There are few things as comforting and satisfying as apples in desserts, in any form—balanced between sweet and tart and particularly delicious while still warm. By the time their autumn season comes along, they are just what the doctor ordered. In Italy, they are found in classic strudel, which has crept from Austria into northern regions like Trentino-Alto Adige, where apple slices, layered with cinnamon, pine nuts and currants, are wrapped in paper-thin pastry (so thin you should be able to read a love letter through it, they say). In Emilia-Romagna, apples are sliced into thick rings, dipped in batter and deep fried, like the ones you find around the time of Carnevale, to warm you up in the thick cold of February.
Tuscany does it with apple cake—a cake as simple and homely as you can imagine. Apple slices are arranged in a radiating pattern over the top of a springy, moist cake lightly scented with vanilla and lemon. It sits on top of kitchen counters, dusted in powdered sugar, ready and waiting for grandchildren to ask eagerly for slices for their merenda, or snack.
It is a cake so loved that it’s not just confined to nonna’s kitchen. You can even find torta di mele in bakeries around Florence, available by the slice or wedge to take home. More than a dessert, Florentines even eat this for breakfast or a mid-morning snack. It’s not overly sweet, as Tuscans don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but if you like you could brush a little warmed apricot jam over the top once you pull it out of the oven for some shine and an extra touch of sweetness. If you do want to turn it into a dessert, all it needs is a side serving of softly whipped cream or warm crema pasticcera, or custard.
RECIPE: TORTA DI MELE
(Apple cake) Serves 8
2 large golden delicious apples (or other good cooking apple), peeled and sliced 1 cm (1/2 in) thick
juice and zest of 1 lemon
180 g sugar
125 g unsalted butter, softened
150 ml milk
300 g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Place the apple slices in a bowl with the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of sugar.
Beat 150 g of sugar with the butter until pale and creamy. Add the eggs and beat very well until you have a thick, pale mixture. Add the milk, the zest and then fold in the flour, baking powder, a pinch of salt and half the apple slices, along with the lemon juice to combine.
Pour into a greased and lined 23 cm cake tin and place the remaining apple slices all over the surface. Bake in the oven for 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown and springy to the touch.