Torta di Radicchio (Radicchio Cake)
I'm often asked what inspires me to cook. Do I wake up wanting to eat a particular dish? Do I plan my family's meals for the week ahead? Not necessarily. It's more of a case of visiting my local market in Turin after the morning school run and seeing what graces the bancarelleor stalls there. Once I lay my eyes on the seasonal fruit and vegetables on display, then I start to get ideas. When I've got a bit more time on my hands, I may take a fancy to a crateful of bulbous pale yellow-green quinces and consider making a jam or paste. If I see some embossed cypress-green leaves of spinach, I immediately contemplate washing, cooking and draining a good kilo of it for a pie, lasagnaor cannelloni filling. When time is more limited or I just don't feel like stovetop cooking, I'm attracted to those pale green fennel bulbs which I slice finely and use in a variety of winter salads. Lately though, I just can't seem to stop buying, prepping and cooking with the stunning dark red, white-veined cespi or heads of radicchio currently in season.
In Italy, radicchio comes in several varieties, which are named after their towns of origin, almost all of them located in the northeastern region of Veneto. Perhaps the best known is the radicchio di Chioggia, a round variety from Chioggia, a town situated at the southern entrance to the Venetian lagoon. There is also radicchio di Treviso, a longer variety similar in shape to Belgian endive which comes from the inland city of Treviso, north-west of Venice. Radicchio tardivo, that wonderfully eccentric specimen with long, slender curled leaves resembling fingers is a late-harvest variant of the Treviso. Finally, there is the stunning Castelfranco, distinct for its pale, pink-speckled colour and the way its leaves resemble those of a rose as they grow and unfold. Not for nothing is it called the 'Rose of Winter' or the 'Edible Flower' by the proud locals of Castelfranco, another inland town in the Veneto.
Depending on the variety, deliciously bitter radicchio can be cooked in risottos, grilled, sauteed or served in a salad. All savoury preparations I love and make on a regular basis in the colder months of the year. Yet, upon returning home from a market haul last month one morning, my eyes fell upon my copy of Tessa Kiros' beautiful cookbook, Limoncello and Linen Water, and I was immediately reminded of a recipe I've long wanted to cook from it, her sister-in-law Luisa's sweet radicchio cake, a specialty from the town of Chioggia.
Friends and family are often sceptical whenever I mention the leafy star ingredient in my current favourite breakfast or afternoon tea cake. The most common reactions after eating a slice though are exclamations of surprise ('I can't believe it's radicchio!'), approval and requests for the quirky recipe. Here it is, ever so slightly adapted from Tessa's to fit a 22 cm diameter cake tin or the bundt tin pictured.
Heat oven to 180 ° C (350 ° F). Grease a 22 cm diameter cake tin (or a bundt cake tin) with a knob of butter. Dust with breadcrumbs so it is coated all over.
Bring the water to boil with the 2 tablespoons of sugar and the freshly squeezed lemon juice. Add the radicchio leaves to the boiling water and cook for a few minutes to soften. Drain well, chop finely and leave to cool.
Cream the remaining butter and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the eggs in one at a time, then add the grappaand grated nutmeg, whisking well after each addition. Gently fold in the flour, baking powder, the salt and finally, the cooled radicchio.
Pour the batter in the greased and dusted cake tin and bake for40 to 45 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool completely before removing from the cake tin.