In the Brianza region of Lombardy, just north of Milano, a common dessert called Torta Paesana, or peasant cake, makes its way into bakery windows and home cook’s kitchens alike. My dear friend and fellow food writer Iris Gavazzi, who hails from the town of Seregno, turned me on to its wondrous simplicity.
“The principle is that it’s a cake made from leftovers. I have bread and I don’t throw bread away. I always make something with it. Without shopping for any ingredients, just using things from my kitchen, I can make a cake,” she said.
Though thrift is often a common thread in Italian cooking and is central to what the Tuscans call La Cucina Povera, this cake is a regional specialty only found in Brianza.
“If you ask someone from Tuscany or Torino how to make Torta Paesana, they won’t know. Even in Brianza, Torta Paesana is a common recipe, but one that people change either based on their preferences or what’s available in their homes. My friend doesn’t like it with raisins. I do. It’s up to you what you like ... to put in it,” she said.
At a time when leftovers take up space in her kitchen, particularly during the holidays, Iris often relishes in making this easy cake from ingredients in her pantry.
“The best part is that the flavor improves with age, so make it when you have some time a day or two ahead,” she said.
While most Riverdalians might not have a bag of Amaretto cookies lying around the house or even pine nuts (quite unpaesana-like these days at $10 a pop), coming up with some day-old bread, eggs, milk, sugar and perhaps even cocoa powder, wouldn’t be much of a stretch in most households.
When Iris sent me the recipe she uses, I followed the principle of the cake by not going out to buy any special ingredients (except the pine nuts and Amaretto cookies) and adapted it to what I had at home. I used less sugar, replaced raisins with currants and as suggested, added some cinnamon for warmth and spice during the holidays. I also soaked the currants in water and few drops of grappa instead of rum or Amaretto since I didn’t have any. Not coincidentally, Amaretto di Saronno comes from the town of Saronno, also located in Brianza.
Dense and moist in texture but surprisingly light, Torta Paesana combines the subtle flavors of chocolate, almonds and pine nuts without overwhelming sweetness. If you enjoy a simple afternoon teacake more than butter cream-frosted cupcake, this dessert is perfect for you.
Day-old bread or even a loaf that’s a couple of days old is ideal as long as there’s no mold. The best thing about this recipe is that it doesn’t require any fancy equipment. All you need is a bowl and spoon!
This article was originally published in The Riverdale Press for my cooking column What’s Cooking in 2010.
Serving Size: Serves 8-10
4 cups day old bread, cubed (sourdough dinner rolls, baguette or Italian bread are ideal)
4 cups whole milk
1/3 cup raisins or currants (optional)
1 Tbsp. grappa, Amaretto di Saronno or dark rum (optional)
3/4 cup amaretto cookies
1/3 cup unsweetened cacao powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup pine Nuts or other nuts
Butter for greasing
Place the cubed bread in large bowl and cover with milk. Cover with plastic wrap for 3-4 hours until the bread is soft, occasionally pushing the bread down into the milk. Mash well with a fork until the consistency is homogenous. It will be very wet.
Meanwhile, cover the raisins or currants with hot water and a tablespoon of liquor if using.
Place the cookies in the bowl of food processor and process until fine. If you don’t have a food processor, place the cookies in a plastic bag and use a pan or rolling pin to crush them. Combine in a bowl with the cacao powder, sugar, and cinnamon and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
After soaking and mashing the bread, add the eggs and dry ingredients and mix well.
Strain the raisins or currants and fold into the bread mixture along with the pine nuts.
Place in lightly greased 9” round cake pan and bake for an hour.
Allow to cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap and enjoy the following day.
The flavors of this cake improve with age so try making this a two days before serving it!