Cello and lemons have a lot in common. In 2003, I moved to Northern Italy where I was gastronomically and geographically happily based for almost three years. During that time I pursued further postgraduate studies in chamber orchestra whilst performing as a classical cellist in the opera houses and chamber orchestras of Northern Italy. My extended Italian sojourn cemented a deep appreciation for seasonal local produce, celebrating and preparing vegetables and fruits at their peak.
The simplicity of fresh rocket dusted with shavings of parmeggiano regionale christened with Piemontese emerald green extra-virgin olive oil drizzled with lemon juice from my neighbours lemon crop, and a pinch of salt and crack of black pepper. Thick slices of shiny plump ruby red tomatoes fanned out adorned with ripped chunks of buffalo mozzarella from the farmers market topped with palm-sized tear-drop basil leaves, a generous pouring of a local EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil), a dash of balsamic vinegar and dusted with fresh pepper and a generous sprinkling of salt.
Italy is without doubt the most sensory indulgent and intoxicating country I have lived in so far. Every step, every moment, every movement is connected and celebrated with a visceral food memory for me and so many others. My days began and ended thinking about food. I woke up wondering what delights awaited me at the daily farmers market. I went to bed looking forward to my early morning bicycle jaunts to the local bakery “Panificio Artigianale” for their steamy spongy salty fresh focaccia zucchine and favourite ciambelle literally made for mopping up olive oil. I lived ten minutes from Asti where the infamous Asti Spumante hails from. The Ferrero Rocher factory which makes Nutella was twenty minutes away. Every time I took the train to Turin for orchestra or lessons I salivated the entire journey.
As a musician, our rehearsals and concerts were scheduled around mealtimes and not the other way around. Opera and orchestra rehearsals never EVER went one minute past lunchtime. Lunchtime was religiously 12.30pm or 1pm depending on the season and whether you lived above or below the Mezzogiorno line which culturally and economically divides Italy into the North and South. When playing in the sweltering southern Summer heat a giant refreshing Granita al Limone was most welcome before our afternoon rehearsal “prova”. Pandemonium ensued if the opera started late as this meant dinner was delayed for both the audience, orchestra and singers. Food and mealtime are as sacred as football and family. Families taking their ritual “passeggiata” post-dinner walk, fresh lemon sorbet or gelato aided digestion or so I was convinced.
In Italy, lemons are revered and regarded as a delicious force of nature. In this cake, I ceremoniously pair them with another Italian staple polenta, which also hails from Northern Italy. I celebrate all things Italian today as Italy faces England in the Euro championship finals. Yes, I love football you can blame my Dad. You might have guessed who we are rooting to win? Viva Italia. In boca al lupo.
“LEMON-CELLO” LEMON, WALNUT & POLENTA CAKE
Makes 10 slices (one cake). Takes 60 minutes tops. Gluten-Free heaven.
200g ground almonds 200g monkfruit "sugar" / 200g raw organic cane sugar* (*Aldi sell one kilo bag for 2 euros) 100g fine polenta 1½ tsp baking powder (gluten-free) 3 large organic eggs (room temperature) 150ml organic olive oil (you can use extra virgin for more intensity, trust me it does not overpower the flavour) zest of 2 lemons, scrubbed well 1 cup walnuts, toasted & chopped 1/2 cup flaked almonds, toasted edible flowers* optional FOR THE SYRUP juice of 2 medium-sized lemons 100 g monkfruit sugar / raw cane sugar
Line the base of a 23cm cake tin with a removable base. Oil your baking paper and sides of your cake tin with olive oil. Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C for fan ovens. Pour olive oil, monk fruit/cane sugar, and eggs into a high-speed blender and whizz for approx 10 seconds until pale and thick. If you use a Vitamix or fancy-schmancy Thermomix make sure it doesn’t heat up or else you will have lovely scrambled eggs!
Mix together the almonds, polenta and baking powder. Pour in the liquid mixture and gently mix together. Grate the lemon zest and mix briefly once more. Pour the mixture into the cake tin and bake in the centre of the oven for about 40 minutes.
The cake is cooked when your cake tester comes out almost completely clean. Make sure to test in the centre of the cake. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin. Whilst the cake is cooling make the lemony syrup by boiling together the lemon juice and monk fruit/raw cane sugar in a small saucepan. Watch carefully and bring to boil. Reduce the heat to low and leave to simmer for another 5-8 minutes until it becomes syrup-like.
Once the cake has cooled for approx 10 minutes, take a fork and hold it at a 45-degree angle (meaning hold the fork on its side at 3 o’clock and prick the entire top of the cake. Using a tablespoon pour the warm syrup over the cake making sure you cover the entire surface of the cake. Don’t worry about liquid pooling in the centre. Make sure you get the liquid along the edges of the cake otherwise it won’t be as moist as the rest of the cake after a day or two. Trust me on this! I may have made approx 200 of these cakes in the past few years. Leave to cool completely before taking it out of its tin. Just to be sure, to be sure the cake has not stuck against the sides of the tin whilst baking, take a very sharp thin knife such as a vegetable pairing knife and carefully slide it in between the edge of the cake and the tin. Run the knife around the edge of the tin slowly ensuring the knife goes all the way to the base of the cake tin. Remove slowly and with concentration normally reserved for a penalty shoot-out.
Chop the toasted walnuts and or flaked almonds as in the photo above and decorate with abandon. I love to add edible flowers such as rose petals, cornflowers, and violas. No musical pun intended. The richness and sweetness of the cake begs for a generous dollop of greek or coconut yoghurt. The cake will keep moist for 2-3 days in a sealed container. It also freezes and defrosts like a dream.