On my recent trip to Croatia, I went to Mali Ston, a tiny little village at the end of the isthmus that connects the Pelječac Peninsula with the mainland of the Dalmatian coast. My good friend Amy told me I must go there because "it's an oyster town!" and these were some of the best she'd ever had, so of course I went straight for Mali Ston.
She was right; it was oyster central. Oysters have been farmed here since Roman times. You can smell the salty oyster beds exhaling as you walk along the ancient Roman walls. I'll tell you about those farms and all the different ways I ate these little sea jewels soon, but today I want to tell you about a cake I encountered in a harbor-side restaurant.
I first caught sight of it on a pamphlet for the restaurant stashed in the bathroom and it made me giggle. It's not exactly the most beautiful pastry in the world, but I was intrigued. I brought the pamphlet back to the table and pointed saying "I have to try this!" and after slurping up three platters of oysters, I ordered a Stonska Torta for dessert.
It's sort of an upside down kugel pie, made in a cake pan. The fun thing that happens is when you slice it, you expose lots of layers of pasta tubes. (My five-year-old daughter affectionately refers to it as "the brain cake thing.")
I spoke with Lada Radin of Taste of Croatia, an English-language website about Croatian gastronomy. She told me that historically, like many cakes, Stonska Torta was reserved for special festivities like Christmas, Easter, and weddings, as otherwise cakes were considered a luxury. Centuries ago when this cake was born, they used pasta for the filling to economize on ingredients.
When I got home I worked through the recipe several ways, adapting a few recipes I found in Croatia; once with chocolate shaved into the filling, and once with a butter-based crust. In the end I decided to stick with the vernacular olive oil crust, and keep the filling to the citrus and almond notes. But if you like chocolate, try an ounce or two shredded into the almond meal mix.
Oddly, and I can't explain this, the crust that I settled on with olive oil tasted faintly of the sea. I think that was my sensory brain in overdrive, remembering that lunch with the floral, briny scent of the oyster beds wafting over the patio.
For the dough:
3 cups (12 ounces) unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
2 large eggs
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1-3 tablespoons water
For the filling:
1/2 pound dried penne or ziti pasta
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups (4 1/2 ounces) almond meal
1/3 cup (1 1/3 ounces) bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 large eggs
Zest of half lemon
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
For the garnish:
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
Preheat oven to 350°F with a rack on the center rung.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the flour and salt. In a small bowl whisk the eggs, olive oil and vinegar. Slowly add the olive oil mixture to the flour, stirring gently with a spoon. Do not over-work the mixture. Add water, one tablespoon at a time, until the mixture loosely comes together. Let it rest covered with a slightly damp kitchen towel.
Cook the pasta in boiling unsalted water as instructed on package for al dente.
Meanwhile, in a small mixing bowl, combine the sugar, almond meal, bread crumbs, and cinnamon. In another small bowl, beat the eggs slightly with the lemon zest and almond extract.
Rub an 8-inch springform cake pan with olive oil and dust with a spoonful of flour.
Roll out dough to 14-inch circle and nestle it into the pan, letting the extra dough drape over the sides of the pan.
Spread a handful of well-drained cooked pasta across the bottom. Sprinkle with two large handfuls of the almond meal mixture. Pour 1/2 cup of the egg mixture over the top and sprinkle with 1/3 of the butter pieces. Repeat for all layers to the top or until the ingredients are used up. After each addition, tap the pan down gently to settle all the layers. Trim the excess dough from the sides of the pan.
Bake for about 45 minutes, or until crust is slightly brown. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. Remove the sides of the pan then invert the cake onto a serving platter and take off the metal bottom.
Garnish with confectioners' sugar, preferably tapped onto the cake through a fine mesh sieve or tea strainer.
Related: Product Review: Dalmatia Fig Spread
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)