It took years to convince me that vegetables could belong in desserts. But Italy’s cucina povera, or peasant cooking tradition, is actually full of cakes with vegetables that perfectly embody the cuisine’s spirit: They use whatever is abundant and in season—not just fruit, but vegetables, too—in an inventive way, turning poor ingredients into rich treats.
Now, my favorite cakes with vegetables don’t hide the veggies, but rather exalt them, as part of a balance of contrasting textures and interesting, sometimes unusual flavors.
In the beginning, it was pumpkin that helped me get over my doubts. Even Pellegrino Artusi, the father of Italian cuisine and the author of “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (1891), has a recipe for torta di zucca gialla, Italy’s version of the American pumpkin pie. The pumpkin is grated and cooked in milk, then mixed with sugar, finely chopped almonds, butter, breadcrumbs, eggs, and cinnamon. Finally, the batter is baked into a thin, moist, pudding-like cake. Now, when autumn arrives, I dream of velvety pumpkin cream pies with walnuts and soft pumpkin bundt cakes scented with nutmeg.
After pumpkin, I turned to carrots. Torta di carote, mostly seen in the north of Italy, is a perfect example of cucina povera. Carrots, a natural sweetener, stand in for more expensive sugar or honey, usually paired with almonds or hazelnuts. The Italian version is plain, without no buttercream or cream cheese frosting: a dusting of icing sugar is all it requires to become a kid-favorite dessert.
In the seaside town of Chioggia, a beloved regional cake mixes carrots with distinctive local produce: a precious red radicchio variety known as rosa di Chioggia, considerably less bitter than the neighboring radicchio di Treviso. Torta ciotosa, radicchio cake, is made with radicchio, carrots, hazelnuts, and crumbled cookies.
Summer produce is well represented, too. From the Amalfi coast hails an unusual sweet concoction called melanzane al cioccolato, eggplants with chocolate. Usually prepared for Ferragosto, the 15th of August, in the town of Minori, this dessert was probably created by the nuns of Santa Maria della Misericordia. The eggplants are sliced lengthwise, twice-fried, and layered in a trifle-like dessert with chocolate custard and finely chopped almonds and amaretti.
Then there are two cakes from Tuscany, both perfect for the current moment. Scarpaccia viareggina, also known as torta dell’orto, or vegetable garden cake, is from Viareggio, and typical of the Tuscan coast. It starts with a thin batter, enriched with thinly sliced young zucchini and basil leaves. Torta coi becchi, Swiss chard cake, is from the walled town of Lucca. It is a shrine of shortcrust pastry dough, with a filling of cooked-down Swiss chard and milk-soaked breadcrumbs.
If your summer garden—or CSA box—is overflowing with vegetables, join me in taking a cue from generations of Tuscan home bakers and turning them into something sweet.