Every time I’m in the Dolomite mountains, this cake tempts me. Along with other offerings, it’s there on the teatime buffet table at the hotel every afternoon when we get back from skiing. It’s made with something called grano saraceno, and I bought a bag of the flour in Italy, as well as a small cookbook with local recipes that included this cake.
Back in the U.S., I find out that grano saraceno is actually nothing more than buckwheat and I could have bought it here for half the cost at my local health food store. Live and learn.
Both grano saraceno and buckwheat are misnomers, because it’s not a form of wheat and it’s not really a grain, even though it has properties of many grains. It’s actually a fruit seed related to rhubarb and sorrel. Below is a picture of the flower and the actual seed, before it’s milled into flour:
The name buckwheat derives from the Middle Dutch words boek, for beech and weite for wheat, because the seeds resemble the much larger seeds of the beech nut tree.
But to me, the Italian name - grano saraceno – sounds so much more interesting and mysterious than buckwheat. It conjures up visions of turban-cloaked Saracens on camels crossing the Silk Road in ancient times. In fact, according to Wikipedia, it was first domesticated and cultivated in inland southeast Asia, possibly around 6000 B.C., and from there spread to Central Asia and Tibet, and then to the Middle East and Europe.
It’s a great alternative for people with celiac disease, those who have an intolerance to gluten. But it’s got a ton of beneficial health benefits for everyone. It’s useful in protecting against heart disease, lowering cholesterol, and controlling blood sugar levels, among other things.
It’s more popular outside the U.S., especially Eastern Europe and Asia. When it’s toasted, the whole form minus the hull is called groats or kasha, the Russian name. The Japanese use it for making buckwheat noodles, or soba, while Americans are most familiar with it in buckwheat pancakes. Italians in the northern regions near the Alps love it too, not only in cakes, but also in a tagliatelle-type noodle dish called “pizzocheri.”
It has a nutty taste and when baked, it can be heavy if nothing is added to lighten it, like baking powder or some all-purpose flour. In fact, in my first attempt to make this cake, I used the recipe in the Dolomite cookbook I purchased and it called for only buckwheat flour. It was a bit dense to put it mildly. My husband announced “It tastes like health food.” Not exactly the results I was hoping for. Not one to give up so easily, I substituted a bit of regular all-purpose flour for some of the buckwheat. (If you do have Celiac disease, omit the all-purpose flour and use only buckwheat.) In addition, I added some baking powder and some buttermilk, decreased the amount of almonds and eggs and added some lemon peel too.
I thought the revamped recipe was a great improvement and my husband did too. My Italian chit-chat group agreed after tasting the cake at our last meeting and declaring it a “winner.” I hope you think so too.
Torta Di Grano Saraceno
4 eggs, separated
1 1/2 c. sugar, softened
1 1/2 sticks of butter
1 cup almonds, finely ground
1 c. buckwheat flour
3/4 c. white flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. vanilla
dash of salt
grated peel from 1/2 lemon
3/4 c. buttermilk
seedless raspberry jam (I used 1 full 18-oz. jar and half of another one)
Separate eggs. Beat whites until light peaks form and add half of sugar, a little at a time. Set aside. Place butter in mixer and beat with other half of sugar. Add egg yolks and vanilla. Place almonds in food processor and pulse a few times. If you leave the processor on and walk away, you may end up with almond paste, so stay nearby and just use the “pulse” button. Add the flours to the almonds and pulse until the almonds are ground finely. Add the salt, baking powder, lemon peel and the flours and ground almonds to the egg yolk mixture, alternately adding the buttermilk. Mix just until everything is blended. Take the egg whites and fold into the mixture. Batter will be stiff. Pour into a greased and floured springform or cake pan and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes to an hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean and cake shrinks in a little from sides of pan.
When cake has cooled, cut into two layers. (I leveled off the top of the cake to eliminate the “hump” and make it flatter.) Warm the jam in the microwave a few seconds to loosen it a bit. If it melts completely, don’t worry, it will solidify if you wait a bit. But don’t pour it on the cake if it’s totally liquid and melted. When it has a smooth but semi-solid consistency, spread it on top of the bottom layer. Do the same thing with the top layer, then decorate with whole raspberries tossed in sugar, and mint leaves if available.