Resting on the breakfast table at our Lake Garda Hotel was a plate of large, irregular, almond studded cookies that I had never seen before.
Delicate, lemon scented, not too sweet (similar to most Italian pastries), it fell apart in my hands as I ate it, crumbs falling everywhere. Delicious. I could not wait to find out what it was and how to make it.
What it was, I discovered, is Sbrisolona – Italian for crumble cake –
a simple, shortbread-like classic dating back to around 600, originally from Mantua and found throughout Lombardy. Historically, it is made with equal amounts of polenta, white flour and sugar plus ground almonds (or hazelnuts or pistachios) and butter, but like most traditional recipes, there are almost endless variations.
The recipe found in Martha Stewart’s “Baking Handbook” uses white flour and ground almonds (no polenta) plus vanilla. On Food 52, the writer preferred semolina to polenta (disliking the crunch of cornmeal), adding egg yolks, orange zest and anise seeds. The Italian recipe she referred to came from Ortensiablu.com which used polenta, egg yolks, lemon zest and vanilla. I decided to start with this (I love polenta) making my own alterations (and once again feeling like a contestant in GBBO).
Note: I found my scales did not measure the same in grams as in the Ortensiablue recipe, so used the volume amount rather than the weight – not always best in baking, but here, where the recipe is basically a shortbread, I hoped it would not matter and it didn’t. Grams listed here are those from my scales.
1 ½ c./200 g. almonds (I used a mix of ground and whole, which I chopped roughly, to a sand texture, in my food processor) Reserve a few whole for the top of the cookie.
1 ½ c./175 g. flour
1 c./150 g. corn meal
½ tsp. salt
1 c./225 g. unsalted butter at room temperature (I cut off the end of a 250gr pack)
1 c./240 g. sugar
2 egg yolks (large eggs)
grated zest of one lemon (next time I might use two)The recipe called for 1 tsp vanilla, but I decided to opt out this time
Preheat oven to 350°F/180°C. Butter and parchment a 10" springform pan or cake pan.
Whisk together the flour, corn flour, ground almonds, lemon zest and salt in a bowl.
In a large mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Add the egg yolks and mix well, about another minute.
Add the flour and almond mixture and beat on low until it looks as if it will just hold together, but is still lumpy.
Crumble the mixture evenly into the spring form pan and press very lightly.
Dot top with whole almonds.
Bake for 30-35 minutes until pale golden with slightly brown edges.
Remove the sides of the springform pan and either cut into wedges immediately or let cool.
Cover with foil. Note: if you put this into a sealed container it will soften; you want it to stay crisp and crumbly.