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COOKING LESSONS FROM ROME

Si, si, an apple dessert

By Judith Barrett
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2009

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When I think of Italian desserts, I think of fresh fruit: pears, figs, and grapes in the autumn; peaches, berries, and melons in the summer; and nuts - walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds - year round. Until I began spending several months at a time in Rome four years ago, I never associated Italy and apples. Apples are quintessentially American! But as I learned shopping in markets here, apples are plentiful all year. Still, I was surprised to find that a very common dessert in Rome, and other parts of Italy, is the torta di mele (mele means apple), a simple cake.

The word torta, in Italian, is a multipurpose label applied to a wide variety of baked desserts that includes pies and tarts, also called crostate, as well as cakes and other pastries. And as is the case with many Italian dishes, torta di mele is not a specific cake uniformly prepared wherever you find it. That varies with the baker. Even in Rome, I have sampled some that resemble puddings, some that are more like pies, and still others that are definitely cakes.

My favorite is a divine dessert served at a restaurant called Zaraza, in Frascati, a beautiful wine producing town in the hills about an hour from Rome. Lightly dusted with powdered sugar, the torta di mele has a delicate crumb, a subtle sweetness, and tantalizing richness. Superlatives aside, the torta is considered one of the more humble dolci. In Rome, it is almost always sold at a forno (bread bakery), rather than in more refined pasticcerie (pastry shops), where you'll find rich confections like the popular chocolate Sacher torte.

Traditionally, a torta di mele was prepared with ordinary eating apples called mele di rennette. They weren't distinguished with evocative names. Today you'll find a world of apple varieties at supermarkets and smaller vendors, including familiar names such as Fuji, Gala, Pink Lady, Granny Smith, and Golden and Red Delicious. In season in apple growing areas, you can still buy mele di rennette, which are yellowish and misshapen the way wild or uncultivated apples are. They are distinctly not juicy, which makes them ideal for cooking. My own apple preference for the cake is Golden Delicious. It's a stalwart: sweet with a slight edge of tartness and not too watery for baking at high oven temperatures.

I have a weakness for fruit desserts, so it wasn't difficult to become enamored of torta di mele. Happily, it's also quick to prepare. In the time it takes to heat the oven, you can have the batter mixed and the three apples sliced. It takes just over half an hour to bake and it's delicious warm or at room temperature.

Apples may be very American, but Italy has the perfect apple dessert.