22 January 2013

My Quest for the Lemon Almond Torta Holy Grail

Lemon Almond Torta
Sorrento is everything you would expect an Italian town to be with narrow cobbled streets that open out onto quaint squares, with elaborate churches and fragrant lemon, orange and palm trees on every corner. The historical town of Sorrento is nestled between picturesque cliffs and looks across at the stunning Bay of Naples with views of Capri and all the way to Ischia.

As I and countless tourists have discovered there is no better way to soak up the atmosphere and history than on foot. I was staying in an agritourismo in Piano di Sorrento about 8 kilometres from the centre whose cityscape blends seamlessly with its more famous neighbour.

Antico Casale, Piano di Sorrento

Agriturismo is an Italian term for what we might call a farm holiday or a form of agricultural tourism. In 1985, the Italian government passed a law encouraging struggling farmers to convert their unprofitable farmhouses or derelict farm buildings into holiday accommodation. They are exactly what they claim to be, a working farm, surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. It offered just what I longed for on an Italian vacation. An authentic Italian rural experience, the chance to live with an Italian family, and the opportunity to slow down from the normal tourist pace. The most difficult task each day was to decide how to spend my time. Salvatore and his brother Angelo were in the throws of harvesting olives so were busy from dawn till dusk but always had time to answer any questions.

Harvesting olives at the agritourismo

As I walked to the main road it was like walking through a postcard. Walking past ancient homes draped in bougainvillea and even a secret castle hidden behind a stone wall the silence was disturbed only by the chirping birds and a rooster in the distance that seemed to have no idea of timeI breathed in the fresh country air and took in the fabulous view of the olive groves and the hills of the Sorrentine Peninsula. Walking this quiet country road past fragrant orange and lemon groves and olive groves draped in netting brought me to the junction where I could make another decision. Turn left and I was metres from the jaw dropping Amalfi Coast, or, turn right and take the short drive along the Sorrentine Peninsula towered over by the daunting Mount Vesuvius.

On this day with a carefree heart I gambled on the right hand turn to Sorrento and at its hub the main bus station. I wanted to stick out my thumb and get to where I was going much faster but the elderly woman at the bus stop had wagged her finger at me in disapproval. Don't worry she was just taking care of me. I found myself with some time on my hands in the city waiting for a second bus to my true destination. Sorrento's charm lies in part in its sun drenched rustic simplicity. Quaint artisan workshops are packed together in a maze of medieval alleys, with the inevitable mix of locals and tourists bustling through the centre. Long shadows are cast across the uneven cobbled streets from the overhanging balconies and terraces which almost meet overhead. There is just enough space remaining for laundry to be hung out to dry Italian-style which spans the streets in the warm sun draping them in every colour of the rainbow from above.

I wandered down the lanes that sprawl from Sorrento's main square, Piazza Tasso, and found tucked away caf├ęs where you could order a pastry and a cappuccino, upmarket designer shops and ceramic and limoncello shops spilling out onto the streets. Piazza Tasso is the hub of activity day or night where you can engage in the national pastime of Italy...people-watching. I stopped long enough for my first gelato in Italy, which by the time I had changed camera lenses to inaugurate the occasion, had begun melting in the heat of a late October sun. 

I quietly stepped into several churches and strolled around the town, taking in the sights, smells and sounds. I had heard about a lemon grove in the middle of the city called I Giardini di Cataldo. On my walk I came upon a colourful gate and discovered a fragrant lemon orchard in the heart of the city that represented a large part of what this area is about. Sorrento lemons are large, slightly sweet and the key ingredient in limoncello, a popular Sorrentine liqueur I was offered everywhere I went. A whole city block was filled with lemon and other citrus trees. As I walked through beneath a canopy of dangling fruit, I could imagine the smell of fragrant blossoms in the Spring. I was startled by the scurrying of a small lizard that interrupted my daydream-like state. In the heart of the grove is a small limoncello sampling stand beautifully painted like a fairytale cottage where you can try a variety of citrus liqueurs at no cost. Everything for sale was lemon based and reasonably priced. The two smiling women manning the stand did not speak English which was unusual in Sorrento, but was the case anywhere else I travelled further south.

