Lost Italian: Torta strikes perfect note for opera benefit dessert

Every June for the past eight years, Tony and I have hosted the Sarello's Dinner for the Opera, an evening of music, food, wine and friendship to benefit the Fargo-Moorhead Opera.

Tortal al Vino Rosso
Torta al Vino Rosso, or red wine chocolate cake, is a sophisticated yet simple dessert that will have your guests shouting "Bravo!" David Samson / The Forum

Every June for the past eight years, Tony and I have hosted the Sarello's Dinner for the Opera, an evening of music, food, wine and friendship to benefit the Fargo-Moorhead Opera.

It is the opera company's most successful fundraiser, and we are grateful to the many people who contribute to this event so that every dollar we raise goes directly to the FM Opera.

Since the event began in 2006, David Hamilton, our friend and the FMO's General Director, has managed to convince some of the opera world's best and brightest to waive their performance fees and come to Fargo-Moorhead to sing for 30 to 45 people. This year we were joined by our very own Three Tenors, featuring Hamilton himself, Gennard Lombardozzi, and Kiley Ramstorf, who were all terrific.

In 2009, our good friends Dave and Denise Akkerman came on board with their time, culinary talent and amazing wines to help us plan, prepare and execute this event.

Tony and I have dubbed this special couple our "favorite food and wine pairing," because Dave is a passionate collector of fine wines, and Denise is one of the best gourmet cooks I know (she even works beside Tony in the kitchen to cook for the dinner). They not only donate their wines and talents for the entire six-course evening, but every May they invite us into their home to plan the menu so that the food will pair perfectly with each wine.


Last month, over Denise's (amazing) grilled pizza, we sat and listened to her pitch ideas for this year's event. Her menu consisted of confetti shrimp and an antipasti bar for our pre-dinner social hour, followed by a lovely green salad with oranges, asparagus and a creamy tarragon dressing, chicken coq au zin with fresh pasta (a take on chicken coq au vin, featuring zinfandel wine), a sorbet palate cleanser, lamb loin chops with a parsnip puree, and some dessert she found in the La Cucina Italiana magazine called Torta al Vino Rosso or, red wine chocolate cake.

I must admit, just the sound of it made Tony and me pause. Denise must have foreseen our reaction because after we devoured three gourmet pizzas, she served us this cake for dessert. The cake was beautifully presented with real whipped cream and fresh raspberries soaked in red wine syrup. It was almost too pretty to eat.

A few bites in, and whatever doubts we'd had quickly faded away. The cake was unlike any chocolate cake we know.

The combination of red wine, chocolate and raspberries was like an opera of its own, striking a harmonious balance of flavors amid a dramatic presentation. Moist, but not too sweet, with wonderful little chips of chocolate in every other bite, it was comforting in a way that surprised us. It surprised our guests, too, several of whom requested the recipe.

In spite of its sophistication, Denise assures us the recipe is simple and easy to make, and at the end you'll find our own notes for added clarity.

Tony and I firmly believe this cake helped make this year's Sarello's Dinner for the Opera our most successful one yet, with a total of $92,000 raised for the Fargo-Moorhead Opera.

We thank everyone who has worked to make this event what it is, but most especially our wonderful guests, who surprise us every year with their generous support. Bravissimo!

Torta al Vino Rosso


For the cake:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan

1½ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon fine sea salt (available in most grocery stores, but table salt will suffice)

1¼ cups sugar

3 large eggs, separated

5 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate (82 percent), very finely chopped


1 cup dry red wine


½ cup dry red wine

½ cup granulated sugar

4 cups raspberries

Whipped cream:

1½ cups heavy cream

2½ tablespoons confectioner's sugar

Special equipment:

parchment paper

9x3-inch or 10x2-inch spring-form pan

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease spring-form pan and line bottom with parchment paper. Butter the parchment.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together butter and ½ cup sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about four minutes. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, scraping bowl as necessary. Add chocolate; beat just to combine. In three additions, add wine to butter mixture, alternating with flour mixture.

In a large bowl, using clean beaters, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining ¾ cup sugar and beat until the whites are firm and glossy.

Using a spatula, gently fold whites into batter just until no white streaks remain. Pour batter into prepared pan; smooth top with spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes (Denise and our kitchen staff advise to bake for 50 to 55 minutes).

Transfer cake to wire rack, let cool in pan 10 minutes. Run a knife around pan to loosen cake; release from pan. Let cool completely on wire rack.

While cake cools, bring wine and sugar to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves. Put raspberries in a bowl and pour the hot syrup over them, gently tossing to coat. Let stand at least 15 minutes or up to one day. If preparing raspberries more than four hours ahead, keep covered and chilled. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature before serving.

For the whipped cream, combine cream and sugar in medium bowl. Using electric mixer; beat until soft peaks form.

Serve cake with raspberries and whipped cream.

Source: La Cucina Italiana magazine, January/February 2013


E We recommend allowing 50 to 55 minutes for baking time.

E If you don't have a spring-form pan, it's a worthy addition to your inventory, as it can also be used for cheesecakes and our flourless chocolate cake.

E Denise used Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate, and a sharp knife to chop it into little pieces.

E To separate an egg, crack the egg in half over a small bowl and carefully transfer the egg yolk back and forth between each half until the egg white falls into the bowl below.

Place the yolk in another small bowl, then transfer the white to a mixing bowl and repeat until all three eggs are separated. It is important that the whites be completely separated from the yolk, as any bit of yolk will ruin the egg whites.

E Egg whites must form into stiff peaks, i.e., the peaks stand straight up when the beater or whisk attachment is removed. Tony will turn the bowl upside down to make sure the whites don't move, but I don't recommend this for beginners.

E Denise used the same red wine, a zinfandel, for the cake and raspberries.

E Bring butter to room temperature to soften before using.

E For our cake, we did not marinate the raspberries in the syrup, but sprinkled them on top so that they would not soften too much before serving.

E When serving this cake, Italians drink the same red wine for dinner and dessert; however, Dave paired our red wine chocolate cake with Dow's Late Bottled Vintage Port 2003.

Related Topics: FOODRECIPES
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