An Italian country cake for the season. From Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2015
An Italian country cake for the season. From Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2015
At market in Massachusetts this fall there are a variety of apples on sale that I have never seen before including Golden Russets, Freedoms, Spitzen-bergs, and Red Stayman Winesaps. It was the same in the New York Hudson Valley last year, when for the first time I found yellow Blakes, Jonareds, and Roxbury Russets. It pleased me no end and I snatched them up by the dozens. With their fresh scent and succulent flesh, heirloom varieties make wonderful eating, and well-flavored pies, cakes, and desserts of all kinds.
I brought them home and the first thing I made was torta rustica di mele, a country cake that is not excessively sweet and allows for the clear taste of the fruit to come through, a concoction of apples and just enough egg, sugar, flour, and butter to make it all stick together. It is what apple pie is to America; apfelstrudel to Austria; galette aux pommes to France; or apple charlotte to England. Comfort food, “good ingredients treated simply and with affection,” in the words of the British cookbook writer, Jane Grigson. Eat it for breakfast, merenda, or dessert.
 Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2015
Local heirloom apples at market in Williamstown, Massachusetts. | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2015

A friend, Flavia Destefanis, gave me the lovely recipe for it long ago and I have used it again and again, employing not only apples, but pears and other kinds of fruit. When I asked her about its origins, she wrote, “My maternal grandmother, Clia, who loved her country house in Montepulciano near Siena, would whip it up for an afternoon tea. Depending on which fruits were ready to be picked in the garden of her villa, she might make it with plums, apricots, apples, pears, or peaches. Egg size would always depend on the whim of the chicken in our chicken coop. Quantities were never set in stone, nor were the ingredients: sometimes she added the zest of a lemon and no vanilla, sometimes she would throw in a few walnuts if she had the inkling. Any flaws that might show up were covered up by the dusting of powdered sugar.”
Nonna Clia’s torta rustica di mele is probably at its finest when made with a variety of apple that has a good balance of sweetness and acidity, such as the Newtown Pippin, which is what I used this year after my good luck at the Williamstown farmers market. But I have had great success with just about every apple variety I have used, as long as the fruit is sliced quite thinly to enable it to cook through at the same rate as the batter.
Nonna Clia’s Apple Cake
Serves 6
• 4 medium apples (1-1/4 pounds)
• 1 tablespoons lemon juice or vinegar
• 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus additional for greasing
• 1¼ cups all-purpose unbleached flour, plus more for dusting
• 3 large eggs
• 5 tablespoons sugar
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
1 Have ready a bowl filled with cool water. Stir in the lemon juice or vinegar. Peel and core the apples and put them in the bowl with the acidulated water as you work to prevent them from discoloring. Slice the apples thinly. Further cut them into approximate ½-inch pieces. Keep the cut-up apples in the water until you are ready to add them to the batter you will make.
2 Preheat an oven to 375°F. Select a 9-inch spring-form cake pan with sides that are at least 2 inches high. Generously grease the pan with butter and dust with flour. Tap the pan over the sink to remove excess flour and set aside.
3 In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs. Whisk in the sugar and vanilla until blended, about 45 seconds. Stir in the melted and cooled butter. Sift in the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until just combined to form a thick, sticky batter. Additional flour may be necessary, depending on the size of the eggs and juiciness of the fruit. Drain the apple pieces well and using a rubber spatula, fold them into the batter.
4 Bake until cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.
5 Cool the pan on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes. Run a metal spatula or butter knife around the perimeter of the cake to loosen the sides. Unlatch the spring to release the cake. Place a wire rack over the pan and, holding the rack tightly, invert the cake pan and wire rack together, tapping the bottom of the cake pan until it drops out. Lift off the cake pan and invert it back to the way it was baked. Let the cake cool 20 minutes or longer to cool it completely. Transfer it to a serving platter. Dust the surface with confectioners’ sugar. Cut into pieces, and serve.
Julia della Croce is a food writer and James Beard award-winning cookbook author and recipe developer based in New York. She is presently incubating a book about her family’s ancestral region, Sardegna. Visit her website, and blog,, connect on Facebook: Julia della Croce – chef & foodwriter, Twitter: @juliadellacroce and Instagram: juliadellacroce.

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