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.