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Going Festive with Dolce Di Amalfi

Few modern-day desserts have embodied the essence of the iconic Amalfi coast and its rich history like this masterpiece by Chef Salvatore de Riso, one of Italy’s finest pastry chefs, says Olive Head Chef Dhruv Oberoi.

By Madhulika Dash; Photograph courtesy Olive Qutub

A few months ago, when Chef Dhruv Oberoi (Head Chef of Olive Qutub and The Grammar Room) began to scour the internet for sweet inspiration – to last the lockdown blues - he was instantly smitten by the picture-perfect creations of the Italians, especially the cakes.

Recalls the pastry aficionado, “When it comes to desserts, no one does it better than the Italians – their desserts are the very definition of a good marriage between the classic restrain and modern-day sensibilities and taste. Take the case of the Dolce Di Amalfi. Also called the Almond-Lemon cake from the Roman Coast, the cake although looks deceptively simple is brilliant with its flavours and on playing the canvas to whimsical theatrics of a pastry master.”

In fact, continues the chef, “it is a wonderful example of how to showcase the best from your locality – and the best part is that it is built for the modern palate that wants its dessert not be a sweet on sweet sponge but a layer on layer flavour indulgence. A delicate composition that this lemon cake – one of the many things that showcase the iconic Amlafi lemons – achieves with flair.”

Part of this wonderment could be credited to its creator Salvatore de Riso, one of Italians finest and famous pastry chefs, whose muse for the cake wasn’t just his growing up years where he tasted many a limoncello made of this Amalfi bounty, but also saw the wonders this local produce could bring to dessert with his parent’s shop that sold one of the coast’s finest granitas, which Riso defined as “pathbreaking, since there wasn’t any competition for years.”

By appearance, this cake-innovation as another instance of the popular jam cakes with the sponge being soaked in house-matured limoncello with lime jam as the spread between the layer and a light dusting of fragrant powdered sugar on the top. The cake was a beautiful reminder of the summers of this famous holiday spot since early Roman empire. But the making, adds Chef Oberoi, “takes a mastery of restrain when it comes to creating the different layers of flavours. A little too much or less can ruin this perfect Chiffon Cake into a bitter pud.”

While creating the perfect base that could stand the soak of the limoncello was the least of the challenge for the young, upcoming chef of Olive, it was, confesses the chef, “the other parts of the cake that posed a bigger challenge.”

The thing about this almond flour-base cake is that it is acutely local, continues Chef Oberoi, “Riso’s version calls for everything that is available within a few miles of the coast of Amlafi. And this includes the lemons, hand-made sugar, Spanish almonds, milk from the neighbourhood dairy, even the lemons from an orchard, nearby. Add to this is the jam and limoncello, both made in house using his mother’s traditional recipe. A fact that the chef believes not only makes it a class apart, but also earned the Dolce Di Amalfi its place in the Christmas feast and gifting as the cake, lighter than most fruitcake, can travel well.

Taking the local leaf as a starting point, the seasoned culinary hand turned to Indian versions of the Amlafi lemon: I wasn’t looking for sweetness, says Chef Oberoi, “as much as for character. The choice, Gondhoraj.”

Known for its soulful fragrance, Gondhoraj became the perfect choice to not only flavour the chiffon cake but also create the house-matured limoncello and the marmalade. Lending a helping hand were the variety of lime that could be sourced from the market, each known for its sweet-tart ratio. While the limoncello was preserved lime peel, fresh peel and juice stowed in a bottle of neutral spirit for a month, for the marmalade, says the chef, “we created our own signature by mixing different varieties of seasonal lime and lemon, lightly salted first and cooked in a syrup made of agave and finished with fresh zest and juice.”

To match the #vocalforlocal scale of the original, Chef Dhruv even sourced his vanilla pods from Kerala. The next hurdle, and one that would prove his mettle on pastry was getting the mascarpone lime frosting right, which needs a good amount of patience, temperature control and of course a hand that knows when to restrain. One of the many reasons why the cake, at least the one we serve, says Chef Dhruv needs to be made, assembled and stored in the same temperature – and done in one sitting.