Over the last twenty years my family has developed a routine for the holidays. After a few early Christmas’s spent in our house in Umbria when Sophie and Emma were little, we began to alternate between Domenico’s family in Bari and my family, mostly in New York. There were a few years when my sister was living in England and we rented cozy houses in Bath and Ludlow. But other than that, it’s been Bari vs. Westchester (a suburb of New York) alternating years.
The one constant has been food, of course. Not so much the ‘what’ but the ‘how.’ Weeks before the holidays we would begin to plan on what we would be eating for both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. If we were in Bari a trip to the fish market was essential for our fishy feast on Christmas Eve. Christmas day usually involved some sort of meat and since the 26th is a holiday in Italy as well, we had to make plans for that too.
If we were in Westchester our plan of attack might involve getting up at the crack of dawn to make it to the fish store before the inevitable crowds descended. Maybe a stop to make sure we had enough beer from the local brewery. Christmas day instead involved some sort of huge hunk of roast meat. My brother-in-law would flirt with the idea of ordering a duck or goose from D’Artagnan, but since we were usually a group of at least 14, this would have involved taking out a small loan. So we went to the local butcher.
Where ever we were – Bari, Ludlow, Bath or Irvington – I was usually the main engine behind the cooking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always a family affair, with everyone pitching in, but it usually involved hours of cooking for yours truly. In other words the Christmas holidays were all about being in the kitchen.
This year was different.
We completely broke with tradition. My sister decided to come to Italy for the holidays. Which convinced my father and stepmom to follow suit.
As I started my usual plan of attack on the food front my folks stepped in, and like Santa’s secret helper, said they would take care of everything. As my stepmother put it “You can just relax. It’s like a vacation.”
Well, ok. I’m not sure I know how to do that, but I can at least try.
And I did. I really did try. And so did everyone else. And the food was delicious, prepared by the lovely and talented ladies who work for my parents.
But old habits die hard. And it was difficult to stay out of the kitchen the entire time. You know how it is. There is some magnet with superpowers that draws everyone into the kitchen at some point, even if there is nothing that needs doing.
Luisa, who cooks for my parents, at a certain point, took pity on Sophie and Emma and let them help with Christmas dessert. Luisa pulled out the recipe, scribbled on a much stained sheet of paper.
“Oh!” I said, “Is this an old family Christmas recipe?” sensing some interesting personal story.
“This?” explained Luisa, “My friend’s son got it off the internet.”
As it turns out it’s kind of a famous recipe. With an interesting story. It was a cake invented in Vignola, in northern Italy, at the end of the 19th century, by Eugenio Gollini, for his pastry shop. Originally called ‘torta nera’ it was re-baptized Torta Barozzi in 1907, in honor of Jacopo Barozzi, a.k.a. Vignola, the famous 16th century architect from that town.
Luisa explained to me that there is a lot of internet chatter about what the original flour-less recipe really called for in terms of nuts. Evidently Gollini used peanuts. Which I frankly find hard to believe since I can’t imagine peanuts were even available in Italy in the 19th century.Also? Italians notoriously hate peanuts for some reason.
The process is also up for debate, with the original set of instructions still kept under lock and key by Gollini’s descendants.
So in the end this is Luisa’s version of it. Which completely does away with any idea of peanuts or even almonds, and substitutes toasted hazelnuts (which is her nut of choice in just about all the good things she bakes up.)
While Sophie, Emma and Luisa mixed, melted and stirred, I took pictures. I didn’t cook.
I was on vacation.
- 250 Grams - 9 ounces dark chocolate
- 125 grams / 4.5 ounces butter
- 4 eggs
- 170 grams / 6 ounces sugar
- 10 ml / 1 tablespoon rum
- 4 teaspoons finely ground coffee
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 130 grams / 4.5 ounces toasted hazelnuts, peeled and chopped
- heavy cream (for whipping)
- Preheat oven to 350F/ 180C
- Line a 12 inch springform pan with parchment.
- Melt the butter and chocolate in a bowl over a gently simmering pot of water. Set aside to cool slightly.
- Separate the yolks from the egg whites.
- Beat the yolks with the sugar until thick and creamy. Add the rum, salt and chopped nuts and coffee. Stir and then add the melted chocolate and butter.
- Beat the egg whites until stiff and gently fold into the chocolate mixture.
- Pour the mixture into the lined pan and bake for 25 minutes.
- Let cool on rack, then gently remove from pan. Let cool before cutting.
- To serve, cut into slices carefully (it's a bit fragile) and top with powdered sugar and a bit of whipped cream.