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).