 In Italy, limoni are everywhere from hand-painted ceramics to lemons at the fruit stands the size of grapefruits. They are now a world renowned symbol of the coast where they are as popular and widely used as simple spices like salt and pepper. Besides being a fundamental ingredient in seafood dishes in Italy, lemon is one of the most popular sweet treat flavours as well with its place right alongside almond, hazelnut and chocolate. From the nationally celebrated beverage Limoncello to its tart, citrusy flavour featured in pasta, salads, biscotti, cakes and gelato lemon is celebrated throughout the seasons. I even had them sliced thinly and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
I Giardini di Cataldo
Later on in the month I made the left hand turn at the crossroads and spent some time on the Amalfi Coast. I attended a cooking class at a restaurant in the hamlet of Montepertuso, which literally means "hole in the mountain,"referring to the large hole in the Gambera mountain that dominates the landscape of the village high above Positano. Legend says the hole is the product of a duel between the Devil and the Madonna. If you want to hear the whole story, try this link. But for a more charming translation, I prefer this one. loved the way bunches of small tomatoes were hanging to dry from every rafter in the ceiling at Il Ritrivo as I was welcomed with the ever present espresso and a slice of lemon cake that was sheer ambrosia. I did write the restaurant for the recipe a month or so ago, but, up until now have not heard back. My best advice when dealing with restaurants and hotels in Italy when planning your holiday...be patient. You will be rewarded ten times over.

Bellevue Syrene
That one taste of lemon cake has set me on a quest to find the perfect recipe. Now I could write to the couple from Singapore who joined me in the class who had baked this cake the day prior, but where's the fun in that. What I do know is that the cake is made with almonds and lemons, was dense and packed with flavour. Was it made with or without flour? The recipe below is not THE recipe but was certainly a joy to make and involved making lemon curd to infuse that punch of lemon flavour. It is the first of my experiments on my quest to find that perfect taste and texture that will take me back to a lemon grove in the middle of a historical city, or a walk along the Path of The Gods through terraced groves. I found this particular recipe from The Travellers Lunchbox. Stay tuned as I continue on my journey to find the Holy Grail of Torte di Limone or Limona. Perhaps I will have found the true recipe by the time I head back to Italy.
**Lemon Almond Torta**
adapted from a recipe in Chocolatier magazine back in 1993
For the lemon curd:

3/4 (150g) cup sugar
3 large eggs
juice (1/2 cup/125ml) and grated zest from 2 large lemons
4 tablespoons (60g/1/4 cup/1/2 stick)) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
For the torta:

2/3 cup (60g) sliced almonds
1/2 cup (75g) blanched almonds, lightly toasted
1 cup (125g) all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (115g)(1 stick)(1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup (200g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
3 large eggs, at room temperature
icing/confectioner’s sugar, for dusting cake
To make the lemon curd: In a non-corrosive heavy saucepan, combine sugar, eggs, lemon juice and zest. Whisk until thoroughly blended. Add the butter. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the mixture thickens. Don't let it boil! Transfer the curd to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
To make the torta: Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch (27cm) round springform pan. (I used an 8-inch pan so adjust the baking times for what size pan you decide to use). Line the bottom of the pan with a circle of baking parchment. Gently press about half of the sliced almonds against the side of the pan, adhering them about 2/3 of the way up from the bottom.
In a food processor combine the whole toasted almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. Process for 10-20 seconds, until finely chopped. In a small bowl, beat the eggs lightly with a fork until frothy.
In a large bowl using a hand-held mixer at low speed, beat the butter for 30 seconds, until creamy. Gradually add sugar and continue beating for 2-3 minutes, until light in texture and almost white in color. Beat in vanilla and almond extracts.
Using a rubber spatula, fold the almond/flour mixture into the butter mixture until blended (the batter will be stiff). Stir in the beaten eggs just until smooth. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread it into an even layer with the back of a spoon. Spoon 8 tablespoons of the lemon curd in an evenly-spaced ring around the top of the cake batter, about a 1/2-inch in from the side of the pan. Spoon 3 tablespoons evenly spaced into the center of the ring (it will all melt together into an even layer in the oven, but if you don't want to bother counting just dollop the curd evenly all over the top). Sprinkle the remaining sliced almonds over the top of the batter. Lightly dust with confectioners’ sugar.
Bake the torta for 25-35 minutes (depending on the size of your pan), until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool the torta completely in the pan set on a wire rack. Run a thin-bladed knife around the edge of the torta to loosen it from the side of the pan before removing. Peel off the baking paper and dust the torta with more confectioners’ sugar before serving. Eat at room temperature.
Serves 8

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  1. I have to make this--what a beautiful post and a lovely cake. My best friend's birthday is coming up and her VERY favorite desserts are those with lemon. Thanks!

