It was early spring and we were visiting family in Napoli and my boyfriend Giovanni wanted to make a Torta Caprese, a simple chocolate cake, rich with equal parts powdered almonds, sugar and butter. The only missing ingredient was a little bit of orange or lemon zest. It was late afternoon and we were walking by a gated garden that had some potted basil plants and one big lemon tree. Pulling on a branch through the gate, he plucked off one of the rounded, whitish-yellow lemons. Basically, the lemon found him; there wasn’t time to wait for an orange. When fruit finds you, you have to obey. That’s what he told me. It can be the same with cakes.
The Caprese comes from, no surprise, Capri: in the 1920s, baker Carmine di Fiore forgot to add flour to an almond and chocolate cake he was preparing for three American gangsters who had come to the island to buy spats for Al Capone. They liked it so much they asked him for the recipe. Di Fiore, harried, honored and relieved, christened the cake la Torta Caprese, allowing him to fulfill his role illustrated on aprons across America: I’m Italian. I Don’t Need A Recipe!
Or maybe it was when Capocchiella, a.k.a. “Little Head,” working in Capri in the kitchen of the sumptuous restaurant La Fontelina in the 1950s (still in business and just as sumptuous today), unexpectedly replaced a pastry chef. Daybreak and Capocchiella was hard at work, mixing up an almond cake when he accidentally folded in cocoa powder instead of flour and possibly in a fit of too-small headedness, didn’t notice his mistake, baking his cake “as is” that he, too, christened la Torta Caprese.
The version involving two Austrian women in the 1930s, a hard to pronounce hostel and the rumor that the Caprese was just a variation on the theme of a Sachertorte, is, according to Giovanni, just a bench of bonk, a bunch of bunk. “Only Italians invent Italian food. We can cook with our eyes closed,” he will say. I’ve experienced this a lot of times in my own kitchen.
Just about the time that Giovanni pulled the lemon off the tree, an older woman in a bright blue apron opened the door that led to the gated garden. Busted: I knew this could potentially look very bad. She waved, calling us over. “Take some,” she said, nodding towards the lemon tree, only she said it all in Neapolitan dialect.
Later that night Giovanni said, “Sometimes it’s about wanting something so much you just take it.” As the Neapolitan proverb goes, Chi n’arrobbe ni fa la rrobbe, He who doesn’t take stuff doesn’t have stuff. This was an ancient form of borrowing I was made to understand I would have a hard time understanding.
But I kind of got it. It was like tasting thick, sweet cake batter when the cook’s not looking: it was equal parts desire, lifting, and lemon zest. A discreet form of stealing on a wooden spoon. At least that’s what I told myself. And anyways I was busted: Giovanni had caught me scraping the sides of the Caprese cake batter bowl. “Don’t taste yet,” he scolded. “Uncooked eggs. They will kill you.” Dying from chocolate cake batter sounded pretty good to me.
Preheat oven to 350° F and butter a 10-inch cake pan.
Melt chocolate in a double boiler and when just warm, slowly add in the butter. After mixing well, add in sugar and continue stirring. Slowly add in the almonds, stirring continually. Add one yolk at a time to the mixture, letting cool.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Fold slowly into chocolate mixture. Pour into cake pan.
Bake on middle rack for 45 to 50 minutes, or until it begins to pull away from side of pan. Cool on a rack and after cooling, invert the cake onto a plate. Sprinkle the top with powdered sugar.
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Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House (www.tinhouse.com). Her debut poetry collection Knock Knock, was released by Carnegie Mellon University Press, which will also publish her second collection. Her work has appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, The Rumpus, The Literary Review and elsewhere. She has also curated Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and writes a monthly column, “Aperitif,” about literary Paris, for the Tin House website.