“Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.” -Elena Ferrante (Those who Leave and Those who Stay)
A little more than two months ago, for Labor Day weekend, the Greek, Elektra and I took a weekend trip to Carmel and Big Sur. Although it will sound incredibly hyperbolic, the trip was ten shades of glorious: sunny, peaceful, simple. Up until the very end, when we stopped at a hazy beach in Monterey, it was one of those picture-perfect weekends with the bright blue of the California sky gracing our presence wherever we went and, when the sun would set, transforming itself into a soft, yet electric pink that recalls the finest sunsets in the Greek islands.
During that long weekend, I felt truly content. This break felt both hard-won and deserved, a rare combination. It was my first official day off work and it arrived at the exact moment when I needed it most. In hindsight, I realize that I had been approaching my breaking point; the breakneck pace of preparing all documents related to our motion was getting to me, the glare of the computer screen causing my eyes to ache and the need for a few days away from deadlines, train schedules and desk lunches was strong. Carmel–dog friendly and quaint–was just the place to be. I wanted to dip my teal-for real-colored toes in the chilly water and then walk down streets so eclectic that one minute you feel that you’re in southern France with leaves climbing up the walls and, the next, that you stumbled into an Italian or Spanish garden.
Escapism was the name of the game and I wandered around the town with my camera, feasting on the sights. My eyes, tired from the sheer monotony of routine, were hungry for something different. This, in fact, was the exact impulse that drove me to write this post yesterday evening: work has been a little intense lately with a few late nights, tight deadlines and weekend assignments. Even if you find the material to be compelling (there was a lot of time spent last week both figuring out and memorizing bits of evidentiary code; I must say I enjoyed the challenge), there is still the potential for burn out. My recent experience with bronchitis has shown me that, in such scenarios, it’s best to take a few steps back and, no pun intended (really!), just to take a breather.
Because I couldn’t take a trip anywhere this past weekend (I’ve discovered that in the “real world,” Veteran’s Day is not considered a holiday), I’ve opted to place myself back in Carmel and Big Sur through this post. Call this creative traveling or mere daydreaming; it’s all the same to me. Who could blame me for wanting to go back to a beach where, somewhat surreally, when the sun finally set in all of its majestic pinkness, the people started to clap in awe? Or to return to La Bicyclette, one of the coziest restaurants I’ve been to in California?
Although quite stunning in its own right, I’m not sure that Carmel can really compare to Big Sur. Perhaps I ought to say that there’s really no way to compare them; one is polished and chic–its beauty has been tamed–even shaped–by tourism, while the other is wild and sprawling. Looking at the landscape of Big Sur, it’s no wonder it became a place associated with a bohemian and artistic lifestyle. You can’t help but be amazed that the land was ever cultivated; all of it, from the steep cliffs to the Bixby Bridge, seems somehow impossible–the stuff of fairy tales, paintings, novels, rather than of real life.
After sadly being turned away from both the Big Sur Bakery and Nepenthe due to Elektra’s presence (note to dog owners: Big Sur is not the most dog-friendly place in California), we ended up having lunch at a dog-friendly cafe and art gallery in one. The food was tasty, the views spectacular and the garden, with its prominent erotic sculptures, gave the place a Henry Miller-esque feel.
Since there’s only so much marveling one can do, even in the face of abundant beauty, we finally got down to business and went for a short hike. While we had wanted a trail that would have taken us to a cliff with a view, Elektra’s presence again limited our options since there is only one dog-friendly trail in Big Sur. That said, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The “pack” was together and our trail, while not as scenic as it could have been, was nevertheless lovely and quiet.
Since my favorite post-hike activity is to eat a pastry (otherwise, what is the point of hiking?), we stopped at the Big Sur Bakery afterwards. It was already late afternoon and a lot of the day’s offerings had been picked over, but there were still Berry Brown Butter Bars and Peach and Apple Turnovers. I also don’t mind the thought of going back next summer for the Peach Brioche and maybe even for lunch in the bakery’s idyllic garden.
There was a tiny part of me that was sad to leave. Not only had so much had been left unexplored, but there was also something so appealing about being tucked away in those cliffs. Although probably a trite observation, Big Sur struck me as a place a bit cut off from the external world, a natural haven where one could get lost and push against the boundaries of tradition. I’m hardly what one would call a bohemian, but even I felt the pull of its heady promises: solitude, nature and endless inspiration.
