Torta Diplomatica is a peace of cake!

Peace of cake!

Crispy on the outside with a soft centre to melt your heart, Torta Diplomatica is sure to impress as the ultimate Italian orange diplomat cake, writes Sajith Vengateri

Torta Diplomatica. PHOTO BY AUTHOR

Wouldn’t it be great if you could solve tough political conflicts with a mouthwatering gift of an irresistible piece of cake? Well, back in the Renaissance-era in Italy, Torta Diplomatica did just that, a gift from one diplomat to the other to smooth over their differences. While the true origins are still murky, it’s believed to have been made by a chef in the Emilian city of Parma as a gift to Duke Francesco Sforsa of Milan. From there, it spread to south Italy where it has been a regular feature in dessert menus of diplomatic dinners.

Torta Diplomatica is a unique layered cake with two layers of Strega-infused pastry cream, and an Alkermes soaked sponge cake, sandwiched between two layers of golden brown puff pastry sheets. These old-world liqueurs give this cake a captivating visual appeal as well as a magical “lift me up” spirit. It is the ultimate luxury dessert that you could even have with your morning coffee.

Ironically, the southern regions of Sicilia and Campania are still fighting over the ownership of this bewitching dessert spiked with Strega (meaning “witch”), a liqueur invented in the Sicilian city of Benevento. Legend has it that the annual gathering of the world’s witches takes place under a huge walnut tree in the town centre and a love potion is conjured up by witches using exotic ingredients, finished off with spells cast, singing and dancing. Modern-day Strega was first distilled by Giuseppe Alberti and his apothecarist father Carmine Alberti and the family is still involved in the production of this wonderful liqueur.

Strega is infused with around 70 spices and herbs, most of which are a legacy of the spice trade. Cardamom and vanilla from India and Madagascar, bitter orange from the Caribbean, saffron from Iran, Juniper, anise and mint from Italy, to name a few. Strega could replace an entire pantry rack of spices and herbs with one handy bottle! It’s great in cocktails, as an after-dinner digestive and of course in the pastry kitchen.

One day before assembling the cake, make the puff pastry and the sponge cake. You could use a good quality store-bought frozen butter puff pastry sheet to save time and effort. But I would urge you to take the long route, cook, sing and dance with the witches all night! The labour of love is worth every hour put into it as it gives you back an astonishingly simple to assemble, yet enchanting cake, to rival any magical love potion you could get your hands on.

Torta Diplomatica

Puff pastry

450 gm + 30 gm all-purpose flour

120 gm + 450 gm butter

240 ml milk or water

30 gm sugar

5 gm salt

 

Mix 450 gm flour, 120 gm butter, 30 gm sugar, 5 gm salt and 240 ml milk to form a soft dough. Wrap and rest in the refrigerator.

Cream 450 gm butter and 30 gm flour using a wooden spoon, spread on a greaseproof paper to make the butter block 15 cm x15 cm in size and refrigerate. Roll the reserved dough on the workbench to get a rectangle of 32 cm x 17 cm. Place the butter block on one side of the dough, fold over the rest of the dough and seal the edges, refrigerate for 20 minutes. Laminate the puff pastry by rolling it to a rectangle of approximately 40 cm length and 20 cm width, and folding it over thirds like a book. The best option would be to watch a YouTube video on rolling puff pastry. You need to repeat the folding steps three times to make a good puff pastry.

Make sure the dough is kept chilled for 15 minutes between each turn so that the butter doesn’t ooze out. After the last fold, the dough needs to be rested for at least an hour in the refrigerator before you can use it. Cut the dough in two equal squires and use one of them to roll out two sheets approximately 15 cm long x 10 cm wide, 5 mm or so thick. The leftover puff can be stored in the refrigerator and used to make spicy egg puffs. Preheat the oven to 190 c and bake the puff pastry for 10 minutes. Gently press down with a tray to deflate the puff and bake for a further six minutes to get two thin, crispy, golden brown sheets of puff pastry. Cool down and reserve.

Sponge cake

5 whole eggs

150 gm castor sugar

125 gm plain flour

25 gm cornflour

2 g salt

2 ml vanilla essence

 

Preheat the oven to 160 c. Using an electric beater, whisk egg and sugar till triple in volume, sift flour and cornflour together and fold in gently, add vanilla and salt. Pour the batter into a rectangular cake tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 30 minutes. Cool down and reserve.

Diplomatica cream

The filling for this cake is a Strega infused pastry cream, with a whipped sweetened fresh cream folded in.

250 ml milk

75 gm castor sugar

25 gm cornflour

2 ml vanilla essence

1 gm saffron

zest of 1 orange

60 ml Strega or Rum

Mix all ingredients in a heavy bottom pan and whisk well, gently heating up till the cream thickens to form a custard. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate. Whisk together 200 ml of fresh cream and 50 gm icing sugar in a cold bowl till soft peaks are formed. Fold into the chilled custard and refrigerate again.

Assembly

50 ml Alkermes or rum with red food colouring and 50 ml water. Ideally, you want to make the puff pastry and sponge cake components the day before assembly. When you are ready to start putting it together, first trim puff pastry sheets to two 15 cm x 10 cm rectangles and the sponge cake to the same dimensions. Trim the thickness of the sponge cake to 1 cm. Alternatively, you could make 5 cm squires to make three individual cakes. Start with the puff pastry sheet as the base. Spread the Diplomatica cream evenly to form the next layer. Brush the sponge cake with the Alkermes syrup and place on top of the cream layer. Spread one more layer of cream and finish off with the second sheet of crispy golden brown puff pastry. Sprinkle a layer of icing sugar on top and serve. Best enjoyed with a glass of chilled Strega on ice or sweet wine.

If Strega is hard to source, substitute with rum. This cake also uses Alkermes liqueur (please refer to last month’s recipe on Zucotto). Both these liqueurs can be substituted by rum or go non-alcoholic with vanilla, orange blossom water or orange essence.

(The author is a chef based in Brisbane, Australia. An exponent of regional Italian cuisine, he’s from the class of ‘94 IHM Kovalam and loves playing with fire. He’s an avid permaculture gardener and Border Collie whisperer.)

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