Buckwheat Takes the Cake

Torta di Grano Saraceno 

I can’t believe how delinquent I’ve been. Yes, yes, I know I’ve never been the most, ahem, prolific of posters but I’ve certainly never done this to you before. You see, as of today, this recipe has been sitting on my computer – tried, tweaked and photographed – for nearly six weeks. Six weeks and I’m only posting it now, can you believe it? Under normal circumstances I might take that as a sign that maybe the recipe isn’t that good after all and I’ve just been looking for excuses not to publish it, but I can assure you that’s definitely not the case here. In fact, I made it again last night just to confirm. Or at least that’s how I justified making it for a fourth time, but really, I would have taken any excuse I could find.

But that doesn’t explain why I haven’t told you about it until now. Oh sure, I can blame craziness at work, and the fifteen million billion other things going on that have kept me feeling like I’m drifting in a lifeboat with a leak in it, bailing out water as fast as it comes in (among other things, the incredibly stressful business of trying to get Manuel a green card – if any of you have gone through this for a foreign spouse, please tell me: does it ever end??). But that’s not the whole of it. The problem, if I’m honest, is that I just don’t have a lot to say about this cake. I mean, there’s no interesting backstory, no tangled history, no humorous anecdote I can share about making and/or serving it. It was just something that slowly made its way to the top of the to-make list and once I did, quietly won us over.

The key word here is quietly, because this cake is far from a show-stealer at first glance. It’s a plain cake, drab greyish-brown in color, and even the suggested accompaniments of whipped cream and blueberry compote do little to improve its lot in the looks department. Its flavor is also unexpectedly subtle, and easily loses its voice under more aggressive toppings. But on its own, perhaps cut in a thick wedge and eaten while leaning sleepily against the kitchen counter, the day’s first cup of strong, milky coffee in the other hand, you’ll have no problem finding its charms. Beautiful it ain’t, but spend some time alone together, and you’ll realize this cake makes up for it with some serious personality.

The best analogy for this cake, I think, would be to your most comfortable pair of shoes. You know, the kind you would never dream of wearing to an important occasion, but the ones you always reach for first when there’s no one around to impress. The buckwheat, a grain that has finally begun to shake its wooly-cardigan and Birkenstock-wearing associations, is a huge part of the cake’s allure, lending it exactly the kind of rustic wholesomeness that makes things like graham crackers and digestive biscuits so appealing. Texture-wise, it’s darn-near perfect, not too light and not too heavy, its thin, slightly chewy exterior enclosing a soft, moist crumb (which you’d never guess was gluten-free!), plenty of toasted-almond rubble and the gentle whispers of cinnamon and lemon. It’s the kind of cake that, like those comfy shoes, will become such an indispensable part of your culinary wardrobe that you’ll be hard-pressed to remember life without it. 

So there, now you have it, and please accept my sincerest apologies for keeping it from you for so long. Though hopefully you’re far too busy digging out your buckwheat flour to mind.


p.s. The Traveler’s Lunchbox is three years old today! I was shocked to realize it when I saw the publication date for this post. Where does the time go? I’m generally not much for celebrating blog birthdays, but I do think it’s pretty amazing that the crazy, impulsive thing I did one Monday in early 2005 has turned out to be one of the most important things I’ve ever done, responsible for bringing me friends both real and virtual, and for even laying the groundwork for a nascent new career. Who would have thought then that I’d still be at it three years later? Anyway, I just want to say a big heartfelt thank-you to readers old and new for continuing to stop by – even when the pickings around here are slim! – and for always having such kind, encouraging, inspired and inspiring things to say. I promise to eat an extra piece of buckwheat cake in your honor tonight! 🙂


Torta di Grano Saraceno (Tyrolian Buckwheat Cake)

This cake, as you can no doubt tell by the name, has its origins in Italy, specifically in the South Tyrol/Trentino-Alto Adige region where buckwheat is a staple crop. This particular version was inspired by a recipe in Anna del Conte’s Classic Food of Northern Italy, a fascinating compendium that includes many of the region’s lesser-known delights. Her version of this cake is more or less traditional, but as I typically like my cakes a bit moister than the Italians, I’ve tinkered with the formula a bit so that it’s just as tasty plain as it is split and filled with blueberry jam (which you should feel free to do if you want to enjoy it like the Tyrolians). Alternatively, I imagine it would be fantastic with stewed or poached apples, pears or plums, but keep their spicing to a minimum or you’ll risk overpowering the cake’s own delicate flavors.
Yield: one 9-inch cake (I imagine this would work great as a bundt cake too)

