A Favorite Cake to Welcome the New Year

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Buon Anno a tutti! Happy New Year.

As I sit here writing and thinking about the year ahead, I am (literally) surrounded by the past. During the Christmas break, my husband and I decided to start a long-overdue project to clean and reorganize our basement. So far, we have said farewell to five huge bins of baby clothes (minus a few choice items we couldn’t bear to part with); two broken easels; our daughter’s Littlest Pet Shop collection; and our son’s Rokenbok set (but not the Thomas trains or Hess trucks).

At the moment, half my kitchen floor is occupied by stacks of Gourmet magazines, removed from the various boxes in which they had been randomly stashed and finally put into chronological order. They date back to 1990, when I first became a subscriber, and continue right up to November 2009, the magazine’s final issue.

My intent, when I lugged them all up from the basement, was to organize and re-box them, and donate them to charity (I was told that food magazines are popular). Instead, I flipped one open and found myself reading what turned out to be Laurie Colwin’s last Home Cooking column before she died. After that, I picked up another issue (I didn’t note the date), and here was Craig Claiborne writing hilariously about his first—and presumably last—fox hunt in Virginia (unable to control his horse, he found himself, absurdly, ahead of the fox). I am not making this up. Gourmet, I decided, is staying.

Also staying:
* all of the New Yorker special issues on food, plus the winter and summer fiction issues, and three 9/11-related issues with brilliant covers.
* my mother’s collection of vintage La Cucina Italiana magazines dating back to 1962, which she generously turned over to me in 2004 when I began writing my first cookbook.

I have special plans for those issues of La Cucina Italiana, so please stay tuned. And there are other cooking and writing projects percolating as well. First and foremost, though, in eight short weeks (yikes) I’ll be submitting the manuscript for The Glorious Vegetables of Italy, scheduled to be published by Chronicle Books in 2013. So for the time being I’m staying focused on wrapping up the recipe testing and writing writing writing.

And that means that, at least for now, I’m keeping it simple in the kitchen. I’m starting the year with this plain, vanilla-scented cake. Far from being new, it is an old favorite in our house. My kids call it Nonna’s cake, because my mom makes it for them whenever they visit her or she visits us. Otherwise, it’s known as “ciambellone” or “ciambellotto”, both of which translate to ‘big ring.’ See? Simple.

Ciambellone is nothing like an American layer cake; there is nothing fancy about it, and it requires neither frosting nor a fork. The cake is sturdy, with a dense crumb, but somehow still moist (I know that sounds impossible but when you make it you’ll see what I mean). It’s a good breakfast cake and good for an afternoon snack, too. It is, in fact, the perfect dunking cake, whether you are dunking in cappuccino, American coffee, hot chocolate, or a glass of cold milk.

My mother makes this cake the “old-fashioned” way; that is, she mounds the dry ingredients on the countertop as though she were making pasta, and works in eggs, softened butter, and cream with her hands to form a very soft dough. I actually enjoy working the dough by hand; it gets messy and quite sticky before it comes together, and therein, of course, lies the appeal. If you haven’t made a cake this way, give it a try. Otherwise, use a large stand mixer, which works just as well.

Makes one 10-inch ring cake

Ciambellone

Adapted from Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style (Chronicle Books, 2008)

A dunking cake if ever there was one, this is my mother's recipe, which is based on her mother's recipe. Our family has been devouring it for at least three generations. The secret ingredient is a sweet, citrus-infused liqueur from Abruzzo (see Cook's Note). Perhaps it is what makes this cake such a big hit with children.

Ingredients

  • 6 to 7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting the tube pan and for kneading the dough
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, plus additional for greasing the tube pan
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk, light cream, or half-and-half
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
  • 2 tablespoons Punch Abruzzese liqueur or dark rum (see Cooks' Note)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons Swedish pearl sugar or granulated sugar for sprinkling (see Cook's Note)

Instructions

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 10-inch ring or tube pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together 6 cups flour, the sugar, and the salt. Dump the mixture out onto a clean work surface, and make a mound with a wide well in the center. Carefully crack the eggs into the well and use a fork to break the yolks and gently whisk the eggs.

