When I indulge in dessert, I prefer simple sweets. On our ski tours in Italy, I sample the apple strudel at every restaurant we visit, usually with a glass of grappa. On our cycling tours, a simple cake or a traditional cookie accompanied by a glass of the local dessert wine, be it Vin Santo in Umbria or Torcolato in the Veneto.
A friend gave me a couple of jars of homemade honey, which I have been looking to put to good use. On our cycling tours in the Veneto, we pass through many honey producing areas, each featuring specific flavors which vary based on the source of the nectar. The Colli Euganie hills just south of Padua produce honey from sunflowers, dandelion, acacia and chestnuts; Miele del Grappa and Miele del Montello produced near Bassano del Grappa are flavored by acacia, chestnuts, wildflowers, and wild cherries; there are also honeys from the plains of Verona, the mountains of Verona, and the Belluno Dolomites.
Honey has a long history of human consumption, with cave paintings depicting honey gathering dating back 8000 years. It is speculated that the ancient Greeks first brought beekeeping to southern Italy, and several ancient Roman mention the gathering and use of honey in their writings, including Pliny the Elder and Marcus Terentius Varro. In the absence of sugar, honey was an integral sweetening ingredient in Roman recipes. It also has medicinal uses, it’s anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties are still recognized today as beneficial for treatment of wounds.
Cured honey is also suitable for long term storage, due to its high sugar content and low water content. We can thank the energetic bees for the latter, as the bees inside the hive fan their wings, creating a draft across the honeycomb, evaporating the water from the nectar and preventing fermentation. Honey, and items preserved in honey, have been preserved for decades, even centuries. The Egyptians even used it as an embalming fluid.
I made this honey cake recently when we had a few guests for dinner. Judging from their reaction, the preservative properties of honey are not required here. This is adapted from a recipe for Honey and Pear Cake from La Cucina Italiana.
Torta al Miele, Nocciola e Limone
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
zest of one lemon
For the cream:
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup fresh, whole milk ricotta cheese, drained of excess liquid
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons grappa or dessert wine
Heat oven to 350º with rack in middle. Lightly grease a 9-inch springform pan with butter, and cover with parchment paper, cut to fit.
In a food processor, pulse hazelnuts with 1 tablespoon of the flour until ground to a fine powder; transfer to a large bowl. Add remaining flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda; stir to combine.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine butter, ¼ cup honey, brown sugar and granulated sugar. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Mix in whole egg and egg yolk, one at a time.
Whisk together milk, vanilla and lemon zest. In three additions, add flour mixture alternating with milk mixture to the butter mixture. Using a rubber spatula, scrape batter into prepared pan; place pan on a baking sheet. Bake, rotating halfway through, until the cake is golden brown and gently bounces back when touched, 40 to 45 minutes.
Transfer cake pan to a wire rack; immediately put remaining 2 tablespoons honey in a small saucepan; heat over medium-low heat, stirring to combine, until just warm and viscous, then brush mixture over cake. Let cake cool completely before serving.
For the cream: In large mixing bowl, vigorously whisk together cream, cheese, honey and liquor until mixture is smooth and reaches soft peaks, about 3 minutes.
Serve cake warm or at room temperature large spoonful of the cream.