American humorist Erma Bombeck understood the importance of indulging in something sweet after dinner. “Seize the moment,” she wrote. “Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.”
With this in mind, when confronted with any tantalizing slice, mound, cup, slurp or spoonful of sweet something, let’s make the first thing we think be…weeee! After all, it’s an occasional and small indulgence and we could just let it be that…an occasional, small indulgence. And one to be savored, enjoyed and possibly purred over at that.
Now, while I myself purr over any delicious dessert, I must share that this particular cake has a special place in my heart because I grew up eating it. Devouring it is probably closer to the truth. My mom use to make it when I was a kid and it was usually gone within hours, with me making the largest contribution in helping it disappear. It’s an Italian rustic classic, which means that there are about 12,739 versions of it spread throughout the various regions of Italy. But this one is my family’s. My mom literally dictated the recipe to me over the phone years ago. I remember…it was a gloomy rainy afternoon and I was missing her and she lived too darn far to make it for me…
Actually, it surprises me that I love this cake so much, since it combines fruit with chocolate. While this combination in baked desserts makes some people downright giddy, I must confess to feeling a tad ambivalent about it. In my mind, both ingredients are equal but separate entities that are generally at their best when allowed to shine individually.
But for some inexplicable reason – gee, could it just be because it’s DELICIOUS? – this cake is the one notable exception to this rather firm preference of mine and its name is, quite humbly, peasant cake. Rich with the flavor of cocoa, it has a bread pudding-like consistency that is both moistly dense and, due to the fruit, light. It’s not overly sweet either, which makes it ideal as a wholesome snack or breakfast as well.
Did I mention that it’s extremely chocolaty? Yes, I think I did, but let me bring it up again because it really is, thanks to the cocoa powder. Ounce for ounce, cocoa powder packs more flavor than any other form of chocolate and this cake has a whole cup and a half of it. So since it’s such a flavoring powerhouse, it’s a good idea to use a good one, and I have just the one for you. I especially love sharing it because it’s one of those rare instances where the best choice is actually the least expensive option. How often does that happen?
Now, I don’t generally recommend brand names, but here it is: Hershey’s Natural Cocoa Unsweetened. Yes, that familiar brown canister that we’ve all grown up seeing in every single supermarket baking section within the continental United States. It was evaluated by Cook’s Illustrated as being the best-tasting cocoa for baking when compared to even the priciest and imported cocoas. Apparently, cocoa powders taste their finest when the cocoa beans are roasted without their shells and when they are then ground very finely. Hershey’s does both. And no, I am not getting paid to say this…sadly.
The foundation for this batter is made from milk-soaked stale cookies and – if you have it – stale bread. Otherwise, use just stale or not-so-stale cookies. In other words, use what you have on hand. As long as the stale bread (if you decide to use it) doesn’t exceed a 1:1 ratio with the cookies, you’ll be fine.
Every month or so, I go through the snack cupboard in my kitchen to see which opened boxes and packages of cookies have passed their prime. Invariably, I usually find a box or package that slipped behind a huge bag of kettle corn or something…out of sight, out of mind. Forgotten. Instead of throwing them out, I make this cake.
For this post, I had organic honey graham animal crackers on hand so that’s what I used, but sugar cookies or plain animal crackers work just as well. I didn’t have quite enough crackers to measure out to 10.5 ounces, so I added a few slices of stale bread as well.
making peasant cake
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Cut out a circle out of parchment paper for a 9-inch Springform pan and then grease it with about 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter.
Place 10 1/2 oz. of animal crackers in a large bowl. You can take away some crackers and use stale bread to make up the difference in weight.
Heat 1 1/2 cups of whole milk and one stick of unsalted butter, minus the 1 TBSP of butter used to grease a 10-inch spring form pan) in a small pan. Once the butter has melted and the milk is almost to a boiling point, pour it over 10.5 oz. of cookies or crackers and mix thoroughly. Let it stand for about an hour, mixing occasionally. ADDITION on November 2013: after making this cake upteempth times using varying ratios of crackers to stale bread, I’ve decided that my winning combination is 50% crackers and 50% stale bread.
Return to the bowl and with the rounded side of the spoon, smush any cookies or pieces of bread that haven’t yet disintegrated. You want the mixture to look like batter, like this…
Then, add 1 apple (red or golden delicious variety) OR 1 pear, peeled and chopped into small cubes or grated. Add 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of raisins, 1 teaspoon of sea salt, 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, 3 small or 2 large slightly beaten eggs, and 1 1/2 cup of Hershey’s Natural Cocoa Unsweetened.
NEW ADDITION TO THIS POST: My daughter liked the taste of the cake but didn’t like what she described as the ‘large pieces of fruit’ in the cake. “It’s a texture thing, mamma,” she said. So be it. The next time I made it, I grated the apple and all was well in Alexia’s world.
Mix everything thoroughly. Then add 1 tablespoon of baking powder and mix thoroughly again.
Pour into the greased spring form pan.
Place the pan in the oven and lower the temperature to 350°F. Bake for 45-50 minutes, but start checking it at around 40 minutes or so by inserting a sharp knife into the center of the cake to see if it comes out clean. When it does, remove the pan from the oven and allow the cake to cool for 30 minutes before removing the sides of the spring form pan.
Sprinkle with powdered sugar to serve. Makes 10 servings.