Begin to incorporate a little of the dry ingredients as you mix. Add the pieces of butter (they should be very soft) and stir them around into the egg-flour mixture, gradually incorporating more flour as you work.

Pour in the vanilla and almond extracts and the Punch Abruzzese or rum, and then the milk. Sprinkle in the baking powder and baking soda and continue to incorporate flour into the mixture. At this point, start using your hands to mix the ingredients together.

Don't worry if the well springs a leak; just use your hands to bring everything back together. Within a couple of minutes the dough will turn from a rough, sticky and "shaggy" mass to a soft and smooth, but still sticky, dough. Sprinkle in a little more flour if necessary, just enough to allow you to roll the dough out into a soft, thick log. Carefully pick up the log of dough with both hands and arrange it in the prepared tube pan, spreading it around evenly.

Bake the cake for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 and continue to bake for another 25 to 30 minutes, or until it has risen and is browned on top, but not quite set. Brush the cake with the 2 remaining tablespoons of milk and sprinkle with the pearl or granulated sugar. Return the cake to the oven for 5 to 10 minutes more, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the top of the cake is golden-brown. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan and let it cool to room temperature. Transfer the cake, sugar-side-up, to a decorative platter before serving.

Cook's Note: Punch Abruzzese is produced outside of Chieti, my mother's hometown. It is a sweet, potent liqueur made from caramelized sugar and the zest of lemons and oranges. Punch is not easy to find, and I am still searching for a good Internet source for it; but it is worth knowing about, which is why I mention it here. It is considered a good after-dinner digestive and is delicious drizzled over vanilla ice cream. If you are unable to find it, substitute Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or dark rum (mixed with a little orange and lemon zest, if you like).

* Update: I just learned from food blogger Adri Barr Crocetti that there is a place in Florida that stocks Punch Abruzzese. Here is a link to Adri's post about this wonderful liquor, which includes information on where you can find it stateside.

Swedish pearl sugar consists of bright white, irregularly shaped granules of sugar. It is often used as a decorative touch in European baked goods and is available online from King Arthur Flour.

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37 Responses to A Favorite Cake to Welcome the New Year

  1. carrie fehr January 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    I loved this article, I also cleared out a basement and organized baby clothes, trains, and more. I decided it will be my New Years tradition, instead of letting it pile up for over 15 years. Thanks!
    Carrie

    • Domenica January 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Carrie. It’s amazing how quickly things get out of hand, or how quickly the years fly by–or both! I like your idea of making this an annual tradition. Cheers and all the best in 2012.

  2. Judy@Savoring Today January 3, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    I too have old issues of Gourmet I will not part with, I was so sad when they stopped publishing. Last year my husband started a subscription to La Cucina Italiana for Christmas and it is a new favorite (maybe one day my girls will keep my”vintage” stuff). If I didn’t get rid of some of the magazines, they would take over the house! Good luck with your new cookbook!

    • Domenica January 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

      Thank you, Judy. I know what you mean about magazines taking over the house. I have now reorganized all those magazines I mentioned in the post. But…I need to find a good place to keep them where they won’t be in the way but they will also be within reach. They are such a great resource.

  3. Elizabeth @Mango_Queen January 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    What a glorious cake. I love the good old family recipes, they’re the best! Thanks for sharing this. Happy New Year, Domenica!

    • Domenica January 3, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

      Happy New Year to you, Betty Ann. Yes, family recipes are definitely the most special.

  4. Liliana Tommasini January 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    My husband loves this cake. I love this cake. My mother-in-law used to make it. It’s a family favourite.

    I also have a stash of Gourmet magazines (and cookbooks) that I just can’t part with as well as a few issues of Cucina Italiana that used to belong to my mom that I will never part with.

    Thanks for sharing your recipe. I will certainly try your method when I make it this week.

    Happy New Year!

