It took a leap of faith and my avid curiosity to try this cake: could a basic sweet batter and some grated courgettes make a good cake? No nuts, no sultanas, no spices…really? A resolute “yes!” is the answer.
This is a most unusual and excellent cake come dessert: delicate, plain and light, but not at all boring, with a delicious custardy quality. Burnished golden outside, yellow with specks of green inside, it is also pretty.
Scarpaccia means “nasty/old shoe” and no one really knows why such an uninspiring name; it is possibly something to do with the appearance of this dessert: a genuine scarpaccia should be a fairly thin and crusty affair – like an old, over-worn shoe. It is the contrast between the sugary and crusty exterior (due to a good drizzle of olive oil) and the custardy, vanilla scented interior that make this unposessing looking dessert sing.
It is a Tuscan speciality and you will not find anywhere else in Italy –in fact there are not many mentions of it in cookery books either. It is always made only with courgettes but it can be both savoury and sweet: the former is the most ancient version, according to renowned Tuscan food expert Paolo Petroni, and it is typical of the town of Camaiore; the latter is more recent and it is typical of the Viareggio. That two very close towns have contrasting versions of the same dish and this well exemplifies the incredibly diversity of our food culture.
The following version comes from Paolo Petroni’s book, with minor amendments. I have slightly altered the technique, added some lemon zest and sprinkled the top with flaked almonds, which bakes to an irresistible sugary crunchiness. These changes do not alter the spirit of this homely and yet sophisticated dessert, one that asks for so little and delivers so much.
Petroni calls for pale green courgettes and for some courgette flowers (cut into ribbons) to be used: should you be so lucky to find them, your scarpaccia will be even sweeter and more authentic.
La scarpaccia di Viareggio – sweet and custardy courgette cake from Viareggio, in Tuscany
6 to 8 portions
a 20 x 20 cm square tin, buttered and sprinkled with fine breadcrumbs: do not use a tin with a removable base as the batter will escape.
500 g courgettes: the traditional Italian way would be to slice them finely, I preferred to spiralize them and then to cut them into short ribbons.
a few courgette flowers, cut up into ribbons, if available
150 g sugar
50 g butter, just melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
grated zest of one lemon
60 ml milk
150 g 00 flour + 1 teaspoon baking powder
a small handful of flakes almonds
olive oil, to drizzle over the top of the cake
Sprinkle the courgettes (and flowers, if using) with some salt and leave them to sweat for one hour. Drain, rinse them, squeeze them dry with a cloth.
Preheat the oven to 180.
Beat the eggs with the whole of the sugar minus a couple of tablespoons, that will be used for the topping, a little salt, the vanilla and the lemon zest.
When the eggs are thick, bulked up and considerably lighter in appearance, slowly add the butter and the milk. Incorporate the flour and then the courgettes: do not overwork the batter, but make sure there is no speck of flour.
Pour the batter in the tin, dust the top with the flaked almonds, the remaining sugar and drizzle some olive oil all over it.
Bake for 45-60 minutes, until deep golden.
This cake is superb barely warm and at its best on the day it is baked.