A few weeks ago, my daughter and I and our friends Nancy and Michael of Abruzzo Presto had pranzo at La Locanda di Gino, in Sulmona. This restaurant is a gem. It opened in 1962 and has been expertly run by the Allega family ever since. The late Gino’s sons, Giacomo and Marco (always impeccably dressed in colorful pressed shirts and ties) keep the front of the house running smoothly. In the back, their mother, Lucia, and wives Titina and Marcella make culinary magic, turning out fresh chitarra noodles, tender roast lamb, vegetable terrines and other piatti tipici Abruzzesi.
We did not have room for dessert. Still, at the end of our meal, out came a plate with bite-size squares of cake on it. I figured it was some typical boozy Italian sponge cake and declined. But as I sat there my curiosity got the better of me, as it usually does in matters of food. I took a small piece. It was not at all what I expected. This mild-looking square of cake, studded inside with small bits of bittersweet chocolate, tasted of fresh mint. The crumb was perfectly tender. I took another piece. I might have fought my daughter for a third.
I asked one of the brothers about it, and he deferred to the experts in the kitchen. A little while later when I went back there to meet and thank them I found that they had already written the recipe on a slip of paper for me.
Next morning at Il Marchese del Grillo, the lovely B&B where we were staying, what should be on the breakfast buffet table but a chocolate mint cake? This one was by the mother-in-law of owner Marta Carrozza. It had a pretty, pale green crumb and rich chocolate ganache icing. It turns out I’m not the only one smitten with this cake. My friend Linda Prospero (aka Ciao Chow Linda) fell for Il Marchese’s cake when she was in Sulmona last year and shared the recipe on her blog.
On the flight home, I opened up the July issue of La Cucina Italiana only to find this frozen chocolate-mint cake.
Naturally, Gino’s mint chocolate-chip cake was the first thing I made when I got back to my kitchen. The cake’s bright flavor comes from mixing mint syrup into the batter. Fresh ricotta gives it a beautiful, tender crumb.
You could use store-bought mint syrup, or Linda’s clever substitute of crème de menthe. But I have a giant patch of mint growing in the Garden of Neglect, so I made mint simple syrup. It takes next to no effort and is good to have around. In addition to putting it into the cake, I’ve been mixing it into fruit salad and drizzling it on ice cream. My son uses it to sweeten his iced tea. No doubt there are countless cocktails you could devise with it. To enjoy with your cake.
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EVENT NEWS: If you happen to be in or around Richmond, VA, on Saturday, August 2, please stop by the brand new Southern Season kitchenware store and cooking school. I will be helping to celebrate the grand opening with a book signing from 2 to 4 p.m. And I’ll be back on September 9 to teach a Glorious Vegetables cooking class. Check my Events calendar for more details.
The idea of mint in a cake may seem odd, but believe me, one bite and you will be hooked. The taste of mint is subtle, surprising and fresh, and goes especially well with the bittersweet chocolate chips folded into the batter. Take the extra bit of time to make fresh mint syrup. It has plenty of uses beyond this cake. This recipe is adapted slightly from one given to me by Ristorante Gino, in Sulmona (Abruzzo).
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for greasing the baking pan
- 1 (16 g) packet lievito Pane degli Angeli or 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter, at cool room temperature, plus more for greasing a baking pan
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar or vanilla sugar (see Notes)
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 9 ounces fresh ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips (see Notes)
- 3/4 cup fresh mint syrup, divided
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and stir well.
In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, until well incorporated. Beat in the flour mixture on low speed just until incorporated. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat in the ricotta and chocolate chips. With the mixer running on low speed, gradually pour in 1/2 cup of the mint syrup and mix until fully incorporated.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake 30 minutes, until browned on top and a cake tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and set the pan on a cooling rack. While the cake is still hot, use a pastry brush to brush the top with the remaining 1/4 cup of mint syrup. Let the cake cool to room temperature. To serve, cut into squares and dust with confectioners' sugar.
I keep my sugar in a large container in which I bury a stick of vanilla bean. This lightly infuses the sugar with the aroma of vanilla. I use this sugar for everything, including savory cooking.
For this cake, I use small bittersweet chocolate baking chips from France that I buy at La Cuisine, a kitchenware store in Old Town Alexandria, VA. The brand is Michel Cluizel. The chips are smaller than regular chocolate chips (more like tiny disks) and sort of melt into the batter as the cake bakes. They provide the necessary hit of bittersweet chocolate flavor without the hard texture of regular chips. If you can't find them, substitute mini chocolate chips.
I use this mint-infused syrup in my Mint Chocolate-Chip Cake. But it is also good in iced tea, tossed with fruit salad, drizzled on vanilla (or chocolate) ice cream, or as a cocktail ingredient.
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons vanilla sugar (see Notes)
- 4 strips of lemon zest (no white pith)
- 2 lightly packed cups fresh mint leaves
Combine the water and sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and toss in the lemon zest. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
When the syrup is almost at a boil, coarsely chop the mint leaves. Do this at the last possible moment so that you don't lose any of that wonderful mint aroma. As soon as the syrup starts the boil, turn off the heat and gently stir in the mint leaves. Cover the saucepan and let the syrup steep for 3 hours.
Pour the mint syrup through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean jar. Store in the refrigerator.
To make vanilla sugar, add a vanilla bean to your sugar container and leave it there.