Saturday, August 13, 2016

Torta Sabbiosa

I recently purchased two Italian cookbooks written by Laura Zavan: Venice Cult Recipes (Murdoch Books, 2014) and Dolce (Murdoch Books, 2016). I bought Venice Cult Recipes on a lark because, well…its goofy title intrigued me. The first recipe I tried, Spaghettoni alla Busara (Spaghettoni with Scampi) turned out fantastic. I used my torchio (here) to make bigoli, a Venetian spaghettoni or thick spaghetti. Zavan’s recipe calls for whole scampi (or langoustines, red-claw crayfish or large prawns/shrimps).  My local market had a tank of live stripe shrimp, so I bought a couple of pounds. The briny, sweet shrimp cooked in shell with white wine, dried chilies and tomatoes transported me back to Venice. If you can’t find spaghettoni, don’t skip this recipe! Use bucatini or even fresh fettuccini instead.

Venice Cult Recipes so impressed me that I went looking for other books written by Zavan and found Dolce, subtitled “80 Authentic Italian Sweet Treats, Cakes & Desserts”. A quick read through the book looked promising. Zavan divides Dolce’s recipes into six major chapters: Tiramisú; Panna Cotta; Tarts & Tartlets; Cakes & Festive Cakes; Biscuits, Breakfasts & Snacks; and Ice Creams & Frozen Desserts. One of the recipes in the Cakes & Festive Cakes section looked particularly interesting: Torta Sabbiosa or Sandy Cake. Zavan writes that this vanilla-flavored cake, popular in Italy’s Veneto region, originated in Pavia at the end of the 19th century.  What attracted me to the recipe, apart from its Veneto connection, is that the recipe calls for potato starch (also called potato flour).  Zavan promised that using potato starch along with powdered sugar produces a cake texture reminiscent of fine sand (sabbia in Italian). Being a sucker for sablés, the crumbly butter cookie whose name means sandy in French, I had to try Zavan’s Sandy Cake. It tasted outstanding! This recipe serves 6 to 8.

 200 g butter, softened, plus extra, for greasing
½ vanilla bean
200 g icing (confectioners’) sugar, plus extra, for dusting
3 eggs, lightly whisked, at room temperature
100 g plain (all-purpose) flour, plus extra, for the cake tin
100 g potato flour (potato starch)
1 pinch fine salt

Have the butter at room temperature for at least 3 hours ahead of time. Preheat the oven to 170°C (325°F).

Scrap out the seeds of the vanilla bean half. In a large bowl, beat the softened butter with the icing sugar and vanilla seeds until creamy. Add the whisked eggs, one spoonful at a time, mixing well after each addition until you have a thick and smooth consistency.

Sift the flour and potato starch together before gradually incorporating them into the mixture. Add the salt and mix through.

Grease and flour a 22-24 cm (8 ½ - 9 ½ inch) round cake tin. Pour in the batter and bake for 40 minutes, or until golden. Cool in the tin for 1 hour, then remove and dust with icing sugar before serving.

Zavan writes that Torta sabbiosa "is a quite substantial cake, more an afternoon snack than a dessert.” I hate to quibble, but Zavan is not entirely correct. A substantial cake? Yes. But I submit that one can enjoy this buttery cake as a snack and as a dessert (and at breakfast and at elevenses). This cake tastes delicious, anytime and anywhere, and only gets better if it sits in the refrigerator over a day or two (if the Sandy Cake isn’t gobbled up sooner).