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A Lemony Breakfast Cake That Tastes Like a Roman Holiday

Category: Food & Drink,Lifestyle

In the afternoon, when I shared with Meg some of the cake I’d tucked away, she told me that what I’d come to think of as my Roman breakfast cake was called a ciambella (it’s pronounced cham-BELL-ah and, with the right accent, sounds like an affectionate greeting). Learning the word is important for a pastry lover in Italy, because it means ring-shaped and is used for my cake, many other cakes baked in tube pans, doughnuts and some hole-in-the-middle cookies too.

The cake reminded me of others I knew so well — my aunt’s poundcake, my French friends’ yogurt cakes and many Bundt cakes — and I enjoyed it in the moment. It wasn’t until a few weeks after I returned home, when I wanted to make it for brunch, that I regretted not asking for the recipe, or at least finding out more about how the cake was made. It struck me that I didn’t really remember the texture, whether it broke into crumbs like a butter cake or had the spring of one made with oil. I couldn’t recall just how lemony it was, how eggy or not. And then I decided that I didn’t care. I wasn’t looking for a faithful replica of the cake; I was hoping to capture the joys of eating cake for breakfast, of veering from the familiar. I wanted to bake the remembrance of a good time.

The cake I made and came to love catches the spirit of the one that inspired it. Mine, like its muse, is sunshine yellow and flavored with lemon — I use both grated zest and freshly squeezed juice. It doesn’t seem rich — an illusion conjured by opting for oil instead of butter. Oil is what my non-Italian grandmother made her cakes with, and it’s what gives my cake the texture I like so much — it’s got spring and stretch: Pull it gently, and you can feel the slight tension in its structure, the tug to pull itself back to shape. It’s very light — after a few experiments, I chose to double up on the leavening, using baking powder and whipped egg whites to tip the cake toward sponge. I baked it in a ring pan, of course, although it’s fine in a Bundt, and now that berries are in season, I’ve taken to folding some in, allowing them to rise or fall as the batter bakes and taking pleasure in how their sweet-tart flavor turns up unpredictably in each slice.

Recently, Meg and I were together again in Paris, and I baked the all-lemon version for her. I was so happy when she exclaimed in Italian: “Una ciambella!” Then, with a touch of wistfulness, she sighed and said, “Memories of Rome.” That’s when I knew the cake was a success.

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