The recipe for the cake that knocked me off my breakfast routine is the one that got away. I should have tried to wangle it after the first time I had it. Or the second. Or the third. But I didn’t. I probably didn’t think I’d miss it. Or maybe I just wasn’t thinking. A long weekend in Rome can give you that domani feeling. Nothing seemed urgent there.
My husband, Michael, and I had gone to Rome to visit our friend, Meg Zimbeck, an American we met in Paris more than a decade ago. Back then, Meg, a food critic, was creating the restaurant website Paris by Mouth, eating out two or three times a day and writing in cafes with good Wi-Fi between meals. This time, we were catching her just as she was preparing to launch Rome by Mouth, a sister site. It was Meg who wisely suggested that we start the day with coffee at Roscioli Caffè, around the corner from our hotel.
Michael followed Meg’s recommendation and Italian custom, happily dunking his cornetto (think Italian croissant) into his coffee, while I was content to stick to my morning regulars, two cappuccinos in quick succession, until I scanned the bar and was stopped by a cake as yellow as a child’s drawing of the sun. It was tall and simple and made in a tube pan, the kind that grandmothers around the world always had. Set under a glass dome on the highest part of the counter, it kept watch over the cafe’s fancier cakes, crostatas, cannoli and everything with whipped cream.
The cake was as plain inside as it was out and, as I discovered on first bite, lemon. It wasn’t any sweeter than it had to be, nor was it rich. It would have been right at any time of day, but for me, having it early in the morning, in a foreign country, with the hiss of the espresso machine, the light clatter of cups and saucers and so many snippets of lyrical Italian conversations ricocheting up and down the busy bar, it tasted like vacation.
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.
This story appeared in The New York Times Magazine – it was in my “On Dessert” column
Photograph by Gentl and Hyers for The New York Times
Food styling by Maggie Ruggiero
Prop styling by Pamela Duncan Silver