    • Domenica January 3, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

      It sounds like we have lots in common, Liliana. I would be interested to hear about how your mother-in-law used to make la ciambella. My mother uses lievito in polvere, which seems to me to rise just a little bit better. But it can be hard to find here in the U.S. so I substituted baking powder and soda and am happy with the result. Cheers and Buon Anno, D

    • Domenica January 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      Ciao Elisa, Grazie per il link! Amo il Punch Abruzzese. Io lo metto anche nel french toast, e mi piace tantissimo sul gelato alla vaniglia. Buonissimo! Buon Anno anche a te.

  5. Wendy January 3, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    Sounds delicious!

    I too have Gourmet back to 1990 (as well as all my son’s Hess trucks and trains, and tubs of kid art)! I definitely like to weed from time to time, but those are staying at our house too!

    • Domenica January 3, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Wendy. Ages ago I separated out all of the December issues of Gourmet (the cookie issues) and have kept them on my cookbook shelves. I thought I’d be able to get rid of the others but I just couldn’t do it.

  6. Emiko January 3, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    Wonderful! There is something so comforting about even just the sight of a ciambellone, I can just imagine dunking it into a cappuccino right now!

    • Domenica January 3, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

      Thank you, Emiko. Happy New Year to you!

  7. Alicia Sokol January 4, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    We did the same thing! Toys, magazines, old books, etc….all gone! It feels good, doesn’t it? Happy new year! Hoping to see you soon! XOXO.

    • Domenica January 4, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      It does feel good, Alicia. However, as you know, nature abhors a vacuum, and after reading your post on juicing, I may have to fill just a little of the space I created with a juicer. Cheers, D

  8. The Food Hunter January 5, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Our friends always tease us about the “dry dense” Italian desserts but I love them

    • Domenica January 6, 2012 at 10:25 am #

      So do I, Theresa, although I have to admit that I had to “grow into” them. When I was a kid I wasn’t all that fond of liquor-soaked cakes or anise cookies and I still can’t abide candied fruit. But I’ve always loved ciambellone. Cheers, D

  9. Nancy Purves Pollard January 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    I made this for my Italian son in law who loves this cake to dunk in his coffee. Although it was not exactly the one he had as a child in Le Marche, he dunks this one quite happily (as we do too). He said that there is phrase in Italian when something is so delicious that it becomes “its own death”

    • Domenica January 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

      Nancy, I have a feeling that this cake is one of those recipes that varies from cook to cook (or from nonna to nonna). My mother never got her mother’s recipe so she had to recreate her version from memory. Lucky for me, my mom did write her recipe down. Thanks for the comment. Hope to see you soon “Cuisinette”!

  10. SMITH BITES January 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    we are emptying a basement as well and as you know, it is a CHORE; but i look forward to having it done and everything clean, organized and ready for a new year. this cake looks like it would be heavenly with coffee – Happy New Year Domenica!

    • Domenica January 8, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

      Hey Debra, thanks for stopping by. Good luck with your basement project. I dragged my feet for a long time on this but it feels great to be dealing with it finally. Cheers & Happy 2012!

  11. Ciaochowlinda January 9, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    I have such a hard time throwing out all those old food magazines too but sometimes I go through them and cut out favorite articles and recipes – only to forget about them. But this cake, well, that’s a recipe worth making again and again.

    • Domenica January 9, 2012 at 11:53 am #

      Linda, I always have such good intentions when magazines come in the mail. I will read them, I will cook from them, etc. In reality, I’ve had to let some subscriptions go because the magazines end up untouched. Not enough hours in the day. I am glad, though, that I saved all of those Gourmets, and that my mom saved all of those precious issues of LCI. Those I will keep forever. And, most importantly, my mom has taught me many of her recipes with me, even those she hasn’t written down. I hate to think of family recipes getting lost through the years. I’m determined not to let that happen. Buon Anno!

  12. Sarah Breckenridge January 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    I can relate to the piles of magazines. I’ve compulsively saved just about every food magazine I’ve ever subscribed to, and it was getting to the point where my husband was harassing me to get rid of them all. Then Gourmet went under, and I got a dispensation on saving those :-)
    But it is wonderful to leaf through them sometimes and find a recipe you’d completely forgotten about. Like an old friend.

