By Letizia Mattiacci
ate spring is a joyous time. The Umbrian countryside comes alive. Birds chirp, lizards dash around and poppies bloom like there's no tomorrow. Google the Dog resumes taking naps in the sun or lazily munching on new grown wild fennel. Yes, our dog likes herbs. She also likes strawberries. We're very seasonal here. Even the dog takes advantage of the fresh-flavored bounty.
Spring is also time of love. We, hubby and I, are celebrating our 20th anniversary. Twenty years seems almost impossible. Time flashes by in a heartbeat.
In my hometown of Perugia, we celebrate love with a rustic cake called Ciaramicola. In simpler times, young women made it for their fiancés as Easter gifts. The cake is highly symbolic: an immaculate meringue conceals a red-hot heart.
As with most Umbrian cakes, it's based on sweetened bread dough enriched with eggs and lard. The startling scarlet was obtained with a splash of herbal liqueur (alkermes or alchermes), originally used as a heart tonic. As detailed in 1653 by Culpeper's Complete Herbal and English Physician, the recipe for alchermes included apple juice, rosewater, raw silk, ambergris, pearls, cinnamon, gold leaf, two pounds of mysterious berries, and carmine pigment from the kermes, a tiny insect. How well suited this was to Umbria' s fierce medieval legacy!
Modern Alchermes is more boringly prepared by infusing neutral spirits with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose water, vanilla and red food coloring. Nobody drinks it. In fact, aside from creating color effects, it's used only to impart a floral aroma to cakes and pastries. If you can't find it, just substitute the liqueur with a sweet wine like Vin Santo or Marsala, use a pinch of each of the spices mentioned above, and add red fruit juice (e.g. cranberry or pomegranate) instead of milk.
— Using a food processor, first mix the dry ingredients with butter, and then add all liquid ingredients. Transfer in a buttered bundt pan and bake in preheated oven at 180C (375F) until set, about 45 minutes.
— Meanwhile make the meringue (see below). Remove from the oven, switch off the heat, but keep the oven warm —you'll need it to dry the meringue. Remove the cake from the cake mold as soon as it's cool enough to handle.
— To make a classic Italian meringue, combine the ingredients in a metal bowl and place over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Using a blender, beat until very thick, about 5-6 minutes. Remove the bowl from heat and beat off the heat until light and fluffy.
Assembling the ciaramicola
— Cover the cake (above and around its sides) with a thick layer of meringue. Sprinkle with multicolor candy if you like. Move to the warm oven and leave to dry for several hours or even until the next day.
Enjoy it with a glass of sweet wine such as Sagrantino passito or Moscato.
An escape from Umbria dishes up a wonderfully memorable culinary road-trip.
Is it still possible to actually follow a traditional recipe, one with age-old value? Or is that just asking too much?
How a Sri Lankan citadel, determination, and a lot of ginger tea can save your life.
Reflections on a demon-ousting Umbrian Sagrantino wine leads to thoughts of tasty risotto.
When the rain lashes down and the world seems oh-so-bleak, bake a cake.
More In Provincia