It’s 4pm on a weekday in the early 2000s. I’ve dumped my school bag in nonna’s “good room” and – like clockwork – a tall slice of sponge cake and a glass of chocolate Nesquik is waiting on the sink for me. It was an afterschool ritual – one that friends, who’d often visit for after-school playdates, still recall. And one look at Al Dente Enoteca’s torta sabbiosa takes me back to that pre-adolescent time.
Sure, most people head to the elevated Carlton diner – which co-owner Andrea Vignali began as a pandemic delivery service after he was stood down from his job at Florentino – for its excellent pasta. The cacio e pepe tortellini is what first lured me in. But it’s this cake, in all its feathery glory, that stole my heart.
I tried the sponge-like cake just before Melbourne entered its lengthy 2021 lockdown. For the next four months, it was all I could think about. Really. I talked about it so much that when I was forced to isolate for 14 days in October, a pal sent it to me in a care package (alongside the cacio e pepe tortellini, of course). I fell for the seductive way the cake melts in your mouth. The slightly granular texture that means it folds in on itself when sliced. The velvety, brandy-spiked mascarpone-zabaglione cream accompaniment. The generous dusting of icing sugar.
Torta sabbiosa originates from Lodi, a city in the region of Lombardy in northern Italy. Sabbiosa, meaning sandy in Italian, represents the granular crumble of the dessert. Often referred to as the cake of three, Vignali says torta sabbiosa is traditionally made using 300 grams of flour, 300 grams of butter, 300 grams of sugar and three eggs, or a variation close to that (unlike nonna’s which is made with one cup of flour, one cup of sugar and – wait for it – six eggs).
“Ours is a bit twisted from the original,” he says, careful not to reveal all the secrets of his baking process. “You get these different textures which usually you don’t get from a cake because of the eggs – [which are] whipped just the right amount to maintain the air while it’s cooking – [and] potato starch.”
As with a sandcastle, removing the cake from the tin is an art in itself. If the chefs flip it when it’s too hot, it falls apart. If they don’t flip it quickly enough, it loses its height. (“It’s really hard. Sometimes it still goes wrong,” Vignali says.) And legend has it that the dessert will fail if it is not always mixed in the same direction. While Vignali now understands the reason behind the theory – folding the batter too much will compromise its airiness – it’s still not something he’s willing to gamble with.
“The great [thing] about this cake is that no one has this expectation when it comes to the table,” Vignali says. “We always say that when you see it, you’re like, ‘Oh it’s a cake.’ When you go in with a spoon, you say, ‘Oh, it’s a hard cake.’ And after you put it in your mouth, wow, there’s an explosion of softness.”
He’s right. This is not your average sponge cake. It’s dense without feeling heavy, and any addition of jam and cream would be criminal.
The torta sabbiosa recipe is one Vignali has been carrying around since he was 15. “It’s something I got from a chef from Lodi, and [since then] I’ve always had the recipe in my booklet.” But simply having it written down was not enough for him to recall how to make it. “I remember there was a certain type of oven and there was a certain timing to whipping the eggs – it is a very simple cake but quite complicated in its simplicity. So we started trying, and we probably took a couple of weeks to get [it right].”
The effort paid off. The torta sabbiosa has become a menu mainstay, much like the cacio e pepe tortellini, with 20 to 25 cakes baked every week.
Vignali and Al Dente Enoteca co-owner Davide Bonadiman can’t get enough of the stuff either. “When you cut it during service, it cracks and we [steal away] these chunks which give us a bit of energy to get through the day,” Vignali says. “And also, when you finish portioning all the sabbiosa, there’s all these crumbs on the tray which are really good to pick on.”
At other times, the torta sabbiosa is simply an accessory to the chefs’ morning cappuccinos.