Flourless chocolate cake: Sounds so mod, doesn’t it? Remember the molten chocolate cakes of the ‘90s? Scroll through Instagram or TikTok and you won’t have to — versions of the cake are scattered across social media offering ways for chocolate hounds to eat chocolate cake without gluten. It has become ubiquitous in our culinary landscape, and for good reason: It’s yummy.
Is it surprising, then, to find that the cake is most likely more than 100 years old? La torta tenerina (also called the Queen of Montenegro cake, named after Elena of Montenegro, who became queen of Italy in 1900), was first documented in Ferrara, Italy, and is still found on restaurant and bakery menus there. But cakes of its kind were most likely made before then. South to the Amalfi Coast on the island of Capri, you’ll find torta Caprese, a dense, flourless cake that uses almond meal (or almond flour) for structure. Like la torta tenerina, it has an almost gooey center encased in a delicate crumb, created by the incorporation of meringue.
These cakes use dark chocolate (the darker the better — at least 70% cocoa), and the classic method of creating a pate a bombe (egg yolks mixed with sugar) that’s later mixed with the chocolate, butter and almond flour. A meringue is folded in as the last step to lighten and create texture. The result is a dense, brownie-like cake that’s barely an inch thick, with a thin, delicate crust.
Like tomato sauce, each Italian baker seems to have their own version of flourless chocolate cake, depending on the region. Some use hazelnuts instead of almonds; some incorporate a few tablespoons of potato starch for added structure. There are iterations on Capri that use white chocolate and Sorrento lemons instead of dark chocolate. For instance, a scrumptious recipe for this torta Caprese bianca can be found in Nick Malgieri’s “A Baker’s Tour” (HarperCollins, 2005). The recipe below uses coffee to enhance the flavor of the dark chocolate.
Any way you bake it, this cake is a bite of history in a cake pan — just as delicate and delicious now as it was more than a century ago.
Credit: Meridith Ford
Credit: Meridith Ford
This cake is a classic, and there are versions of flourless chocolate cakes like it throughout Italy. Almonds are a natural Italian substitute for flour, and if almond flour (meal) is used, it’s barely noticeable in the final product. Instead, the cake’s texture is moist and dense. What’s more, it’s very easy to make, and perfect for a quickly made dessert. It’s important to watch the cooking time — don’t overbake. The cake is done when a crust forms and feels slightly firm to the touch. Italians eat it with nothing more than a sprinkle of powdered sugar, but you can top it with gelato, whipped cream, fudge or caramel sauce — or all.
Meridith Ford is an Atlanta-based chef and food writer who owns Cremalosa gelataria in Decatur.
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