Baking is a science, not an art.
For my friend Sarah and me, this is a mantra worthy of being cross-stitched onto kitchen towels (an aside to Sarah — we need to actually get working on those). When it comes to cakes, cookies, and pies, the recipe knows best. It is a balanced chemical equation that yields just the right crumb texture in your Sacher Torte and that yearned-for chew in your chocolate chip cookie. Try to fudge the calculations and change the ratio of butter to flour in that pie crust and you’ll end up with a sandy mess.
I find a comfort in the certainty of a baking recipe, knowing that if I cream together brown sugar, granulated sugar, and butter in the right ratios, beat in eggs and vanilla extract, stir in flour, baking soda, and salt, and finally mix in chocolate chips, I will get classic American Tollhouse cookie dough every time.
In Italy, though, my trusted baking recipes lack the solace of being foolproof. I tamper with them and bend the rules, not because I am going rogue on the “baking is a science, not an art,” mantra, but because I have to look at the recipes through the Italian looking glass.
In Italian supermarkets and kitchens, everything is slightly different. Instead of baking powder, there is lievito Pane degli Angeli, a vanilla-flavored rising agent. Sticky, dense American brown sugar is impossible to find; the best I can do is purchase unprocessed cane sugar from the ethnic grocery and hope for the right molasses flavor. Even flour is different here: it comes in many more varieties than the all-purpose, wheat, and cake flours I usually use. Browse the shelves at Maxisconto and you’ll find farina di grano duro (durum wheat flour, for bread), farina di grano tenero (soft wheat flour, for sweets), farina di grano tenero tipo “00” (the coveted doppio-zero pizza-and-pasta flour), macinato intero di grano (whole wheat flour), the list goes on. You can’t just substitute farina di grano tenero for all-purpose flour in a baking recipe and expect the exact same results: the gluten content and other characteristics are different in each, making baking a bit of a crapshoot here. And then there is the oven, which is teeny-tiny and veers just on this side of too hot, browning everything too quickly on the outside so that the inside remains gooey. Don’t even get me started on the metric system: blame it on American public elementary education, but I have never quite gotten the hang of it, and cling to my measuring cups and spoons even in Italy.
Despite these new uncertainties, I still feel the urge to bake in my Italian kitchen, and when I found myself with some straggler Sicilian blood oranges left from the 7.5 lbs I had ordered from the University GAS (Gruppo d’Acquisto Solidale, or CSA Italian-style) and a dinner party to attend, I knew I had to try Melissa Clark’s Upside-Down Blood Orange Cake. The caramelized cornmeal cake had been on my mind since it first appeared in Clark’s January 11th installation of “A Good Appetite” for the New York Times, and I was prepared to test the recipe’s science against Italian ingredients and kitchen equipment (or lack thereof).
The result? The cake came out a bit sunken and undone in the middle, and the caramelized topping didn’t have quite the brown-sugar flavor I was hoping for, but the tart juice from the orange slices left the cornmeal crumb moist and saved the cake from being too sweet. During dessert, my friend scraped a forkful of the still-gooey center from the cake plate and told me to call it intentional, because it was the best part.
Upside-Down Blood Orange Cake
Adapted for Italian ingredients from Melissa Clark’s lovely “A Good Appetite” column for the New York Times
- 2 sticks plus 3 tablespoons butter at room temperature
- 2/3 cup zucchero di canna (the closest thing to brown sugar available here)
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 medium-sized blood oranges
- 1 cup polenta (cornmeal)
- 1/2 cup farina di grano tenero (soft-grain white flour)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons lievito alla vaniglia (the next-best thing to baking powder)
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup plain yogurt + 1/3 teaspoon baking soda (to substitute for sour cream)
- Heat oven to the Celsius equivalent of 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In an oven-safe, roughly 9-inch round straight-sized saucepan over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons (45 grams) butter. Add the brown sugar and lemon juice; stir until sugar melts, about 3 minutes.
- Grate 1/2 teaspoon zest from one of the oranges, then slice off the tops and bottoms of both oranges. Place oranges on a clean, flat surface, and slice away the rind and pith, top to bottom, following the curve of the fruit. Slice each orange crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick wheels; discard any seeds. Arrange orange wheels on top of brown sugar mixture in a single, tight layer.
- In a large bowl, whisk together orange zest, cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, cream together remaining 2 sticks butter with granulated sugar. Do this by hand because you are in Italy and your hand-me-down 20-year-old Hamilton Beach electric mixer is in Philadelphia. Beat in eggs, one a time, then beat in the yogurt and baking soda mixture. Skip the vanilla extract because your Italian baking powder substitute is vanilla-flavored. Fold in the dry mixture by hand.
- Scrape batter into pan over oranges. Transfer to oven and bake until cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean, 40 to 50 minutes, or until it looks as though the top of the cake might burn because of your too-hot oven. Cool cake in pan 10 minutes, then run a knife along pan’s edges to loosen it; invert onto a platter and cool completely before serving.