That’s How the Cake Crumbles: Torta Sbriciolata alle Mele

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Ciao a tutti! Friends, it is with great pleasure that I share with you a wonderful cake that just came into my life—I can hardly contain myself, actually. You know how sometimes you discover a new kind of dish that you immediately know will become a permanent part of your repertoire? The kind that has endless possibilities for variation that it almost makes your heart explode with joy? Yeah, this is that cake—meet the torta sbriciolata. It’s not fancy, it’s not complicated, and it’s not even slathered in frosting, but… it’s Italian. Like, really Italian—as in, an Italian-living-in-America friend told me about it, and I’d never heard of it before because few people make it here, and it’s not something you typically find in cookbooks. (Please correct me if I’m wrong on this…) And in my book, being authentically Italian trumps a whole lot of other usual dessert requirements, including frosting. You see, I’ve always had a crush on Italy, which does not make me unique in any way, but in recent years, it’s become more of an I-must-learn-your-sexy-language-and-everything-I-possibly-can-about-your-sexy-culture-and-sexy-food obsession. My husband speaks Italian and we spent an amazing three weeks in Italy on our honeymoon in 2014 (no, I still haven’t written about it… *sigh*), and ever since then, I’ve been determined to soak up every bit I can. I’m now taking a proper Italian course to prepare for our trip next summer, and let me tell you—translating baking recipes is one of the best ways to learn the language!

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I found very few English-language recipes for torta sbriciolata, but there are a ton of Italian recipes out there. Why is this not a thing here?? It is so simple, quick, and infinitely adaptable– America loves Italian stuff (or more accurately, what most people *think* is Italian), so I am utterly baffled as to why we have not collectively hopped on the sbriciolata train. Maybe because it’s so hard to pronounce in English? Four syllables, repeat after me: sbree-cho-LAH-tah… then say it 8 times fast. 😉 The word is derived from ‘briciola’, which means ‘crumb’. Now, you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal, lady? There is no shortage of crumb cake recipes…” However, American-style crumb cake is a different animal—it usually consists of a fluffy cake, possibly studded with fruit or chocolate chips, underneath a lid of crunchy crumbs, which is delicious in its own right. Italian crumb cake consists of a crumbly dough base layered with the filling of your choice and topped with more crumbles. Depending on the recipe, the dough may be similar to sugar cookie dough in its consistency and ease of assembly—something of a cookie-cake, if you will. This Torta Sbriciolata alle Mele is an apple-stuffed version that is perfect for Thanksgiving or any other Fall/holiday festive occasion. I am also working on a nutella-ricotta version, and I have so many other ideas in mind— there will be many more sbriciolata recipes coming!

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But back to apples (aka mele in Italian). While I do enjoy apple pie, working with pie dough is not my favorite thing, and I always feel like a hunk of pie is too filling to leave room for other possibilities. Because, you know, at Thanksgiving I fully plan on housing at least three kinds of dessert. 😉 I think this cake is a perfect addition to the holiday dessert table because while it has all the right holiday flavors, it is not so gluttonous as too preclude consumption of other delicious treats. Feel free to experiment with different varieties of apples—I think tart Granny Smiths have a lot of potential here. (I might add a touch of cinnamon to the sbriciolata dough too.)

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Regarding ingredients, this recipe calls for a few Italian products that are generally foreign to the American pantry. One of the beautiful things about Italian food is the simplicity and authenticity of ingredients. While it may be possible to substitute sometimes, I highly recommend getting your paws on these specific items if you can.

