Sunday 27 March 2016

Cakes, Snakes and Tales of the Umbrian Easter Cake. Torta di Pasqua

Ingredients of Torta di Pasqua

Lucia Ceccarelli's Torta di Pasqua 

Luciano and I mixing up the competition

Serena with her Dad

My involvement with Luciano Ceccarelli continually brings me back to Umbria, an understated landlocked region of Italy.  This visit we went to see a new property to host the popular Nose to Tail Charcuterie workshops.  A culinary tale grabbed my curiosity, the rich and playful story of the Umbrian Torta di Pasqua.   Easter week sees the frenzied making of this regional cake erupt over the hills and valleys of Umbria.  Each family with their particular recipe make between ten and twenty cakes; half savoury with cheese, and half sweet with spices and citrus.  This ritual mobilises intergenerational and community participation. However don’t be deceived by the convivial nature of this Eastertide bakeoff; for under the veneer lurks passionate competition, defence of family pride, assertion of culinary expertise wrapped in pleasantry and civility.

The scale of this operation may involve up to 100 eggs to make the giant yeasted dough.  Surveying the proceedings, a seated matriarch presides over the scene, keenly administrating her wisdom.  Approval is conferred upon the girls whose mixing dexterity and prowess implicates the feebleness of others.  Masculine intervention contributes muscle power to mixing the dough. 

The men chip in
Marisa watches keenly

Marisa's own recipe 
Luciano tells me when he was young gathering 100 eggs in early spring would necessitate preserving the eggs in advance of Eastertide.  He recalls how his mother would make a lime cement and cover the eggs, for up to 2 months.

The dose for eggs under lime - 5 litres of water and 2 kilo of lime. Mix & leave 2 days before putting the eggs in the mixture.

Once the dough is made and ready for leavening it is transferred to a greased bowl.  Serena recounts how as a child she loved the job of spreading the pig suet inside the bowl, as she dreamily recalls her younger self pressing the soft unctuous fat.   She tells me competition was understated, yet fierce amongst families to produce the best cakes.  Questions of "how much cheese did they use"? "how well have the cakes risen"?  And, "how was the texture"?  No detail was deemed too small.

From Maundy Thursday the cakes are displayed on family tables along with chocolate eggs. Children longed for the Torta, the elders curbed their temptation with talk of the snake “la biscia” who waited in the cake should it be broken into. An effective deterrent.

The dough needs to be baked and the scale of village participation necessitates a large oven.  The village baker's oven is called upon and duly booked for time and space slots.  This stage of the production sees another layer of competition cloaked in formality and social niceties. Families gather at the bakers with their tins of leavened cake dough.  Engaging with their neighbours, familiar chat can be heard “oooh yours looks so good, oh no! yours is amazing!…...  Oh I don’t know, mine didn’t rise enough”, and so the banter continues, reminiscing on years gone by and what adjustments will be made next year.

Rafaella repositions the cakes 
Rafaella, the village baker is inundated on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday with cake orders in addition to around 100 tins of dough to bake.  Each tin is marked with family initials on the thin aluminium bowls.  She feeds the dough into her ovens whilst monitoring the reputations of the entire hillside village.  Rafaella shuffles the cake's positions around in the oven and gives a running commentary to her assistants, and anyone who is listening, on the likely outcomes of the tortas.  She sighs as someone’s cake clearly needs to use a better yeast or that someone else’s hasn’t browned on top evenly.  She does her utmost for everyone, for in caring over this nursery of cakes, she has her own reputation to nurture. Her stewardship is respected and she has been entrusted in this vital stage of production.  

 The cakes await their owners for collection 
As I was in the shop, a couple of women from a nearby village rated Rafaella’s oven to be a cut above their own village baker’s oven.  She gives her frank opinion on the yeast they are using and mixes up the dough to their absolute specificity.  She makes pleasantries and confers advice whilst managing a couple dozen cakes in the oven   The degree of interaction is surprising, this exchange involves far more than economic transaction; her decades of expertise flow unconditionally into a transmission of knowledge from the master to the seekers of Easter baking success.

Back at the Ceccarelli home, Luciano is on the phone to his sister Lucia, recounting in detail his opinion of how her recipe for the sweet cake had too much yeast and water. A thorough and full debate ensued of what could have been, and what he thinks needs to be changed. Meanwhile,  he flicks through his Facebook feed, images of Torta di Pasqua's jostle proudly amongst his Umbrian friends and relations who engage with vivacious commentary, advice and praise. 

These cakes mediate a great deal of family pride and assertion of culinary prowess.  Of course one is suitably magnanimous to their neighbours, whose cakes have not risen robustly with reassurances that the flavour is what really counts after all.  But, the Ceccarelli's tell me when all goes well with Torta, a discreet punching the air and standing just that much taller is not unheard of.

Long live the cakes that remake social cohesion disguised in soulful competition.  It makes the world a sweeter and more savoury place.  

Polpo - Drunken squid

Montelione Passion Parade

Torta di Pasqua con Pecorino 

Courtesy of the Ceccarelli family Perfected by his sister Lucia Ceccarelli

800g flour
100ml olive oil
140gm Pecorino grated
130gm sliced Parmesan
130gm grated Parmesan
15gm salt
3gm ground black pepper
4 eggs
Yeast according to 800g flour (usually 1.5 tsp dried yeast)
10 whole cloves boiled in 300ml of water
1/2 nutmeg grated fine.

18cm round baking tin
Oil to grease the baking tin
  1. Preheat oven to 180 C.
  2. Mix dry ingredients.
  3. Add wet ingredients and kneed well until elastic and smooth.
  4. Add to oiled baking tin.
  5. 2-3 hours rising.
  6. Bake one hour until golden and cooked in the middle.

Torta Di Pasqua Dolce Note! this needs 10-12 hours

1 kg flour 
100ml olive oil
4 eggs
300 g sugar
250 ml milk
50 g yeast mixed with 250 ml water or dried yeast according to 1 kg flour
80-100 ml almond liquor
50g cinnamon essence
3 tsp vanilla essence
Pinch cinnamon powder
Zest of 1 1/2 lemons
Zest of 2 oranges 

  1. Mix dry ingredients.
  2. Add wet ingredients and mix well.  This is a wetter dough.
  3. Add to oiled baking tin.
  4. 10-12 hours rising.
  5. Preheat oven to 180 C.
  6. Bake one hour until golden and cooked in the middle

1 comment:

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