Artusi’s Torta Margherita: 3 simple ingredients

This classic Italian cake is one of those things that every cook should have up his or her sleeve, especially when it’s Pellegrino Artusi’s recipe, a 120 year old recipe that is yeast-free, gluten-free and dairy-free, even without meaning to be. It’s made with just three ingredients – eggs, sugar and potato starch – for a dead simple, thrifty and light-as-a-feather cake. A genius recipe and one that should be committed to memory (which should be easy enough to do when there are only three ingredients) for those times when you need to whip up a cake for gluten or dairy intolerant friends of yours or just because. It’s so soft and fluffy it’s the cake equivalent of a nice warm hug or your favourite pillow, whichever you love more.

Torta Margherita, or as Artusi calls it in his 1891 cookbook, “Pasta Margherita”, is a light and fluffy cake adorned simply with a dusting of icing sugar. The slices of pure white coated cake are said to resemble the white petals of a daisy, lending the cake its name (Margherita means “daisy” in Italian).  Many Italians might fondly remember their nonne making this, maybe even from scratch, but it’s commonly made out of a packet these days – a bit sad really when you realise how quick, easy and cheap it is to make with a recipe like this one. Popular for breakfast, perfect dipped in caffe latte, or as an afternoon snack, it’s a similar cake to it’s Continental cousin, the sponge cake.

In the introduction to his recipe, Artusi recounts (these stories are the best bits about Artusi’s recipes) that he once made this cake for a poor friend of his, Antonio Mattei, from Prato, who asked for the recipe. Being an industrious man, Antonio took the recipe and perfected it, finally selling the end-product in his restaurant. The cake had such enormous success that there was no meal without the cake being requested. The moral of Artusi’s story, he then explains, is that people like Antonio, who grab any opportunity to tempt Fortune, will find that Fortune may casually do them a favour more than people who just sit on the couch… in other words, I think Artusi is giving his blessing to take his recipe and run with it!

As this is such a simple cake it really doesn’t need much messing with, but feel free to add perhaps some lemon zest or juice to the mix (which Artusi recommends) for a slightly tangy flavour or perhaps some fresh vanilla. The cake should be served simply with icing (confectioner’s) sugar, but you could also use it like the similar sponge or pan di spagna for other desserts such as zuccoto, zuppa inglese or trifle. For more detailed information on the difference between potato starch and potato flour or on gluten-free flours in general, I’d highly recommend this page from Gluten Free Goddess’ blog.

Artusi’s Torta Margherita or Pasta Margherita

  • 120 grams of potato starch, sifted
  • 120 grams of fine white sugar (caster sugar)
  • 4 eggs
  • Juice or zest of a lemon (optional)

Separate the yolks from the whites and first beat the yolks together with the sugar until very pale and creamy. Add the lemon if using and the potato starch and beat. (Note: Artusi says here to work the batter for half an hour, but this is before the time of Kitchenaids and electric beaters so I think it’s safe to say you can do it for less!)

In a separate clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then delicately fold the whites through the batter. Turn the mixture out into a round cake tin (buttered and lined with baking paper). Bake at moderate heat for about an hour or until golden on top and firm to the touch (Note: Artusi doesn’t actually give times or heat, but this wouldn’t have been useful anyway as most of his readers at the time would have been using wood-fired ovens! I baked it at 180 C for about an hour).

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Comments

20 Responses to “Artusi’s Torta Margherita: 3 simple ingredients”
  1. The simple desserts are my favorite, and this cake looks like a real treat. I’m going to try it with the lemon zest.

  2. Valeria says:

    The most classic cake, and yet always the one that hits the spot. Classics are always modern.

  3. Rosa says:

    A delightfully light cake! A wonderful classic.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  4. less is more, I find myself choosing more and more often the most simple recipes, the ones that call for less ingredients – as for Elizabeth David’s mousse!
    So simple, so old fashioned – love the bit about the wood-fired oven – yet so modern.
    I wonder who gave that bite to the cake slice!! un abbraccio

    • Emiko says:

      You’re so right – less is more! Short recipes are always appealing to me – one of the reasons I love that Elizabeth David chocolate mousse recipe too! ;)

  5. Migle says:

    Oh, how I love those kind of recipes that require the minimum but gives out the most amazing result! Can’t wait to try! And it looks very adaptable to the experimention as well :))

  6. What a beautiful, simple cake. The lightest sponges always remind me of family holidays in Italy – our neighbour would bake a huge swirled light and dark sponge to welcome us every year and it had the most beautiful featherlight texture. Maybe she used potato starch?!

  7. This is simplicity at its finest – beautiful, delicious and so satisfying.

  8. Jesse says:

    I think Val and I appreciate these types of recipes with a minimal amount of ingredients. Always Italian recipes it seems — simple tastes are the best.

  9. Kim says:

    Oh my, what a beautiful cake… and gluten-free to boot!

  10. Rosa says:

    Love the simplicity of this cake!

  11. Simo says:

    Wow! I am coming from Labna’s blog. I knew your blog thaks to Labna and Juls, and I find it very very nice. I love this cake and I will try it since it’s gluten free!! Thank you so much. Simo

    • Emiko says:

      Grazie mille! This is one of my favourite cakes – anything that is so simple and so delicious is good if you ask me. Hope you enjoy it!

  12. So lovely and it makes me homesick for Italia!

  13. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the this post. Where can I find out more about italian recipes using potato starch? Can you describe the texture i should be getting? I like the flavor but it’s a bit dry. Goes well with a citrus reduction and whipped cream though.

    • Emiko says:

      It is a dry type of cake, rather than a moist cake, which is what makes this perfect for using in other dessert recipes — much like sponge cake. Being dry means it’s pretty absorbent so it holds up well in desserts like trifle, zuppa inglese or Tuscan zuccotto where it is soaked in liqueur and filled with ricotta or whipped cream (so your thinking was correct!). On potato starch, it’s quite an old fashioned ingredient (often cornstarch is replaced now too) but there are quite a few recipes that call for it, including pan di spagna (sponge cake), although it is usually combined with regular flour too. I use it in place of regular flour to make gluten free gnocchi with fantastic results – more on that over here: http://www.emikodavies.com/blog/gluten-free-gnocchetti/

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