    • Domenica January 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

      Sarah, it’s nice to know I am in good company. Speaking of magazines, I also have piles of Fine Cooking that I can’t bear to part with, including all the special holiday issues and–one of my favorite ones of all time–the November 1999 issue with Ris Lacoste’s squash recipes and Rose Levy Beranbaum’s cheesecake. We still make that pumpkin cheesescake every Thanksgiving. And there’s just something about pulling out that old issue and opening it up to that well-worn page…Cheers and thanks for the comment.

  13. Jamie January 14, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    Ah, the days of housecleaning, sorting, giving away…we do it each time we move house which is about every 5 to 7 or so years. I hate getting rid of stuff although it feels so good when it is done. But ooooh you keep all of those great magazines! And YAY congrats on your book. Cannot wait to see it! And I love ciambellone – we used to buy them in Italy and the plain vanilla cake somewhere between moist and dry and topped with powdered sugar was my favorite breakfast.

    And Buon Anno!

    • Domenica January 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

      Jamie, I used to hate getting rid of stuff (which, I suppose, is why I’ve accumulated so much), but I’m starting to enjoy it. It feels good to be free of so much stuff. Admittedly I have a long way to go. Having to move every 5 to 7 years–I imagine it’s tough. But I sure would welcome the opportunity to start fresh every few years! All the best in the New Year to you.

      • Jamie January 22, 2012 at 1:47 am #

        Domenica, the moving every 5 to 7 years is far from imposed! We choose to do it! We get restless and have the urge to start over. Are doing it again now – husband resigned his job last May and here we are deciding what to do and where to go. Life is an adventure!

        • Domenica January 24, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

          Jamie, I love the way you embrace adventure. I look forward to hearing all about where you land next!

  14. nancy baggett January 16, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    I finally went through my four decades of Gourmet mags a few years ago and MADE myself get rid of them. It was sooo hard, but really I never read them and couldn’t find anything in particular that I was ever looking for, and most important really had no room for them. Since then the build-up has continued, and I need to stop and pare down again. Good for you for getting around to it!

    • Domenica January 16, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

      Nancy–isn’t it funny how we form such attachments to these things! It makes me think of the old George Carlin routine. I’m off to a good start but have a long way to go…

  15. Chie January 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    It’s VERY hard to part with things that reminds you so much of a lot or something meaningful…

    Anyway, I like this recipe and I’d like to share something in return:
    http://www.gourmetrecipe.com/recipes/berry-buttermilk-soup

    It’s something that reminds me of childhood too. ^_^

  16. Leah July 31, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    Hello Domenica! I sure hear you about your weeding out……I just went from a 5,000 sq ft home to an 1,800 sq ft condo – and it was very, very difficult – mountains and mountains of donations, throwaways and just plain garbage from the garage and basement as well as a cold room and I had very little help! Now I’m struggling with storage and furniture placement here..
    Anyway I stumbled upon your site today while looking at ciambello recipes. I made my first one today and it turned out rather scone-like. I did it the old-fashioned way, using the “well” of flour. I found the recipe in a novel, if you can believe it! I’m hoping the next one I make turns out better….my mother didn’t get the concept!
    Thanks for your postings – so much fun to read!
    Happy cooking to you and thanks, Leah

  17. Paola Lovisetti Scamihorn November 27, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    Hi Domenica,
    Congratulations on your blog. I received your link from Adri. I love to cook and just started a cooking blog too http://www.passionandcooking.wordopress.com .Yesterday I posted the ciambella with yogurt recipe, so Adri suggested to check your one. Your recipe sounds delicious, and it reminds me the time I prepared ciambella for breakfast with my mon. Best, Paola

    • Domenica November 27, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

      Benvenuta, Paola. Glad to be connected. Thank you for reading and for your comment. I love anything made with yogurt so I look forward to checking out your ciambella recipe. It sounds buonissima.

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  1. Crema al Forno con Punch Abruzzo – The Front Burner - May 27, 2012

    [...] another great recipe with Punch Abruzzo, see Domenica Marchetti’s Ciambellone at [...]

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