“We’re bringing the sbrisolona,” our friend Brian told me. “Yes, the very same one. And it doesn’t look half bad, actually.”
Spring cleaning is so important. Especially if your microwave hasn’t worked for years and you use it for storage. And you’re the kind to squirrel away treats you’re trying to resist devouring in one go.
We remembered the fresh version vividly. Brian and Dan’s original torta sbrisolona delivery came right after their return from a much-longed-for trip to Italy, a little over a year ago, when such things were, it seems now, so easy.
Brian is a violinist. Dan, a moss-loving horticulturist. They had gone to Lombardy to see opera houses and luthiers and gardens. Oh, sure, there was osso buco, risotto, polenta, gorgonzola. But from our point of view, the important thing was this big, bumpy, crumbly, not-too-sweet toasted-almond cookie.
The one they brought came wrapped in old-fashioned Italian bakery paper stamped with a drawing of Mantua’s Torre de la Gabbia. There was something about its simplicity, its near-savoriness, that made me want to figure out how to produce our own steady supply.
I started some experiments right away. There were recipes that sounded too cakelike. Or not short enough. Sbriciolarsi, I learned, means to fall to pieces. The thing has to hold together in a rustic center-of-the-table round, but still be sandy, so people can reach over and break off another nip without calling too much attention to themselves.
The torta’s origins are supposedly in the cornmeal and lard breakfasts eaten by 16th-century Lombard peasants. To which the Gonzagas might have added butter, sugar, eggs, and almonds. There are even fancier modern versions out there: David Lebovitz adds orange rind; Suzanne Goin makes it with pistachios. Those are both probably superb. But my goal was the pure toasted-almond taste of the original. An all-butter version came out good, but using half butter and half leaf lard was even better.
We did taste the pre-pandemic relic. It really wasn’t too bad. But the new one was the perfect dessert for our reunion after such a long time without travel or togetherness. Chewing behind our masks, we were transported to the good times, past and future.
1 egg yolk
4 oz. butter
2/3 cup stone-ground cornmeal
½ cup almond flour
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup cane sugar
¾ cup whole almonds
½ tsp. kosher salt
I got the right texture using Indian Head Old-Fashioned Stone Ground Yellow Cornmeal and Bob’s superfine blanched almond flour.
Heat oven to 325 degrees F. Toast almonds lightly — they will toast further in the torta. Set them aside to cool.
Put cornmeal, almond flour, all-purpose flour, and sugar in a bowl. Using a fork, cut in cold butter. Add the yolk and combine to reach a coarse, mealy consistency. Toss in almonds. Avoid warming or overmixing — you do not want a paste consistency or the torta will come out tough.
On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, pat the dough into a rough circle, poking it and roughing it up to create a craggy landscape.
Bake until golden and fragrant, 30 to 40 minutes.
Serve in a communal way, at the center of the table, with coffee or dessert wine.