This came from a birthday surprise and a challenge.
Last month, my locked down, low key birthday rolled around. Expectations were necessarily watered down. The plan had been to go to see the new James Bond at The Electric, and drink cocktails delivered to out seats. Instead I zoomed and made a cassatina. You can call this taking pleasure from the small things, or clutching at straws. Take your pick.
Then, like a foundling on the doorstep, a bag of bread flour turned up, a gift from my oldest friend. Wrapped in a translucent, blue plastic bag, it was the best present I had could have imagined, a thing of near mythic status, there, in my kitchen, promising me carbohydrates and joy.
It felt sinful to use, as though squandering a precious resource. I dithered about what to make. How to celebrate my new found wealth?
A suggestion was given, the enabler of my 2nd hand cook book obsession, thepastrysuffragette, invited me, perhaps challenged me is better, to turn my hand to a Torta Angelica – the angelic cake. He had seen my efforts in candying my allotment Angelica – and although not a component of the original recipe – the word play made it a natural fit, and not so far from the spirit of the thing as to be total blasphemy.
The recipe is in Pane e roba dolce, by Margerita Simili (Bread and sweet stuff, literally), it sounds and looks fiendishly complicated, but isn’t. This is a celebratory cake, so Christmas and birthdays, or just because. And it’s yeasted, so think panettone or brioche. And I have to say, it looks amazing, I was astounded that I managed to pull if off, first attempt, baking blind.
In the oven, it bloomed and blossomed, after the hours of cosseting, proving, rising, and plaiting I was rewarded by something wonderful, the size of a baby, golden and fluffy; the house filled with the incomparable scent of cooking, melting chocolate and those nibs of Angelica winked through the folds like emeralds. This was one of those bakes that make you clap with joy, and thank the gods for wonderful recipe writers, who guide you perfectly through uncharted territory.
Make up a Biga.
This is a yeast culture used in Italian baking that adds more nuance to the the final bake, and opens up the texture.
80g bread flour
1 teaspoon sugar or honey
I teaspoon of dry yeast ( I used an osmatolerant yeast, another gift from Italianhomecooking – which is ideal for sweet breads, but given the state of yeast in the UK at the moment – use whatever you can get)
Mix this together as any dough, kneading for five minutes and then letting it prove for two hours.
The sweet dough
220g Bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
120ml full fat milk (at room temperature)
2 large egg yolks (also at room temperature)
45g caster sugar
50g butter (at room temperature)
Mix all the ingredients except the butter (I used my food mixer with the dough hook attachment)
Once combined, add the butter, a little at a time.
Then repeat this process with your biga mix and knead everything for 5 minutes.
Cover the bowl with a damp cloth or cling film, and leave the dough to prove for 3 hours, until it has doubled in size.
Assemble the Torta
Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and roll it out into a rough rectangle shaped – approx 50cm x 30cm. Brush freely with 20g melted butter. And scatter over 120g chocolate chips (add Angelica if you like, or sultanas and chopped nuts.
Roll this up like a Swiss roll.
Then, with a sharp knife and a lot of confidence, slice the whole thing in half down its length.
You’ll have two layered strips now, which you plait together to form your braid, joining the ends together to form a circle.
Cover again, and leave this to prove again for at least an hour.
Bake in the oven at 180C / Gas mark 4 for 20-30 minutes – keep an eye on it, as the high sugar content may make it scorch (as mine did), so be prepared to add a tin foil hat half way through the bake, if you have a ‘hot’ oven. It will double in size – become a cake behemoth – don’t be alarmed, that’s your biga magic.
Whisk it out of the oven when it’s cooked (tap the base to see if it sounds hollow, and cool it on a rack.
I then made up a lemon icing (icing sugar, lemon juice) to drizzle over. This is just my preference, as I find plain icing too sweet, but you could also do a non lemon, vanilla flavoured drizzle.
The finished thing is massive – too much for one stay at home baker (half went to the next door neighbours). But save this recipe for more sociable days and give it a go. People will think you are a genius, which is never a bad thing.