Published: 03/04/2021 By The Abode TeamEaster is connected with the rites of re-birth and fertility which, in ancient times, were celebrated around the Spring equinox. In Perugia, Easter is celebrated with a rustic cake called Ciaramicola. In the past, young women made it for their fiancés as an Easter gift. The cake is highly symbolic of romantic love: an immaculate meringue conceals a red-hot heart.
As with most Umbrian cakes, it was based on sweetened bread dough enriched with eggs and lard. The startling scarlet was obtained with a splash of an herbal liqueur (alkermes or alchermes), originally used as a heart tonic. As detailed in 1653 by Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, the recipe for alchermes included apple juice, rosewater, raw silk, ambergris, pearls, cinnamon, gold leaf, two pounds of mysterious berries, and carmine pigment from the kermes, a tiny insect. How well suited this was to Umbria’ s fierce medieval legacy!
For the cake:
• 400 g (31/4 cups) all purpose flour
• 2 whole eggs
• 2 egg yolks
• 220 g (1 cup and 11/2 tablespoons) white sugar
• 180 g (13 tablespoons) butter
• grated zest of 1/2 orange or lemon
• 1/2 teaspoon powder cinnamon
• 3 tablespoons alchermes or dessert wine
• 6 tablespoons milk or red fruit juice
• 16 g (4 teaspoons) baking powder
For the Italian meringue topping:
• 120 g (1/2 cup and 2 tablespoons) white sugar
• 2 egg whites at room temperature
• 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
• candy sprinkles, edible flowers, small sugar pearls
Modern alchermes is cruelty-free and repared by infusing neutral spirits with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose water, vanilla and red food coloring. Nobody drinks it. However, besides the spectacular color, it is also used to impart a floral aroma to cakes and pastries. My guess is that it’s difficult to find alchermes outside of Italy, but you could substitute it with a fruit infused brandy, or a cinnamon or hibiscus liqueur and use a pinch of each of the spices mentioned above. Even without the deep pink heart this is a lovely cake with a romantic story and a beautiful look.
For the cake:
- In a bowl or stand mixer, cream the sugar and butter until light and fluffy, add the whole eggs and additional 2 yolks, one at a time, then the flour, orange zest, cinnamon and baking powder. Beat briefly to lightly incorporate. The batter will be quite stiff.
- Add the alchermes and 4 tablespoons of milk to obtain a firm but spreadable batter. Depending on the protein content of your flour you might need to add more milk to make the batter spreadable.
- Spoon the batter into a 10 cup-sized buttered springform pan, level it with a spatula and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C (350°F) until set, about 35-45 minutes.
- Please make sure to remove the cake from the oven as soon as it is cooked through. As it will return to the oven after frosting, it might become dry if you cook it for too long at this stage. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the middle of the cake (avoiding the bottom of the pan) should measure 93-96°C (200-205°F).
- Remove from the oven and then lower the oven temperature to minimum. Remove the cake from the cake mold as soon as it’s cool enough to handle and transfer onto a plate.
- While the cake is baking, combine the egg whites, sugar and lemon juice in a metal bowl and place over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Using a whisk, beat until very thick, about 5-6 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat and continue to beat until light and fluffy.
Using a thin spatula spread the meringue above and around the sides of the cake. Note that the cake will dry out in the oven if you don’t frost every exposed surface. Start from the sides where you will only need a thin but even layer and top it with pretty swirls of icing. Don’t press the meringue over the cake or it will deflate. Sprinkle with multicolored sprinkles, sugar pearls or organic edible flower petals. Transfer to the warm oven, switch off the heat, and leave for meringue to dry for 30 minutes to one hour, or until the meringue feels completely dry. Enjoy with a glass of sweet wine such as Sagrantino passito or Moscato.
Recipe by Letizia Mattiacci, cookbook author and owner of Alla Madonna del Piatto Cooking School and Agriturismo in Assisi, Umbria. This recipe has been previously published in Mrs. Mattiacci cookbook entitled “Festa Italiana.”