As I was eating my rustic, nutty birthday cake, these memories suddenly came to mind. I wrote them down as they came, following the stream of my thoughts. What came out of it is a story about a pastry shop and its cakes.
The recipe doesn’t have much to do with any of those cakes, but it is one I have been making and that I love deeply, as it has everything I like, as an adult, about cakes: a subtle sweetness, rustic appearance, moist crumb and a warming feeling. It also contains three of my favourite ingredients: pumpkin, pistachios, and almonds. Good for birthdays or for those lazy Sundays spent writing indoors with a cup of coffee on your side.
Most of the iconic cakes that signed my life have been bought there. For Christenings and diplomas, mum (the non-baker par excellence!) would go to the shop a few days in advance to book the family favourite: a millefoglie (literally, one thousand layers) with the crisp puff pastry layers divided by a fragrant a lush lemon-scented crema. It sounds simple and yet, it needed some planning, as it could only be assembled shortly before pick-up, in order to avoid the pastry to become soggy. Being late, for once, wasn’t a good idea. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure why we all loved it this much. It was certainly delicious and tasted as far from a homemade cake as one could hope for – and that, in a sense, was the whole point. It felt special, unachievable perfection, a mystery of goodness which shall not be unveiled.
But this kind of cake wasn’t certainly easy to handle from a logistic point of view. It was a mess to cut into portions, and once one had managed to do that, eating it was even more complicated. The sole fork would usually lose the fight with the pastry, making crumbs all over the floor, causing the cream to come out of its confines of pastry and splatter on the plate in a Pollock-style way. People would attempt at tackling the situation in the most imaginative way, trying not to be rude whilst managing to finish their still pretty darn delicious piece of cake. Some would pull out their biceps and press down the pastry with the fork until their hand had become Crimson red, eventually succeeding in the task of cutting out one piece, only to have to repeat it all over again with the next mouthful. Some would just give up with the cutting, fork whole layers of pastry and bite them out, piece by piece, finishing off with a quick scrape of the plate to collect any remaining of the thick sugary cream. In the end, one way or another everybody would always manage to clean their plates from any crumb, and they all agreed it was damn worth it.
That cafe pastry shop was the hotspot for breakfast all’italiana, the best place to consume the fast and efficient ritual of cornetto and cappuccino inhaled while standing at the counter. No chair in sight, rather a long counter where, from the early hours of the morning up until noon, thousands of cups of different sizes passed through, although briefly, and millions of buttery crumbs were wiped off. I was amazed at the speed and skill in which the three ladies behind the counter would navigate from order to finished product: first the plate and spoon, then the milk was made frothy while the coffee dripped gently into the larger cup. Finally, the milk was gently poured into the cup, as creamy as it can get, up to the very edge, and placed on top of the prepared plate. Plain perfection, without the need for milk art. That’s where I had my first cappuccino. Their cornetti were freshly made in house, always puffy and golden, never baked from frozen. The aroma coming out of the door of this tiny corner shop was never overpowering, nauseating, fake. It always smelled genuine, honest, plain and good. My mum and I would go for breakfast sometimes on a Friday – market day – during public holidays. I loved having breakfast there once in a while, it felt like a real treat, a special occasion, something mundane and frivolous but totally enjoyable.
The occasional tray of mini pastries grandma put on the table at the end of the Sunday meal – when everybody was already feeling defeated by food and conversation alike – also came from there. I can see how my tastes have changed throughout the years based on the mini pastry I would choose first – the whole tray still in front of me, and a careful yet quick evaluation of pros and cons, of the virtues of the choux pastry versus the deliciousness of
hazelnut biscuit taking place in my mind. Oh, the possibilities! As a child, I used to fight with my brother for the cannoncino, a cone of puff pastry stuffed with set custard. Easy, direct, unadulterated, perfect, essential textures and flavours. If a second round was to take place, I would then go for the fruit tartelette. Possibly with strawberries if still left on the tray (unlikely), or with green and red grapes (at the time, it wasn’t seedless, because why should it?). The soft yet crumbly cookie shell of the tartelette was barely able to contain a generous dollop of vanilla-scented custard, topped with fruit made immortal and so perfect – forever frozen in that instant – by a translucent veil of gelatin.
Growing older, however, my palate evolved, and so did my sweet tooth – I shall rather say I lost that tooth altogether. I had grown less and less fond of sweets, less and less in need of sugar, never craving sweet things or doing compulsive blitzes to the pastry shop while stressed for school or exams. I would occasionally go for breakfast whenever visiting home, but even then, I stopped craving that sort of breakfast, going more the ‘bowl of grains’ route. My visits would be limited to a good coffee drunk quickly between things to do. But when I recently learnt that the pastry shop will soon close, I felt deeply sad. The pastry maker has reached retirement age and no one in the family wishes to continue on that path. They made money for a lifetime and more, they say, and it is probably true. Yet, there goes a piece of collective memory, a place I feel nostalgically attached to and that has shaped my food memories as those of the whole town. Those memories, a good part of them, now sit here.
Pumpkin Pistachio Bundt Cake
Preheat the oven to 190°C/375F. Grease a medium bundt pan with olive oil, dust with a little flour, then set aside. In a large mixing bowl, stir flours, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon until combined. In a separate, smaller bowl, whisk oil with yogurt, eggs and pumpkin puree. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir just until you have a smooth batter – avoid over stirring here. At this point, add in the chopped pistachios and stir the batter once more to incorporate.
Fill the bundt pan with the cake batter and smooth down the surface. Bake for about 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean from the centre. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes into the pan, then run a knife around the edged to detach the cake from the pan and turn upside down on a cooling rack – the cake should come out easily.
When the cake has cooled completely, prepare the frosting by whisking the ricotta with the maple syrup until fluffy. Using a spatula, spread the frosting over the round surface of the cake, then sprinkle with the chopped pistachios. Refrigerate for half hour before serving.