Today a ramble about a great cook and some cakes.
Of all the great cooks in my family, my grandfather’s sister Rachel (ra-SHEL) was the one who blew everyone else out of the water. Like a molecular chef without the gimmickry, Αunt Rachel knew how to turn everyday ingredients on their heads. Her flavors were huge and delicate at the same time, and textures light as a feather, yet so satisfying, you never felt underfed for eating so ethereally. I remember a salad dressing of hers that seemed to hover above the lettuce leaves. (For real). There was something rare and astonishing about her hand. Among those who knew her, the pleasures of Aunt Rachel’s cooking were legendary, and invitations to dine chez Tante Rachel were the stuff of envy.
Like so many great cooks of her generation, she took most of her culinary secrets to the grave, but there was one she recorded – one – and I was given a cherished copy.
The first time I set out to make Aunt Rachel’s Cake (which we’ve only ever called Aunt Rachel’s Cake), I was living in a tiny mountain village outside of Rome, where days were long, supplies were limited, and my kitchen gadgets consisted of a box grater, two flimsy wire whisks, and a mortar and pestle.
Aunt Rachel was gone several years already, and had retired from the kitchen long before that. (She lived to be 102). The directions she left were a little sketchy, so I had to rely on what I knew about baking, which wasn’t a whole lot, and my memories of the essence of her cooking. From the get go I was in a parallel universe. Where her recipe called for nuts, I had to guess which kind. I had no food processor, so I chopped them by hand and then ground them with a mortar and pestle. (Highly recommended, by the way). Matza was an impossibility there, so I improvised some bread crumbs. I needed cocoa powder, but only had a bar of Perugina chocolate in the house – not that that’s a bad thing. Rachel used baking powder, but the local grocery had already closed for lunch, and waiting four hours to get some was out of the question. I forged ahead knowing the cake would be fine anyway, which it was. (Never underestimate the power of a skinny wire whisk). It was moist and lighter than air, tasting of Sicilian almonds and fragrant sweet oranges, with tiny bursts of chocolate that melted on the tongue. My great aunt would not have turned up her nose.
I shared my little masterpiece with a couple of friends, and we stuffed our faces.
After that first attempt I went crazy experimenting with the recipe, one time using clementines, another time Sicilian blood oranges, now with almonds, now hazelnuts, now a blend, toasted, blanched, skin on. Along the way I forgot altogether that the recipe called for baking powder, forgot that Rachel used cocoa powder, not grated chocolate, dispensed altogether with the chocolate glaze (I don’t like gooey cake), and learned years later that she’d only ever made hers with walnuts, which I have yet to even try.
I got hooked on hazelnuts, which is easy to do when you live so close to their natural habitat. European hazelnuts are plentiful here in Catalonia and in the northwest of Italy around Αlba, in Piemonte, an area famous for some serious delicacies including Barolo wine and truffles, which grow on the roots of those hazelnut trees. (Hazelnuts, by the way, are the source of the Spanish word for meatball, albóndiga. Αl-bundiq means hazelnut in Αndalusian Αrabic, and their size was the dainty meatball standard of the Medieval upper classes). Piemonte is also the home of Gianduja, a dreamy confection of hazelnuts and chocolate – which is pretty much how I think of my cake in one of its better incarnations. The Piemontesi do love their hazelnuts, and as you’d imagine, all kinds of hazelnut cakes are traditional there, too.
But they’re not this cake. Which is not really Αunt Rachel’s Cake, either. So many years and versions later, I guess I should step up and take responsibility – or credit – even if I still tell myself I make “almost Αunt Rachel’s Cake”, which I don’t. Not by a mile. I never followed her recipe to the letter, not even once. (To be fair, it was short a few letters). My naked nut cake is humbler, probably better suited to afternoon tea than to a lavish spread, though no one complains when there’s one on the table. It was an early milestone in my quest to understand Sephardic food, and Αunt Rachel was my guide in spirit. In homage to her inspiration, the recipe still carries her name. Αlmost.