Torta di zucca, an Italian winter squash and olive oil cake. Photograph by Gayle L. Squires
Admitting this in the days leading up to Thanksgiving might put me squarely in the crosshairs of the long-defunct House Committee on Un-American Activities, but I’m a risk-taker, so here goes: I don’t like pie. I particularly don’t like pumpkin pie. Now that I’ve said it out loud, please let me explain. (Don’t worry, I’ll be brief — and there’s cake at the end if you listen to the whole story.)
I will limit my anti-pie sentiments to three. First, the bottom crust is usually either too hard if it’s blind baked, or too soggy if it’s not. Second, and I know that I’m going to offend our orange-hued mascot of this week’s holiday feast and lovers of spiced lattes everywhere, pumpkin filling has the look and texture of baby food and the smell of a candle. Finally, if your home is anything like mine, after stuffing ourselves with turkey, dessert must be non-dairy, and while butter might be able to save many a pie, parve pie is just sad. After Thanksgiving dinner, I typically fill my dessert plate with the cut fruit.
Before this gets all Debbie downer, I do have a solution to my Thanksgiving woes: cake!
I work at a Marta, an Italian restaurant in New York City, and was editing our menu earlier this month when I noticed a new dolci item: torta di zucca. I snagged a slice of this olive oil cake strewn with shredded winter squash (zucca is Italian for pumpkin and refers to all manner of hard winter squashes) and studded with cashews and made an appointment with Chef Pat Clark, our head baker, to get the recipe.
Clark runs our team of four baking and pastry gurus that prepares the restaurant’s pizza dough, hearth breads, pastries, desserts, ice creams and jams. I was able to chat with him for a few minutes in our prep kitchen while he stirred a huge pot of marmalade over a low flame.
Clark studied pastry at the Culinary Institute of America and has always baked both savory and sweet items. He cut his teeth at several Italian restaurants including Del Posto, which has been turning out vegetable-forward desserts like the goat cheesecake with celery and fig agrodolce and celery sorbetto that has been on the menu since it helped the restaurant gain four stars from the New York Times in 2010. Clark incorporates vegetables into dessert in ways that are “not strange, just really delicious,” he said.
We chatted about the recipe development process for his torta di zucca. Clark told me he was inspired to make a winter version of his mother’s zucchini cake. He modified a basic cake recipe by adding extra-virgin olive oil for a classic Italian touch and kabocha squash for seasonal flavor. The first versions were too wet, so he dried out the shredded squash in a very hot oven, which had the added benefit of caramelizing and intensifying some of the vegetable’s natural sugars. He added cashews for texture and said that any nut can be substituted, or the nuts can be omitted altogether. For that matter, Clark recommended experimenting with other hard squashes and suggested butternut and acorn squash as easily accessible substitutes.
The final hurdle in perfecting the cake was nailing down the baking time and technique. Clark tried bundt and round pans, settling on the latter for a more formidable cake. The several-inch deep batter required quite a long baking time, which put the top and edges at risk of burning. The winning recipe involves an hour-and-a-half bake time, covering the pan with foil, and, midway through, rotating the pan and removing the foil. Out of the oven, the cake is doused with a sweet and tart citrus glaze.
Armed with my written notes and Clark’s commercial kitchen recipe, I set to work recreating a restaurant-worthy cake in my own kitchen. I played with two different squashes — kabocha and pre-peeled, pre-cut butternut (who doesn’t love a shortcut?) — and they both worked. I baked the cake in a large round pan and in two loaf pans — the round was more successful. I converted Clark’s metric measurements to cups. And I confirmed that, yes, the cake will indeed soak up all of the glaze and will be even better for it.
The torta bakes up tall and proud. Due to its long time in the oven, the edges are thick and golden brown — a crust that pie wishes it had. The cake interior has a tight crumb punctuated by delicate squash ribbons and cashew nubbins. It’s top is slick with a burst of citrus. Day two cake can stand on its own, but throw a slice in the toaster and smear it with a little butter or marmalade for a real breakfast treat. The freezer is kind to this cake, so, please, double the recipe. Or triple it.
With that, I offer to you a Thanksgiving cake that will rival any pie, for all the pie lovers and all the pie haters out there.
Gayle Squires is a food writer, recipe developer and photographer. Her path to the culinary world is paved with tap shoes, a medical degree, business consulting and travel. She has a knack for convincing chefs to give up their secret recipes. Her blog is KosherCamembert.