipe. it’s a keeper recipe!

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks so much for this feedback! I do like baking with yogurt, I think this sounds like a great addition though yes, it does need a bit of extra liquid in it – just enough to get it, as you say, to a regular cake batter consistency. I’ve even seen a version of this recipe where simply water was used instead of milk! Talk about essential! But it works, too, which just changes the way I think about how a cake should be made!

  11. Amy says:

    This torta sounds delicious! I just discovered your website today thanks to Girl in Florence, and am so glad she wrote that great post about your new cookbook! I have celiac and see that you noted this recipe could be made gluten-free. What flour mixture do you suggest? Half white rice flour and half potato starch, as you suggested with another cake, or some other combination? Thanks for your input!

    • Emiko Davies says:

      I haven’t done it yet but I think I would experiment with half potato starch and half almond meal? I did do an almond meal one too, and that was lovely (chocolate and almonds, mmmm)!

  12. milton says:

    Emil,

    i have great italian chocolate you think i can wing it instead of powder ?

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