Category: Desserts

A Pumpkin Cake with an Italian Perspective

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I’ve never been enthusiastic about elaborate, over-conceptualized desserts, fancy icings, or multi-layered affairs. Nor have I ever really been comfortable using a pastry bag. My preference has always been for simpler, uncomplicated desserts using fruits, melted dark chocolate, and/or nuts paired with some form of batter as the base. So recently, while looking through some of my cookbooks in search of a dessert in which I could use fall and winter ingredients, I came across the recipe I’m sharing in this post.

In her book titled, Cucina Ebraica—Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen, Joyce Goldstein, the San Francisco-based, nationally recognized chef, teacher, author, and overall Mediterranean cuisine advocate, featured this pumpkin torta from the town of Treviso in Veneto, Italy. The title of the recipe is, Torta di Zucca di Treviso, or more specifically, Torta di Zucca Barucca (the barucca is a type of pumpkin-squash that is the main ingredient in the cake).

The barucca squash is a squat green squash with nubbles or warts on the outer skin. Hence, perhaps in part, the origin of the name associated with the Italian word veruca, which translates as wart.

They are often available in markets in the Veneto region during the fall season, where they have been commonly used in filled pasta dishes or desserts, and recognized as a staple ingredient in the cuisine of the Italian Jewish community in that region.

I realized that finding a barucca squash in markets here was not going to happen, so I had to resort to the suggested substitutes—either a small pumpkin or a butternut squash. I didn’t really care for either of those two choices and opted instead for my go-to squash, the kabocha, which, in fact, reminded me of what a barucca might look like because it also is green, squatty, and has a nubbly surface. But more about the use of the kabocha later.

It took me two attempts to get the recipe right from a textural standpoint. In part because on the initial try I took a short cut and used canned pumpkin puree that I keep on hand for making treats for my dogs. With the pumpkin puree, the finished cake was just too soft and didn’t have the creamy, dense texture I was looking for. The kabocha squash solved that problem.

There were a few other steps I altered between the initial take on the recipe and the final version, which resulted in a better outcome.

I often roast kabocha squash when using it in other dishes because roasting punctuates the squash’s natural sweetness and improves the texture by drying some of the natural moisture. Roasting the squash in this recipe enhanced the texture of the finished cake and also simplified the preparation of the squash overall.

The original recipe requires a half-cup of diced citron (the large tropical citrus fruit with a thick rind used in food preparation, mainly baking and puddings, where the rind is first fermented, then candied). Instead, I substituted a quarter cup of diced candied orange rind with a quarter cup of the citron. Additionally, finely grated orange zest was used in place of the lemon zest called for in the original recipe as I thought it paired better with the candied orange rind/citron combination.

Although Goldstein’s recipe did not call for it, I finished the torta by dusting it with confectioners sugar.

So with that, here is my take on Torta di Zucca Barucca.

Ingredients (serves 8)
1 kabocha squash (or butternut squash), approximately 2 pounds
1½ sticks unsalted butter
1/3 cup raisins + 3 tablespoons grappa (or brandy)
½ cup almonds
¾ cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup minced citron + ¼ cup minced candied orange rind
Finely grated zest from 2 oranges
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, separated

Generously butter a 9-inch springform pan, line the bottom with parchment, butter the parchment, and set the pan aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the kabocha squash into quarters and remove all the seeds. Lightly coat the quarters with olive oil and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the squash is fork tender. Allow the squash to cool, spoon out all the pulp, discard the skin, and set the roasted pulp aside. Lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat and set aside.

In another small saucepan over low heat, bloom the raisins in the grappa until most of the liquid has been absorbed, and set aside.

Using a food processor, grind the almonds with one tablespoon of the sugar, into a coarse crumb.

In a large work bowl whisk together the butter, remaining sugar, almonds, citron, orange rind, raisins with any remaining grappa, and the orange zest. Mash the roasted squash pulp and add it to the mix, whisking vigorously to smooth the ingredients together and thoroughly combine.

In a small work bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt until combined.

Add the dry ingredients to the squash mixture, whisking to thoroughly combine. Add the egg yolks, whisking to fully incorporate into the batter.

Mixing wet and dry

Add yolks

Using a hand mixer, beat the egg whites into soft peaks, and using a rubber spatula, fold the whites into the batter until no white remains.

Whip whites

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smooth out to even the distribution within the pan, and tap the pan on the work surface to remove any air in the batter.

Ready to bake

Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour until the cake is set and a tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Out of the oven

Set the pan on a rack and allow it to cool completely before loosening and removing the springform. The cake should have receded away from the pan’s edge. Once cooled, invert the cake onto a platter, remove the parchment, and turn the cake back over onto a clean platter for serving. Dust the top with confectioners sugar and add a few thin strips of orange or lemon zest to present.


A few orange sections and a dollop of ricotta mousse (ricotta whipped with either cream cheese or Greek yogurt) also pair nicely with a slice of this dessert.


This rich, moist torta reminds me of desserts my grandmother and Aunt Emma (yes, there was an “Auntie Em” in our family), would serve around the holidays. So why not try something a little different for dessert the next time you gather together at your table?

