CIARAMICOLA. I love this cake because it’s beautiful and so reminiscent of ancient times.
Ciaramicola is a traditional cake from Perugia, Umbria’s capital city. In a past when things were simple, young women made it for their fiancé as a gift for Easter. The cake is highly symbolic: an immaculate meringue hides a red-hot heart.
As most Umbrian cakes, the inside was based on bread dough sweetened and softened with eggs and lard. The startling red is obtained with a splash of a liqueur named alkermens or alchermes.
And here is the part I like the best. An 8th century cordial named confectio alkermes is reported in 1653 Culpeper‘s Complete Herbal and English Physician. Defined as a mighty strengthener of the heart, its recipe includes apple juice, rose-water, raw silk, ambergris, pearls, leaf gold, cinnamon and two pounds of mysterious berries of Cherms, possibly carmine. How fitting to love promises as well as to Umbria’ s fierce medieval history!
Modern Alchermes is more boringly prepared by infusing neutral spirits with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose water, vanilla and red food coloring. Nobody drinks it. In fact, besides the color effect, it’s generally only used to impart an interesting floral aroma to cakes and pastries. If you can’t find it, just substitute with a sweet wine like Vin Santo or Marsala, a pinch each of the above spices and a few drops of red food coloring.
I make the dough as a cake, not as a sweet bread:
- 450 gr. ( 4 and 1/2 cups) cake flour
- 2 whole eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 250 gr (1/2 lb) sugar
- 170 gr (6 oz.) butter
- grated zest of one lemon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoon alkermes or dessert wine
- 4 tablespoon milk
- 16 gr (4 teaspoons) baking powder
Using a food processor, mix first dry ingredients with butter, then add all liquid ingredients. Transfer in a buttered bundt pan and bake in preheated oven at 180° C (375°F) until set, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile make the meringue as explained below. Remove from the oven, switch off heat, but keep the oven warm as you will need it to dry the meringue. Remove the cake from the cake mold as soon as it is cool enough to handle.
for the meringue topping:
- 110 gr. (4 oz) sugar
- 2 egg whites at room temperature
- 2 tablespoon lemon juice
To make a classic Italian meringue, combine the ingredients in a metal bowl. Place over a saucepan of gently simmering water and beat with an electric mixer until very thick, about 5-6 minutes. Remove the bowl from heat and beat off the heat until light and fluffy.
Assemble the ciaramicola:
Cover the cake above and around the sides with a thick layer of meringue. Sprinkle with multicolor confetti if you like. Transfer in the warm oven and leave to dry for several hours or until the next day. Enjoy with a glass of sweet wine like Sagrantino passito, Moscato or Vin Santo.