Artusi’s Semolina Cake
There are times when something sweet, comforting, even old fashioned, is exactly what the doctor ordered. For me, it could be a sponge cake with fresh whipped cream and strawberries, an apple and rhubarb crumble or a short, crumbly crostata with homemade jam. But some Italians might find that a torta di semolino, semolina cake, brings a smile of nostalgia as they recall their grandmothers making this delectable yet simple, humble cake.
This cake’s main ingredient is, naturally, semolina (also known as semola or semolino) or durum wheat flour, a coarse, pale yellow flour used in making couscous and fresh pasta, particularly pasta without eggs, a tradition of southern Italy. While semolina is quite coarse in texture, a finer semolina flour is also made with further grinding; this is often used for baking bread, such as the delicious pane di Altamura from Puglia.
In this recipe from Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, the semolina is cooked with milk until it becomes soft and creamy like polenta (for Americans, you might compare this to Cream of Wheat), giving the cake a dense and moist texture, quite like a baked cheesecake with some hand-ground almonds and a hint of lemon to enhance the texture and flavour.
Recreating a recipe, particularly a cake recipe, from the late 1800s in a modern kitchen can require a few adjustments before getting just right. In the nearly 800 recipes of his book, Artusi does not give any cooking times or indications of heat (which is just as well, considering the different ovens that were used then – he often makes reference to woodfired country ovens) and he assumes that many processes or techniques, such as blanching and peeling almonds or cooking semolina, are already known to his ‘housewife’ readers so he does not go into details. Consider too that ingredients such as eggs would have been largely home grown at the time and were likely to be much smaller in proportion to today’s common supermarket eggs. So the recipe below has been adapted slightly and expanded to better work in a modern kitchen.
Torta di Semolina
Use fine semolina as opposed to the coarser type available. If you’re lucky enough to have your own eggs or can use smaller eggs, then stick to Artusi’s 4 eggs, otherwise 3 larger eggs will do.
- 1 litre whole milk
- 130 gr of fine semolina
- 130 gr sugar
- 100 gr whole almonds, blanched, peeled and ground (see instructions)
- 20 gr of butter
- 4 small eggs, beaten
- zest of 1 lemon
- pinch of salt
Prepare almond meal by first removing the skins of the almonds. This is easily done by blanching them quickly, then squeezing the skins off by hand. If you already have peeled almonds, go ahead and pop them into a food processor to finely grind them together with the sugar, added one tablespoonful at a time, then set aside.
Note that Artusi advises doing this step in a mortar and pestle, which I have to say will give you smoother results than the food processor. A food processor leaves the almond meal slightly rough and a little uneven. By pounding the almonds by hand in a mortar and pestle you will extract more of the oil from the almonds resulting in a finer paste and a smoother textured cake.
Combine the semolina with the milk in a pot over low heat and whisk constantly to prevent lumps or burning. The semolina takes about 8-10 minutes to cook. As it cooks, it should thicken and when tasted it should feel soft and creamy on your tongue, not grainy. Just before taking it off the heat, stir in the almond meal, the butter, lemon zest and pinch of salt until combined.
Allow the semolina mixture to cool before adding in the eggs. Once combined, pour the mixture into a greased and floured (or lined) cake tin large enough that the cake is no more than 1 ½ – 2 ‘fingers’ (as Artusi indicates) in height. A 26cm or 10 inch diameter round cake tin should be perfect.
Bake at 180°C for 50-60 minutes or until set and evenly golden brown on top.
Allow the cake to cool completely and just before serving, dust with icing sugar. This is such a moist cake that the icing sugar will just melt into the surface of the cake if it is left too long. Any remaining portions should be kept in the refrigerator.