1 heaping cup (6oz/175g) whole almonds, blanched or natural

1 1/2 cups (200g) buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
finely grated zest of 1 large lemon (or two medium)

2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup (6oz/175g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (300g) sugar, divided

3/4 cup (180ml) milk
4 eggs, at room temperature, separated

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and toast until golden and fragrant, about 10-12 minutes. Cool completely.

Grease a 9-inch/23cm springform pan and set aside. In a food processor or clean coffee grinder, grind the almonds as finely as possible with 1/4 cup (50g) of the sugar. In a medium bowl, stir together the ground almonds, buckwheat flour, salt, cinnamon, lemon zest and baking powder.

In another bowl, beat the butter and 1 cup (200g) of the sugar until fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the dry mixture alternately with the milk until everything is well combined.

In a clean mixing bowl and using spotlessly clean beaters, whip the egg whites with the remaining 1/4 cup (50g) sugar until they form stiff, glossy peaks. Stir one-quarter of the whites into the cake batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the rest. Scrape the batter into the greased pan, smoothing the top.

Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, covering the top loosely with foil if it begins to darken too much. Cool the cake for ten minutes on a rack, then carefully remote the outer ring and cool completely. Store, covered, at room temperature for up to 3-4 days. Dust with a little powdered sugar before serving, if you like.


5 Things to Love about Calabria


My article deadline is looming, but I wanted to share a few impressions of Calabria while they’re still fresh. I don’t normally have the opportunity to take photos on assignment, but for the first time I wasn’t traveling with a photographer and so didn’t feel completely ridiculous whipping out my own camera! A few words about the place: Calabria, in case you don’t know, is the region at the ‘toe’ of the Italian boot and was historically one of the poorest regions of Italy. Today it’s most famous for two things – one, for being the ancestral home of millions of immigrants abroad, particularly in North America, and two, for the ‘Ndrangeta, one of the richest and most ruthless mafias in the world. If you ask me, though, what it should rather be famous for is being a friendly, beautiful, fascinating and extremely delicious land – and one I would not hesitate to return to in a heartbeat.

In no particular order, here are five of the things I loved most.



1. Peperoncino
I’ll never forget the long-ago night I served my Spanish host family a Mexican dinner. They took one bite of the canned refried beans – which to me tasted like they had possibly been shown a jalapeño pepper from across the room – and pushed their plates away, declaring it far too spicy to eat. That experience, combined with the fact that nowhere else around the Mediterranean (including Morocco) have I ever tasted any truly spicy food, led me to assume that hot peppers are simply not grown/eaten/favored in this part of the world. That assumption was smashed to smithereens, however, in the time it took me to take my first bite of food in Calabria. If there is one thing that makes Calabrian food Calabrian, it is spicy red peppers, and oh my, they are hot. And they’re in everything: the salami, the sausage, the vegetables, the pasta, the fritters. They make a starring appearance in the ubiquitous Calabrian pork paté called ‘nduja (pronounced in-DOO-ya), which in some versions is like a coarse meat paste with peppers, and in others, a devilishly hot pepper spread with a only a suggestion of pork. And worry not – if, by some slim chance, you happen to be served something in a restaurant that is not quite up to your heat tolerance, just ask for the pepper sauce – they always have a jar of it standing around somewhere.



2. Antipasti
I know, I know, antipasti are found all over Italy. But no one, at least in my experience, does it quite like the Calabrians. You see, Calabrians seem to operate under the belief that the best way to prime your stomach for the subsequent onslaught of pasta, vegetables, meat and dessert is not to ease into a meal with a few palate-tickling bites, but rather to launch a full digestive assault as soon as you sit down. Take a look at the photo second from top, left, and the buffet below, right, to get an idea of the scale of the indulgence; a typical antipasti plate at most of the meals I ate consisted of various prosciuttos, salamis and cheeses, a slice of frittata or two, some stuffed and/or marinated vegetables, bruschetta with ‘nduja and perhaps another spread, a couple of vegetable or fish fritters, and some olives. For each person. There’s a reason my pants aren’t fitting so well anymore.



