Don't expect to find this cake in your nearby pastry-shop window-unless of course you're on the Tuscan island of Elba, home of this unusual fruitcake-like dessert. With origins in cucina povera (peasant cuisine), the cake was reportedly invented by a creative baker from Rio Marina, whose recipe combined two unique alcoholic beverages.
The defining ingredient in this dessert is Aleatico, Elba's very own sweet red wine, which lends the cake its rosy colour, liquorous flavour and name, known in its local lilt as schiaccia briaca (or schiacciata ubriaca, ‘drunken schiacciata').
Aleatico is made in Elba from a red muscat grape that is also found in the Lazio and Puglia regions. With a history of Aleatico production on the island that goes back centuries, this sweet wine was apparently Napoleon's only consolation during his exile on Elba. But that's not the only reason you should try it. The cake's sweet berry and rose aromas and deliciously syrupy consistency will seduce you.
The second liqueur is Alchermes, a Tuscan specialty that dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was touted as an elixir for longevity. The name comes from the Arabic and Persian words that describe the origins of the liqueur's striking scarlet-pink colour, originally made from cochineal insects. The Medici were fond of Alchermes, and Caterina de' Medici even brought it with her to France, where it became known as the ‘liqueur of the Medici.' The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (see TF 46 and box) began making it in 1743, and you can still find the most authentic version of Alchermes there today.
The cinnamon-and-clove-scented liqueur is still used in the most traditional Tuscan desserts, including zuccotto and zuppa inglese, where it is used as much for its bright colour as for its aroma and flavour.
If you cannot get Aleatico for the recipe I offer here, you could substitute it with any sticky dessert wine.
Schiaccia briaca dell'Elba
500 grams plain flour
200 grams raisins or sultanas
200 grams sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
pinch of salt
145 ml (about a wine glass full) Aleatico
50 ml Alchermes
100 ml olive oil
30 grams pine nuts
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius. Soak the raisins in a bowl of hot water until they become soft and plump. Combine the sifted flour, baking powder, salt, raisins and most of the sugar (set aside a few tablespoons for later) with the olive oil, Aleatico and half of the Alchermes until just combined. Be careful not to overmix the dough or it will become hard and chewy rather than crumbly. Some recipes advise on letting the mixture rest for up to an hour before baking.
Press the dough into a greased and lined round baking tin and top with the pine nuts, a sprinkling of Alchermes, a drizzle of olive oil and a few tablespoons of sugar. This final touch gives the schiacciata its characteristic pink, crusty top.
Bake for about 45 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean. This cake is perhaps even better a few days after it is made, with a characteristically sweet, dense, crumbly consistency and a crispy top.