  • The dough calls for Type “00” flour, which is an extra finely ground flour used in Italy for making pasta and pizza dough. It can be found in well-stocked grocery stores, European markets, and online. I suppose you could trying subbing all-purpose, but I can’t vouch for the results.
  • Also required are two other Italian products made by a company called Paneangeli (pa-neh-AN-jel-ee), which are slightly more difficult to track down, but not prohibitively so. I thought about experimenting with substitutions, but since these are very easy to find on Amazon and not obscenely expensive, I decided to stick with the original products. (I’ve definitely gone to much greater lengths for exotic ingredients…)
    • Lievito Pane degli Angeli Vaniglinato: Powdered leavener with a hint of vanilla, which is probably similar to baking powder, but I’m not sure if it’s the same chemical composition.
    • Vanillina: Powdered vanilla flavor, which could possibly be replaced with vanilla powder, but my understanding is that it also contributes to the texture of the cake. (I do think it would be a worthwhile experiment to sub seeds from one vanilla bean…)

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In a week when it is exceedingly difficult to give a crap about cake or anything else normal, given the horrific and nonsensical tragedy in Paris, I am especially looking forward to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and gathering with family to share in love, togetherness, and gratitude for all that we have. I wish you all a wonderful holiday with your loved ones.

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Torta Sbriciolata alle Mele
Loosely adapted from Kika Kitchen
Yields 1 9″ cake

This cake gets a simple dusting of confectioners’ sugar for presentation, but there are a number of other toppings that would be pretty: salted caramel drizzle, a scoop of ice cream à la mode (better yet, vanilla gelato), and honey (perfect for Rosh Hashanah) are a few that come to mind. These are not at all Italian adaptations, but would be nonetheless delicious!

For the dough:

  • 400 grams Type “00” flour
  • 8 grams (a scant 2½ teaspoons) “Lievito Pane degli Angeli Vaniglinato” (Italian leavener)
  • 3 grams (1 envelope) “Vanillina” (Italian vanilla powder)
  • 150 grams granulated sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 100 grams (about 7 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold and cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten

For the filling:

  • 4 medium Fuji apples, peeled, cored, and cut into small chunks
  • 50 grams golden cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch

To prepare the dough: Place the flour, lievito (leavener), and vanillina (vanilla powder) in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add the granulated sugar and salt and pulse again. Add the cold butter chunks and pulse to a sandy texture (about 6-8 pulses); you do not want big butter chunks like a pie dough—make sure the butter is broken down into bits and is evenly distributed.

Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour the beaten eggs into the well and toss gently with your hands to create large crumbs– keep it crumbly-looking, rather than forming a compact dough. (Do make sure that all the flour is incorporated.) Refrigerate the dough for about 1 hour.

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Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. Lay a large piece of parchment paper across the bottom of a 9” springform pan and clamp the ring in place over the paper to secure it on the bottom; set aside. (You could also use a regular cake pan lined with parchment and lightly greased on the sides if it’s not a non-stick pan.)

To make the apple filling: Place the apple chunks in a medium bowl and add the cane sugar, cinnamon, and cornstarch. Mix well until all the ingredients are completely incorporated and the apples are evenly coated.

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Transfer the mixture to a sauté pan and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes to minimize sticking and scorching. Remove from the heat and allow the apples to cool to room temperature. (For me, 10 minutes yielded tender-crisp apples after baking; if you want them a little softer, cook for an additional few minutes to your desired softness.)

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Retrieve the dough crumbles from the fridge and pour a little more than half into the bottom of the lined springform pan. Spread them in an even layer and press gently to compact the crumbs slightly; do not smush them into a uniform layer.

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Scrape the cooled apples into the center of the crust and spread them out toward the edges, leaving a ½-inch gap between the filling and cake pan all the way around. Pour the remaining dough crumbles over the apples and into the edges, filling the gap fully and evenly. You should have a fairly level top surface; press gently to adhere the crumbs, especially on the edges—you want a solid border of cake all the way around to corral the apples. However, take care not to press them with too much pressure, as these are meant to be light, fluffy crumbs.

Bake the torta for approximately 35-40 minutes (mine took 40). If the top browns too quickly, cover it loosely with aluminum foil. Allow it to cool completely in the pan.

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When ready to serve, release the springform clasp and transfer the torta to a serving platter. Dust with confectioners’ sugar for a more elegant presentation.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2015.

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