3. Bergamot
If you like Earl Grey tea, you probably know that bergamot is responsible for that sweet, citrusy fragrance. But do you know what bergamot actually is? I sure didn’t, but I do now: bergamot is a citrus fruit, a hybrid of the pear lemon and the seville orange. Larger and rounder than a lemon, it is cultivated predominantly for its essential oil, which has a floral, bittersweet fragrance I really fell in love with. Around Reggio Calabria, at the very tip of the boot, the world’s only major bergamot crop is cultivated, and here you can find just about everything flavored with the elusive fruit. I tried bergamot candies, bergamot marmalade, bergamot liqueur, bergamot custard, bergamot nougat and bergamot chocolate, and I have to say, I think bergamot is the next ‘it’ citrus variety. Heck, I’m ready to start importing it myself, if just to have a constant personal supply.




4. The Landscape
When you think of the very south of Italy, what do you imagine? I imagined a dry, sun-baked land, rocky and barren with very little growing. I certainly didn’t picture the reality of Calabria, which is 800 km of stunning, mostly undeveloped coastline surrounding a green and mountainous interior, full of citrus and olive plantations, vast chestnut and pine forests, isolated windswept plateaus, and a patchwork of verdant national parks. And that sea, just look at the color – Calabria has some of the cleanest and clearest in the Mediterranean. Too bad it was still too cold to swim, or so they told me – not having brought my bathing suit I didn’t have the chance to put that to the test!



5. The people
I know saying ‘the people’ is pretty clichéd, but I have good reason to say it. You see, I experienced a frightening level of incompetence and disorganization at the hands of the Italian tourist board on this trip, who were in charge of coordinating my itinerary and making my arrangements. For part of my trip they stuck me on a bus with a group of Eastern European tour operators, and all I saw (apart from the inside of the bus) was a succession of package-holiday resort complexes. When I did manage to get private guides, oftentimes the ones provided weren’t guides at all, and/or didn’t speak a word of English. The tourist board aside, however, everybody I met in Calabria was absolutely wonderful, and more importantly, took it upon themselves to help me out in whatever way they could. There were people willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice and drive me hundreds of kilometers around Calabria when they heard about my tour-group nightmare, and one of the tour group’s translators, a lovely girl called Alessandra, volunteered to stay with me and translate privately for the rest of my trip not even knowing if she would get paid for it (she did, thankfully). And that’s the kind of attitude I found from many people; because inefficiency and disorganization are facts of life in southern Italy, people have a highly-developed sense of personal responsibility – since they can’t rely on the system, they have to rely on each other. I don’t think I’ve experienced this level of generosity and hospitality anywhere else, and in the end it made this trip memorable for the right reasons.



Of course there were many other wonderful things about Calabria – some of the runners up would definitely be the region’s fabulous farmhouse bread, crusty and chewy and utterly different from one village to the next; the delicious gelato, in particular the tartufo, a hand-formed ball of chocolate and hazelnut gelato, rolled in cocoa and enclosing a center of oozing chocolate sauce (pictured freshly-made, above right); the wonderful local pasta varieties, such as fileja, chunky hand-rolled spirals (pictured below the paragraph on antipasti, on the left), and schiaffetoni, palm-sized squares containing fennel sausage, pecorino and tomatoes (photo above the paragraph on antipasti, on the right); the region’s wonderful cheeses, like the pungent pecorinos, fresh buffalo mozzarella (photo next to the schiaffetoni), the caciocavallo and provola (photo below the paragraph on landscape, on the left); and the beautiful towns along the Tyrrhenian (west) coast, in particular Tropea and Scilla (last photo below), both of which can rival anything in the Cinque Terre or Amalfi coast.

Though it’s been barely a week since I left, already I’m dreaming about going back, though next time with my bathing suit and an extra stomach or two to fit all that antipasti…



p.s. I hope you’ll check out the Italian supplement in the June issue of Food and Travel for the ‘official’ report. 🙂