FERRARA, Italy — Food was not what drew me to Ferrara, a walled city just east of Bologna, Italy, where the powerful Este family was in control for centuries. At every turn as I strolled through this handsome, gracious city, I found historical landmarks. And as a delectable bonus, on every menu, chocolate cake.
Ferrara is known for a particular type of chocolate cake called la torta tenerina. The name refers to the cake’s almost creamy interior, which emerges enclosed in a thin, fragile, yet crisp crust.
It’s a simple confection, hardly more than an inch thick, and rarely embellished with more than a generous dusting of powdered sugar.
Another name is Queen of Montenegro, because the cake is said to have been created in 1900 when Elena of Montenegro ascended the throne of Italy with her husband, Victor Emmanuel III. In local dialect, the cake is called tacolenta, which means sticky, a reference to its soft, nearly molten center.
So if culinary archaeology has you tempted to find the origins of the “flourless” chocolate cake, which is now ubiquitous, do not consider Wolfgang Puck or Jean-Georges Vongerichten any more. I would guess it was in Ferrara more than 100 years ago.
La tenerina is made with only two or three tablespoons of flour or potato starch. Supposedly, every baker and home cook has his or her own recipe. But the common element in recipes that I consulted is that the cake is baked for exactly 18 minutes. It is never served warm.
Of the many examples of la tenerina I tried by the slice in restaurants, and in cupcake sizes sold in pastry shops, confectionaries and at street stalls, the one at a combination bakery and restaurant, Cusina e Butega, was the best. Perhaps it was the chocolate: The recipe from the owners Eleonora Masiero and Ennio Occhiali, who is also the chef, specifies “top quality” chocolate.
In the novel “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” which is set in Ferrara in the first half of the 20th century, the author, Giorgio Bassani, describes a dinner at which chocolate cake was one of the desserts. He doesn’t name the cake, but odds are that it was la tenerina.
Italian Flourless Chocolate Cake
Total time: 45 minutes, plus cooling
7 tablespoons/100 grams unsalted butter softened, plus more for pan
1/2 cup/60 grams confectioners’ sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting
4 ounces/113 grams 70 percent “top quality” dark chocolate
2 extra-large eggs, separated
2 tablespoons/20 grams potato starch
3 1/2 tablespoons/40 grams superfine sugar
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch cake pan. Line bottom with parchment.
2. In a large bowl, using a mixer or by hand, beat the 7 tablespoons butter with the confectioners’ sugar until smooth and creamy. Melt chocolate in a pan on top of stove. Pour warm chocolate over the butter and sugar mixture and beat until smooth. Whisk in egg yolks one at a time. Stir in potato starch.
3. In a medium bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in superfine sugar and continue beating until firm peaks develop. Fold egg whites into chocolate mixture.
4. Scrape the batter out of the bowl, and spread it in the pan. Bake for 18 minutes. Cake will rise and top will look dry and a little crackly. Remove pan from oven, place on a rack and allow to cool completely, about 2 hours. Cake will sink a bit.
5. Unmold cake, peel off parchment, then invert onto a serving dish so the crackly surface is on top. Generously sift confectioners’ sugar over the top, then serve.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings