RECIPE: Italian cake offers lesson for using less cinnamon

Torta di zucca is an Italian fall cake that highlights the delicate, natural sweetness of pumpkin. The cream cheese frosting adds a richness to the cake. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

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Torta di zucca is an Italian fall cake that highlights the delicate, natural sweetness of pumpkin. The cream cheese frosting adds a richness to the cake. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Torta di zucca highlights the natural sweetness of pumpkin.

For many of us, cooler weather, fall foliage and the reintroduction of all things pumpkin spice into our lives signals the start of the holiday baking season. For baking nerds (if you’re reading this, I regret to inform you that either you or someone you care about is one of us), it means that our bakes become cozier as we lean into flavors that complement the harvest of apples, pecans and pumpkins.

It is here, fellow baking nerd, that I must implore you to put down the cinnamon! Yes, I said it. Put it down. Take a breath, write me a furious email, and then come back. The fact is plain: In a world rich with spice, we use too much cinnamon. This one little spice does so much heavy lifting in our cool weather baking that it quickly becomes boring, and we categorically resent the flavor until the following fall.

I encourage you to think of cinnamon — and every other spice in baking — as supporting acts instead of mainstage performers. With a light touch, and in the right proportion, spices make our apples more apple-y and our pumpkins more pumpkin-y.

To practice our newfound cinnamon discipline, I’ve rustled up a recipe from one of my favorite baking categories: the tea cake. Not fussy and a great keeper, the tea cake is intended to pair with a good strong cup of coffee in the morning or an afternoon tea.

This cake is a modified version of a torta di zucca, an Italian fall cake that’s easy to throw together and highlights the delicate, natural sweetness of pumpkin (or sweet potato, if you feel adventurous). Omit the icing if you wish, but it does add a richness to the cake that makes teatime feel more luxurious.

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caption arrowCaption
Torta di zucca is an Italian fall cake that highlights the delicate, natural sweetness of pumpkin. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Credit: Nicole Lewis

Torta di zucca is an Italian fall cake that highlights the delicate, natural sweetness of pumpkin. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Credit: Nicole Lewis

caption arrowCaption
Torta di zucca is an Italian fall cake that highlights the delicate, natural sweetness of pumpkin. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Credit: Nicole Lewis

Credit: Nicole Lewis

Torta di Zucca
  • For the cake:
  • 1 1/2 cups (188 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon (4 grams) baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon (6 grams) baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) ground cinnamon
  • Pinch ginger
  • Pinch cardamom
  • Pinch allspice
  • Pinch sumac
  • Cooking spray or butter, for greasing pan
  • 6 tablespoons (78 grams) granulated sugar
  • 6 tablespoons (83 grams) light brown sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon (3 grams) lemon zest
  • 2 large eggs (100 grams), lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) olive oil
  • 7 ounces (212 grams) pumpkin puree
  • 1 teaspoon (4 grams) vanilla extract
  • For the cream cheese frosting:
  • 3 ounces (85 grams) cream cheese
  • 3 ounces (85 grams) soft butter
  • 3/4 cup (98 grams) sifted confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) vanilla extract
  • Heat the oven to 350 degrees, or 325 if using a convection oven. To a large bowl, add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, allspice and sumac. Sift to combine. Set aside.
  • Grease an 8-inch cake pan with cooking spray or with butter and a sprinkling of flour all around, then shake out excess flour. Set aside.
  • In a medium-sized bowl, combine granulated sugar and light brown sugar. Using fingers, massage lemon zest into the sugars, until fragrant.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer, or a large bowl if working by hand, combine lemon sugar, eggs and olive oil. Beat with a whisk or whisk attachment for 2-3 minutes, until the mixture is thick, light and fluffy. Add pumpkin puree and vanilla extract and mix just until incorporated. Slowly add the combined dry ingredients. Whisk together until batter is smooth. If you see lumps, keep whisking. In baking, lumps are never a good thing.
  • Pour batter into prepared cake pan and bake 25 minutes. Rotate 180 degrees, and set a timer for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, check for doneness by inserting a cake tester, toothpick or barbecue skewer, whatever, in the middle of the cake. If the tester comes out clean (a crumb or two on the tester is OK), the cake is done. If it seems like it needs more time, add another 5 minutes and check again. The cake will be extraordinarily fragrant, and slightly dome shaped in the middle.
  • Allow the cake to cool on a wire rack.
  • Meanwhile, make the frosting. Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment (or a wooden spoon or fork), beat cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. No streaks of butter should remain. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt and continue beating until the mixture is airy and light. Add vanilla extract and stir to combine.
  • When the cake is fully cooled — not “mostly cooled” or “close enough to fully cooled,” but fully cooled — spread the frosting on top. Makes 8 servings.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 472 calories (percent of calories from fat, 52), 4 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 28 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 80 milligrams cholesterol, 585 milligrams sodium.

Chris Wilkins has been a professional baker for 12 years. He is a two-time James Beard Award nominee and the founder and co-owner of Root Baking Co. and Pizza Jeans. Submit your baking questions to bakebetterajc@gmail.com.

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