Riccardo’s Lost Recipe – Torta con i ciccioli

I was dropping in on Marco’s aunt and uncle, Franca and Riccardo a few years ago. We let ourselves in through the gate, attempting not to let Asia, the giant Maremma sheepdog, escape, and slipping into the house where, behind several piles of books, Riccardo was printing out a short story to share with me. It’s about cake; he thought I would like it.

It was a cake often made by Nonna Maria, a farmer’s daughter from the countryside near Pisa, and a baker. The cake pervades Riccardo’s memory like a ghost. He remembers the smell, the taste, the month of the year – she made it in November, a month of cold, short, rainy days, during a festive season when the fair would come to town. He remembers it as “una bomba” – of calories, that is. A very dense, short cake, heavy with eggs and lard (olive oil and butter were luxuries). It was eaten it around the fire, one piece devoured after another.

Riccardo had spent years searching for this recipe, based entirely on the memory of eating it when he was young. At first we thought it might be like a sort of Florentine schiacciata alla fiorentina, a fluffy, yeasted cake typical of Florence, made exclusively during the Carnival period in February (already that made raised my doubts), heady with the aromas of orange zest and vanilla and enriched with lard. I made it for him to try, but it was too fluffy, too perfumed, too dainty with its veil of powdered sugar and cocoa powder, to be the one.  

“It’s more rustic,” Riccardo said.  

“And more dense, much more dense,” Franca piped up.  

They got married when they were both 17 years old. They have been together for over sixty years and have three great-grandchildren. Even Franca remembers this cake. In fact, although it’s Riccardo’s memory, Franca is a great cook, and she knows cakes, so I listen to her recollection of it too and in particular to a detail that Riccardo doesn’t mention.  

“There were ciccioli in it,” she assures me, speaking of savoury, crunchy, porky bits scattered throughout the cake.  

Ciccioli are small, dry pieces of fatty pork, cooked slowly until dry and all the fat has melted out of them – this part is then drained for making lard. They are at times spiced or salted, but at their simplest, left plain and unseasoned. To the cake, they lend crunch. Similar to pork scratchings, they can be eaten as is as a rather addictive snack, but it’s more traditionally found sprinkled through polenta, bread or, in this case, cake.

I didn’t have to look very far for inspiration – Pellegrino Artusi has a recipe in his nineteenth century cookbook for focaccia coi siccioli (ciccioli). And although he calls it a focaccia, it’s not a bread but actually a sweet, very dense, flat cake. It may sound strange, but the sweet-savoury result is much like wonderful effect of having pancakes with maple syrup and crispy bacon, though much more subtle. It’s a country cake has that has a comforting, satisfying quality worthy of cherishing as a memory for a lifetime.

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In memory of Riccardo Cardellicchio (2 May 1939-14 August 2021), a brilliant journalist, author of stories, poems and plays, and at one time the cultural assessor of Fucecchio. I couldn’t have written Tortellini at Midnight without him. Partly, it was for the initial research, like for this recipe, and other details which he remembered better than my mother in law did, being her older brother by 7 years. But then his health deteriorated quickly and he could no longer communicate with me, and he has spent the past couple of years lucid but trapped in a body that would not allow him to talk or move. Later, it was one of his books, Il Pozzo di Muscioro, where he recounts some of the stories of his Nonna Anna (here, her famous polpette), my children’s great-great-grandmother, who ran away with the postman, that helped me finish my cookbook. Grazie Riccardo.


Torta con i ciccioli di Nonna Maria
(Nonna Maria’s lard cake)
 

200 grams sugar 
150 grams softened butter 
60 grams of softened lard 
2 whole eggs 
2 egg yolks 
500 grams flour 
60 ml vin santo (or white wine, rum or Marsala) 
zest of 1 lemon or orange 
150 grams of ciccioli (unseasoned, deep fried pork fat pieces), finely chopped 
powdered sugar, for serving 

Cream together the sugar, butter and lard. Add the eggs and yolks one at a time until well incorporated. Mix in the flour and, once smooth, the wine, followed by the zest and the ciccioli pieces. Stir until just combined.  Spread out the mixture onto a rectangular tin (such as a brownie pan) lined with baking paper. Bake at 180ºC for approximately 45 minutes or until deep golden brown on top and springy in the middle. Cut into squares and serve dusted in powdered sugar. 

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This cake photograph is by Lauren Bamford, styled by Deb Kaloper for my cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, where this extract is also from. The black and white photographs are of young Riccardo with his parents Lina and Mario in Turin, where they lived until moving to Tuscany during the Second World War.

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Comments

  1. I have never heard about a similar cake, thank you so much for sharing this recipe!

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