The other morning on my walk I passed a young man sitting on the roof of a car. He was perched up pretty high, so probably an SUV, though lacking the car gene that both my Michigander husband and my son seem to have, I didn’t notice the make or model.
The boy looked to be a high school senior. He was wearing aviators (are they back in fashion?) and leaning slightly back on his hands. He said ‘hello’ politely as I walked by. In the middle of the street, next to his parked car, someone had written the word ‘PROM?’ in giant, colorful chalk letters. I guessed it must be him and that he was waiting for his crush to walk out her front door and into his surprise invitation.
It was a sweet moment that made me smile and so I wanted to share it with you.
It also made me think back to my own senior prom, of which I have few memories at all (and not because I was under the influence of anything, people). It just wasn’t memorable. Except for one moment.
My date was a bright, awkward boy whom I didn’t know that well. At a certain point, as a group of us was seated around our table, he proceeded to eat the centerpiece. Not the entire centerpiece, just a couple of daisies, the way a little goat might do. To this day I don’t know what possessed him, or what he was trying to say with his action. Was he bored? Unhappy? Hungry? No doubt it was some sort of teen angst-speak, but really, who knows? At the end of the evening we said our good-byes and that was that.
I’m a little sad to say I’ve forgotten his name. But wherever he is, whoever he is, I would like to thank him for that moment which, even today, some three decades later, still makes me shake my head and smile. The word ‘daisy’ translates to ‘margherita’ in Italian. One of Italy’s most famous cakes is la torta Margherita, named not for the flower but for Italy’s Queen consort. It’s a lovely, springy cake, with air whipped into the egg-rich batter. But, much like love, it is both simple and complicated. It requires just a few ingredients but it can be tricky to execute.
The recipe below is adapted from one by Ada Boni. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully, including the Notes at the end. Use weight measurements if possible, for accuracy, and use a light hand when incorporating the egg whites. Boni’s original recipe called for potato starch only. I substituted “00” flour, with a little potato starch mixed in, which I find yields a lighter cake.* If you don’t have “00” flour on hand use cake flour as a substitute.
Torta Margherita makes an excellent base for a trifle. It is also good served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and strawberries macerated in sugar spooned on top, a la strawberry shortcake.
* Potato starch is a common ingredient in sponge cakes and in other Italian baked goods. It is pure white and has a fine texture, like cornstarch. It is said to produce a “lighter” and “fluffier” crumb. But that hasn’t been my experience (and, admittedly, my experience on this front is limited), which is why I opted for finely milled flour. One day I’m going to crack that potato starch code. If you have any insights on the subject I’d love to hear them.
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Similar to pan di spagna (sponge cake), Torta Margherita is a light and delicate cake, perfect for using as the base for a trifle. It's a bit tricky to execute so read the instructions carefully, including the Notes at the end of the recipe. Eggs provide the only leavening, so be sure to whip them properly. Dust generously with powdered sugar before serving, and serve with strawberries macerated in sugar. This recipe is adapted from one in Ada Boni's classic book, 'Il Talismano della Felicita.'
- 6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature (see Notes)
- 7 ounces (200 grams; 2 cups) confectioners' sugar, sifted to remove lumps, plus more for serving
- 3 1/2 ounces (100 grams; 7 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened (it should be spreadable)
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 4 1/3 ounces (125 grams; 1 cup) "00" flour or cake flour (see Notes)
- 2/3 ounce (20 grams; 2 tablespoons) potato starch (see Notes)
- 1 packet powdered vanilla or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (see Notes)
- 1/8 teaspoon fine salt
- Sliced strawberries (or other berries) macerated in sugar, for serving
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch round springform cake pan. Line the bottom with a 9-inch round of parchment paper and butter the parchment. Coat the interior of the pan lightly with flour, tapping out the excess.
In a large mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in the butter, about 1 tablespoon at a time, taking care to incorporate it thoroughly after each addition. The mixture will lose a little volume but still be thick and glossy. Beat in the lemon zest (and, if using, the liquid vanilla extract).
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and potato starch and, if using, the powdered vanilla. Gradually add the flour mixture to the egg yolk-sugar mixture, 1 heaping tablespoon at a time. I turned the mixer off each time I added another tablespoon to avoid kicking up lots of flour dust. The batter will be very thick.
Wash and dry the whisk attachment. Place the egg whites and salt in a clean mixing bowl. Beat on high until the whites are firm and billowy. Take care not to overheat the egg whites or you'll end up with big dry clumps of it, which will be hard to incorporate into the batter.
Spoon about 1/4 of the egg whites into the egg yolk-flour mixture and, with a large silicone spatula, gently stir the whites into the mixture until well blended. This will help to loosen the batter and make it easier to fold in the remaining egg whites. Scoop the rest of the whites into the mixture and gently fold until thoroughly incorporated. The whites will deflate some as they are incorporated but that is OK. Just take care to use a light hand to deflate the batter as little as possible. Here are detailed instructions on how to fold egg whites into batter.
Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan and bake for 40 minutes, or until the cake has risen, is golden-brown on top, and has begun to pull away from the sides of the pan. Set the pan on a cooling rack and cool for 30 minutes. Gently remove the ring from the pan, invert the cake onto a plate and peel off the parchment. Re-invert the cake onto the cooling rack and let cool to room temperature.
To serve, dust the cake generously with confectioners' sugar. Serve each slice with a spoonful of macerated strawberries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if you like.
NOTES Separate the eggs while they are still cold but let them come to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.
"00" pastry flour is finely milled soft wheat flour, used to make pasta and pastries. Cake flour is a good substitute.
Potato starch is a common ingredient in Italian baked goods. It has a fine texture and adds moisture to cakes and pastries. I think it makes cakes a little chewy so I don't always use it when called for, though I wanted to keep a small amount in this recipe for the sake of authenticity. If you don't have potato starch or don't want to use it, substitute cornstarch or just use all flour.
Small packets of vanilla powder (such as Paneangeli brand) are available at many Italian grocery stores. Substitute 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract Add it to the wet ingredients when you add the lemon zest.