Be well. Eat well.


Good Cooks Never Lack Friends!


Bolzano Apple Cake

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Sometimes you just need a change from the traditional apple pie, or the myriad of apple cake recipes from which to choose. Some feature roasted walnuts, others make spices the co-star to the apples, others might add a little hard cider, while still others may be glazed with a marmalade softened in warmed dark rum.

However, there is one apple cake recipe that I recently rediscovered that elevates the apple cake to a higher plateau, the Bolzano Apple Cake.

As I understand the story behind this recipe, it speaks to a cultural mix that has its roots in the Italian province of Trentino-Alto Adige in the farthest northeastern region of the country, bordering Switzerland and Austria. It is said to have originated in the town of Bolzano-Bozen located in that Italian province.

I noted that I rediscovered the recipe while I was looking through some of my recipe files in an effort to prepare an apple dessert to take advantage of the bounty available at this time of the year.

Back in 2004, Mark Bittman, writing for the New York Times, featured an article about chef Scott Carsberg, who at the time was running a popular Seattle restaurant, Lampreia. Carsberg included the Bolzano Apple Cake as part of the Lampreia dessert menu, which is, where I’m guessing, Bittman first encountered it and included an adaptation of Carsberg’s recipe in his article. He called it Balzano Apple Cake.

Well Carsberg and others I have read call the cake Bolzano, named after the town, Bolzano-Bozen, so I’m sticking with that moniker. Although Lampreia closed back in 2012, the recipe for this cake lives on thanks in part to the Internet and also to a beautifully produced digital book Carsberg co-wrote, entitled All About Apples.

The cake is not unlike a very dense clafoutis. It is laden with layers of apples held together by a light, minimalist batter, which becomes compressed and creamy when baked. The finished cake has caramelized edges and a golden brown top, all wrapping the layered apple middle. It is simply a light and delicious way to finish a meal.

Carsberg’s recipe has the cake prepared in a square baking pan, which I have used several times, both with and without the aluminum foil liner he recommends. I prefer the non-liner approach, which is how I am sharing the recipe here.

The square baking pan allows for the cake to be presented in long, slender, straight slices on the plate. I have since discovered a variation which is baked in a standard round cake pan that I am going to try the next because I believe a triangular sliced piece will include more of each of the cakes best features: caramelized edge, golden brown top, and layered center (compared to the square cake because the closer you get to the center some of the nice caramelized edges are lost). The recipe that follows can be baked in either shape pan.

One final ingredient note: Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, or Braeburn apples are all good choices to make this cake.


Bolzano Apple Cake

Ingredients (8 to 10 servings)
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 vanilla bean
½ cup Half & Half
1 stick butter (4 oz)
Juice of 1 lemon
5 apples
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup flour


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Generously butter a baking pan, lightly flour, discarding the excess, and set aside.

In a large work bowl add the sugar and the eggs. Whisk rapidly until the mixture is thoroughly combined.

Split the vanilla bean with a sharp knife and scrape the seeds into the sugar and egg mixture. Whisk rapidly to combine and continue whisking until the sugar dissolves and the batter forms a thin ribbon when the whisk is lifted. Set the bowl aside.

In a small saucepan over very low heat, warm the Half & Half along with the vanilla bean pod.

Place the butter in another small saucepan and slowly melt over medium-low heat.

In another large work bowl squeeze the juice from the lemon. Cut approximately 1/8 inch off each end of the apples and set in a bowl of cold water in the refrigerator. These will be used to make a garnish for serving.

Peel, core, and quarter the apples, placing the quarters back in the lemon juice to prevent browning.

Apple quarters

Using a mandoline or other sharp slicing tool, cut each of the apple quarters into paper thin slices, placing them back in the lemon juice as you go and set aside when complete.

Apple slices

Slices in lemon juice

Return to the work bowl with the batter and slowly add the melted butter, gently whisking at first and then rapidly whisking to completely incorporate the butter.

Next, remove the vanilla bean pod from the warm Half & Half and pour it into the batter, again whisking to thoroughly combine.

Add the baking powder and the flour to the batter and once again whisk to completely combine so that no dry ingredients are visible.


Finally, pour the apple slices into the bowl with the batter and using your hands gently fold the apples into the mixture until completely coated and dispersed.

Slices poured into batter

Slices mixed into batter

Pour the apple mix into the prepared pan and use a fork to spread it out evenly.

Ready to bake

Bake for 25 minutes at 375 degrees, then lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees, turn the baking pan around and bake for another 25 minutes.

The cake is done when a tester comes out clean, the top is golden brown, and the edges are nicely caramelized and begin to pull away from the sides of the baking pan.

Place the baking pan on a rack to cool completely before turning it out onto a platter or simply slicing it in the pan to serve.

Out of the oven

A garnish can be made from the reserved apple ends by slicing them across into matchstick (batons) pieces, sprinkling with a little sugar, and placing them alongside a slice of the cake which has been dusted with powdered sugar.


This cake is intensely flavorful and simply delicious, do give it a try, whether square or round.

Eat well. Be well.


It is the perfect time to be someone who loves to cook!