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 substitute the milk with red fruit juice (e.g. cranberry or pomegranate).
I make the dough as a cake, not as a sweet bread:
For the cake:
450 grams (3 and 3/4 cups) all purpose flour or stone ground type 1
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
240 gr (1 cup and 3 tablespoon ) white sugar
180 gr (13 tablespoon) butter
grated zest of 1/2 orange or lemon
1/2 teaspoon powder cinnamon
3 tablespoons alkermes or dessert wine
4 tablespoons milk or red fruit juice
16 gr (4 teaspoons) baking powder.
For the Italian meringue topping:
120 gr. (1/2 cup and 2 tablespoon) white sugar.
2 egg whites at room temperature
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Candy sprinkles, edible flowers, small sugar pearls
mixing bowl or stand mixer, buttered bundt pan, spatulas
For the cake:
In a a bowl or stand mixer, cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy, add eggs and yolks one at the time, then flour, orange zest, baking powder. Beat shortly just to incorporate. The batter will be quite stiff. Add alkermes and milk to obtain a firm batter. Depending on the protein content of your flour you might need to add more milk to make the batter spreadable. Spoon the batter in a buttered bundt pan, level it with a spatula and bake in preheated oven at 180°C (350°F) until set, about 45 minutes.
For the Italian merengue:
While the cake is baking, combine egg whites, sugar and lemon juice in a metal bowl and place over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Using a blender, beat until very thick, about 5-6 minutes. Remove the bowl from heat and beat off the heat until light and fluffy.
Remove from the oven, and set the oven to minimum Remove the cake from the cake mold as soon as it’s cool enough to handle and transfer onto a plate.
To assemble the ciaramicola:
Using a thin spatula spread the meringue above and around the sides of the cake. Note that the cake will dry out in the oven if you don’t frost every exposed surface.
Start from the sides where you will only need a thin but even layer and top it with pretty swirls of icing. Don’t press the meringue over the cake or it will deflate.
Sprinkle with multicolor spinkles, sugar pearls or – if you have some in your garden and don’t use pesticides – edible flower petals. Transfer to the warm oven, switch of the heat, and leave to dry for 30 min to one hour or until the meringue feels completely dry.
Enjoy it with a glass of sweet wine such as Sagrantino passito or Moscato.