Once home, I continued to find myself thinking about our trip, Big Sur and its colorful history. Wanting to know more, I pulled my copy of Romney Steele’s My Nepenthe from my bookshelves and sat down to read. Sixteen pages in and my curiosity hardly sated, I decided that the only way forward was to bake a cake. And not just any cake, but a cake that had first caught my eye as early as 2010, when I first got this book. This cake is the Torta Caprese, otherwise known as “uno dei pasticci piu fortunati della storia” (one of the greatest blunders in history). Stories say that, sometime between 1930 and 1950, the Torta Caprese was created by mistake when either somebody forgot to add flour to an almond chocolate cake, or an exhausted baker managed to mistake cocoa powder for flour when baking an almond cake. Whatever its origins, it’s a simple cake with a big reputation and a lot of flavor.
Comparing the recipe in Romney Steele’s book (this recipe was given to a friend of her grandmother by a Russian cook) to one featured on Epicurious shows a few differences: namely, the addition of orange zest (when I think of Capri, lemons come to mind more readily than oranges, so I used lemon zest instead) and vanilla, but also more eggs. It is in the separation of and beating of the egg whites that that the recipe becomes tricky. While the egg yolks are beaten with the sugar until pale yellow and fluffy, the egg whites must be whipped separately until they form stiff peaks. This step is essential and must be done properly; otherwise, the cake won’t rise (this is its only rising agent ). No matter which method you choose for beating your egg whites, I would also recommend using whites that are at room temperature.
Interestingly, when preparing to write this post, I came across a recipe for a traditional Calabrian Walnut torte on Emiko Davies’ blog (minus the addition of chocolate and melted butter, Emiko’s cake is not all that different from this one; both are flourless and rely largely on nuts and eggs. She also recently wrote about the same recipe for Food52) and she advises that, when whipping egg whites by hand, you use a glass or metal mixing bowl since fats tend to stick more to plastic surfaces. In a rare move from my preferred way of doing everything by hand, in this case I would go so far as to err on the side of modern conveniences and allow the standing or hand mixer to do the work for you.
Even though this cake relies on a careful whipping of the egg whites, the truth is that it’s also highly forgiving. Unlike a lot of cakes, it manages to strike the balance of being high on the crunch factor thanks to the texture from both nuts and its crackly meringue-like surface, while also retaining a dampness reminiscent of the best kind of brownies–not quite gooey and sticky, but soft, toothsome and with just the right amount of crumb. Topped with creme fraiche and served with a cup of tea, it’s rich and lightly citrusy, an ideal afternoon snack.
The Torta Caprese is not at all a traditional choice for Thanksgiving, but it’s worthy of being a contender. Should you want to play with the flavors, it has the potential to move away from its Italian roots and become something else entirely: pistachios and rose water could easily replace the almonds and vanilla and become something verging on Middle Eastern, hazelnuts and a mashed banana (in place of one of the eggs) could give it a French edge and perhaps even the presence of peanuts in the midst of so much chocolate could create a cake fit for an American sweet tooth. While I like the sound of all of these variations, there’s something about the classic simplicity of this cake that I like even more. And that, in and of itself, is saying quite a lot.
Torta Caprese (Chocolate Almond Torte from Capri)
yields 1 9-inch cake
adapted, largely in method, from Romney Steele’s My Nepenthe
6 ounces fine-quality (60-70%) dark chocolate
1 1/2 cups whole almonds with skins
1 cup granulated sugar
5 eggs, separated
zest of one lemon
Pinch sea salt
Pinch sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) butter, melted and cooled
Creme fraiche or whipped cream for serving
-Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch round pringform pan, then line the butter with parchment paper. Butter the parchment.
-In a food processor or with a large knife, chop the chocolate coarsely, transfer to a bowl and set aside.
-Grind the almonds finely with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, but be sure to leave some texture (the almonds and sugar should not resemble almond meal). Add the ground nuts and sugar to the chocolate.
-Using a mixer, beat the yolks with the remaining sugar until pale yellow and fluffy (this should take roughly five minutes). Then, on the lowest speed of the mixer, beat in the vanilla, lemon zest and pinch sea salt.
-Add the melted butter slowly and beat until combined. Add the chocolate and almonds and mix until incorporated.
-In another bowl, preferably glass or metal, beat the egg whites until they hold firm, but not overly stiff, peaks (they should have some texture and not be at all watery; make sure to check the bottom of the bowl for traces of liquid before attempting to fold them into the cake batter).
-Gently fold a third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it and then gently fold in the remaining 2/3.
-Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out fairly clean (it’s a damp cake, so there will most likely be a few crumbs stuck to the toothpick). When ready, the top of the cake will resemble the crackly surface of a meringue and the sides will have started to pull away from the sides of the pan.
-Cool on a rack for 10 minutes and then release the sides of the springform pan and gently remove the top.
-Let cool completely, then slice and serve with whipped cream or creme fraiche.