ITALIAN APPLE CAKE
Giulia Scarpaleggia's beloved family recipe, from Cucina Povera
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It’s a sparkling October day, the kind you feel deeply guilting wasting at a desk—especially after last weekend’s deluge in New York (the garden is crawling with slugs).
I’m deep in deadlines, but between editing spurts, I’m giving myself generous laps around the yard to soak in the sun, admire the dahlias (never not planting dahlias again!), and generally wonder at nature: How did that tiny seedling planted in May produce nine giant squash? Why do my hands in the soil erase all fear and doubt? And how do slugs fit so much kale into those tiny bodies, anyway?
To my paid subscribers, thank you for your patience; I promised you another gift from the well ofbeautiful, heartfelt book, Cucina Povera. It’s here, and very much worth the wait. By now, I assume you’ve probably gathered your apples and dipped deep into the fall baking season. You’re primed and ready.
Here’s what I have to say about apple cakes (in story form):
My studio—from where I write to you now—is a large, sun-drenched space on the second floor of our barn, 20 yards behind our house in the lower Catskills. It’s my blank slate of creativity, with white walls and sheepskins and pops of color mainly coming from living plants, a pair of olive-hued velvet chairs, and stacks of art books, cookbooks, and travel books piled high. There are magazine tears pinned to my walls—things I want to make or bake, and visual inspiration and prints from favorite photographers and artists.
I can see my garden and the apple tree we planted this spring—the whir of cars that pass in the distance. The neighbors coming and going. Inside, there is also movement: the new flowers that fill my small vases each week, little toys and books left after my children’s visits, and more, more, more (!) books, shifting in order of importance and urgency. It’s a den of wish lists and projects.
One wish list, though, remains constant: a stack of books eight or nine high, displayed prominently at the foot of my desk, each opened to a recipe for an apple cake from various notable books over the years. There are Swedish apple cakes and French ones. Apple cakes from the American Midwest and German apple cakes with burnished meringue on top.
On the very top is Giulia’s Apple Olive Oil Cake from Cucina Povera. In the recipes’s headnote, Giulia writes:
“If there’s a recipe that best represents the idea of Italian family and home, it is apple cake. Every family has their own recipe for torta di mele, and they believe it’s the perfect one.”
It feels strange and comforting to admit that perhaps so much of my life’s work has been about the search for the perfect apple cake (as a metaphor, naturally)—the place that feels like home. The best—but also the simplest, purest, most-loved filled recipes that people (including me) can repeat over and over again to build a connection to family, to self, to earth, and to God.
I just might have found it.