  2. Thank goodness you found it!! Now I'll go back and enjoy your wonderful photos and prose without having to rush to the end and find, hopefully, the recipe. I think I'll turn this over to The Baker.


  3. A beautiful cake! I'm bookmarking that amazing recipe.

    Lovely holiday pictures! Now, I want to travel there...



  4. I love lemons and use them everyday. If your torta is half as good as your photo is beautiful, it has to be delicious. I hope you find your dream cake but until that time this will do for me.

  5. Fabulous post and beautiful photos, I really enjoyed it. I love anything lemon, the rest of the post was a lovely unexpected bonus :)

  6. You make me YEARN for Italy! You write very well also!!

    Lovely cake..

  7. I love a good lemon cake. I think I now have this on my to-make list.

    Your post also brought back memories once again of my own agriturismo vacation where I ate a lemon cake for breakfast.

  8. I seem to be in the mood for lemony desserts all the time lately! What a gorgeous cake!

  9. How wonderful. I love the Amalfi Coast and enjoyed all the walking through lemon groves and looking at the sparkling waters. This cake personifies Amalfi.

  10. Looks like you found it. Your photos of Italy are fabulous Val and they make me want to hop on a plane and book a table with a view at the Bellevue Syrene.

    You would make a wonderful travel writer.

  11. What a great post, I love Italy and one of my travel dreams is to drive and eat my way around!
    Looking forward to reading more of your travels!
    PS. Happy New Year!

  12. You just brought a touch of spring into my cold, Minnesota home. The photos were so evocative of bright lemons and the torte - oh yes, the torte!

  13. I am looking forward to everyone of these travel posts. You have done a beautiful job of taking us with you...
    I look forward to your search for the holy grail!

  14. I think your quest and mine has ended. I want this cake - and to be in the Amalfi coast. What gorgeous shots and what a delicious looking cake.

  15. Beautiful and delicious. I love lemon desserts.

  16. I think I've found home . . . .

  17. It is not often that words match the beauty of the accompanying photos. You did both, Val. I can't wait to give yourcake a try. It really sounds delightful. I hope all is well. Blessings...Mary

  18. You paint a lovely picture of Sorrento.

  19. almond + lemon = won't fall apart...
    sounds deliciouse...

  20. almond + lemon = won't fall apart...
    sounds deliciouse...

  21. best of luck on your journey, val! this recipe yields a fluffy, flavorful cake, for sure!

  22. A beautiful cake! Beautiful and delicious. Lovely lemony dessert.

  23. I miss traveling so much! Your post makes me crave Italy.

  24. Exactly what I do when I travel -but, I would definitely write to the Asian couple if you have their e-mail for the actual recipe to make that one, too. This looks scrumptious. Lovely read, great photos. The Tarantella we went to in Sorrento was unforgettable. So reasonably priced, and though in Italian, very understandable with the actions and tones. We weren't there this long, so didn't get much of a feel for the town. But got to drink lovely glasses of their limonada! YUM!

  25. Your trip sounds delightful as does this cake! I'm planning a weekend full of baking and cooking with lemons. Love that flavor!

  26. Such stunning photos - what I wouldn't give to be there right now! Beautiful cake, too.

  27. Wow, such amazing adventures you've had! It's fun to make a recipe that takes us back in time to a wonderful memory. Your lemon torts sounds and looks incredible!

  28. You have hit some of my favorite flavor notes. Lemon and almond. This looks so simple to make, and I really want to do just that. I wish I had the quality lemons you found on your trip, but maybe my little lemon tree with be forthcoming.

  29. I've been loving your photos, Val!
    And while this cake may not be your "perfect" lemon torta, it sure looks fabulous to me.

  30. Oh my goodness, Val . . . this lovely post whisks me right back to Amalfi! Every word penned brought back beautiful and delicious memories. I could NOT get over those tortas in Italy and am thrilled to have this new recipe from you! Grazie mille!

  31. I've made Sophie Dahl's Lemon Capri Torte but this one looks even better! Can't wait to try it. I just need some warm, Mediterranean breezes and your photos to make it perfect ;)

  32. This torta is right up my alley....the citrus and nuts. Your pictures transported me to a place that I will one day visit.


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