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Italian Chocolate-Almond Cake

By Steve Dunn Published

Flourless chocolate cake often trades on cloying fudge-like density and one-note chocolate flavor. Leave it to the Italians to whip up a version that’s lighter and more nuanced.

Italian chocolate-almond cake (torta caprese) has a storied past—though it’s not clear which (if any) story is true. One legend has it that the cake came to be when an Austrian princess visiting the island of Capri longed for the Sachertorte of her homeland. Not knowing how to make the dense Viennese chocolate layer cake, a local pastry chef added chocolate to his popular almond torte and hoped for the best. According to another tale, it was the accidental invention of an absent‑minded baker who forgot to add flour to a chocolate-almond cake he made for a trio of Italian mobsters. And a third story tells of a sleep-deprived cook who confused cocoa powder for flour when he was mixing up almond cake batter.

What is certain: This torte, a classic dessert along the Amalfi Coast, can be a simple, elegant showstopper. When done well, it packs all the richness and depth of flourless chocolate cake, but it features finely ground almonds in the batter that subtly break up the fudgy crumb, making it lighter and less cloying to eat. It’s also easy to make: Mix melted butter and chocolate with the ground almonds, lighten the batter with whipped eggs and sugar, pour it into a greased springform pan, and bake it for about an hour. There are no layers to assemble and no frosting to pipe and smooth. All it needs is a dusting of confectioners’ sugar and maybe a dollop of whipped cream.

Simple ingredients, simple method. But making a great one takes a precise formula. The recipes I tried yielded a motley crew of cakes—some dry and dull like dilute cocoa, others as wet and dense as fudge—which made clear how important it would be to nail down just the right ingredient ratios and mixing method.

Torta caprese trades all-purpose flour for almond flour, which helps lighten the dense crumb.

Batter Up

Butter and chocolate are typically the foundation of flourless chocolate cakes, and this one is no different. I melted 12 tablespoons of butter and 6 ounces of bittersweet chocolate in the microwave (easier and just as foolproof as melting chocolate over a traditional water bath). Next came the eggs: Some recipes call for whipping just the whites with sugar, others for whipping the whites and yolks separately (both with sugar), and still others for whipping whole eggs with the sugar until the mixture is thick and pale. I tried the last, simplest route first. Finally, I blitzed sliced almonds to a fine meal in the food processor, blended them with the chocolate mixture, gently folded in the whipped eggs, poured the batter into the prepared pan, and baked it in a 325-degree oven.

The chocolate flavor was flat, but that was an easy fix with additions such as vanilla, salt, and cocoa powder to boost complexity. The bigger issue was the cake’s consistency, which was downright dense.

A combination of chopped bittersweet chocolate and cocoa powder gives the cake a rich, fudgy crumb.

Heavy Lifting

The tricky thing about flourless chocolate cakes is that they don’t contain chemical leaveners. That’s because the air created by a chemical leavener is useless unless it is trapped within the pastry’s structure, typically by the flour. With no flour in the torta, the task of aerating my butter-, chocolate-, and nut-laden batter fell entirely to the eggs. The whipped whole eggs weren’t providing enough lift or structure, so I made a couple more cakes in which I varied how I incorporated the eggs.

Whipping just the whites with sugar and folding them into the batter after I had whisked in the yolks didn’t cut it either; the cake exited the oven proud and puffed but collapsed as it cooled. Only when I beat the whites and yolks separately in the stand mixer, each with half the sugar, were the two components able to aerate the heavy batter. When the batter was mixed this way, the center of the cake turned out moist, tender, and just a tad dense. And though the cake sank slightly as it cooled, it held its stature. (For more information, see “Whip the Entire Egg—in Two Parts.”)

The other good news: The whipped yolks were so thick and stable that I discovered I could pour the chocolate‑butter‑almond mixture directly over them and mix everything in the stand mixer rather than by hand in a separate bowl as I had been doing. Even better, mixing the batter mechanically allowed me to incorporate a small portion of the whipped whites, which had been difficult to do with a spatula because of the batter’s heft. But with the mixer’s help, I was able to lighten the stiff batter just enough that I could then very gently fold in the rest of the whipped whites, preserving as much of their aerating effect as possible.

For a fudgy but light crumb, we fold whipped egg whites with beaten egg yolks and sugar, almond flour, cocoa, and melted butter and chocolate.

Make It a Meal

To make the cake’s crumb just a tad tighter, I tried cutting back on the almond meal by 25 percent, which did the trick without noticeably affecting the flavor of the cake. While I was at it, I also discovered that commercial almond meal worked just as well as nuts I had ground myself—and it saved me the trouble of hauling out the food processor.   

Dusted with confectioners’ sugar, the torta looked festive and elegant—a dessert fit for a princess, a mobster, or your favorite dinner guest. Serving it with infused whipped cream (I made one with amaretto and another with orange liqueur and orange zest) brought it a step closer to its Italian roots and gave it further distinction from a typical flourless chocolate cake. And if you happen to have leftovers, you’re in luck: It tastes great the next day.

Recipe Torta Caprese

Flourless chocolate cake often trades on cloying fudge-like density and one-note chocolate flavor. Leave it to the Italians to whip up a version that's lighter and more nuanced.

Recipe Amaretto Whipped Cream

Add some sweet, nutty almond flavor to your whipped cream.

Recipe Orange Whipped Cream

Cointreau and orange zest give this whipped cream the perfect amount of bright orange flavor.

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