This Italian Crumble Cake also known as Torta Sbrisolona is really a big cookie that tastes like the butteriest shortbread crossed with a crunchy streusel.
It’s a perfect finish to a meal but also delicious with a coffee or tea.
A few years ago, my family hosted a student from Mantova, Italy. It didn’t take long to realise that both our families loved food and cooking. Soon we were exchanging recipes. She loved my Jelly Cakes and I learnt to bake her mamma’s classic Torta Sbrisolona – a traditional Crumble Cake from Mantova.
What is Italian Crumble Cake?
Torta Sbrisolona is a traditional crumbly cake actually more like a large shortbread cookie but the tastiest shortbread you’ll probably ever try. Filled with the crunch and flavour of almonds plus the texture of the cornmeal, this sbrisolona is also flavoured with a hint of anise oil. Finely grated lemon zest is often used in place of anise oil.
What I love about the tradition of eating the sbrisolona is that it is never cut but simply placed in the middle of the table and broken by hand to share. This is the recipe I was lucky enough to receive. The ingredients are simple as old Italian recipes usually are.
- almonds – with skins on or not
- flour – plain, all purpose
- polenta – yellow cornmeal
- baking powder
- unsalted butter
- sugar – use castor or superfine
- oil – a flavourless oil like sunflower is good
- anise oil – or finely grated lemon zest for flavouring
- egg yolk – optional but I don’t generally add it
Why is the egg yolk optional?
The original recipe didn’t use egg yolk and that’s what my family prefers. This crumble cake is really CRUMBLY and has a wonderful melt-in-the-mouth texture.
If you prefer the cake to hold together a little bit better, add the egg yolk. This results in larger crumbs but the sbrisolona will not be as crumbly. A sbrisolona with egg yolk browns more in the oven.
How to make this recipe
This recipe has been made in Italian homes for centuries and while you could make it with an electric mixer or food processor, there is absolutely no need.
- In a large bowl rubbed the softened butter into the flour, polenta, baking powder and salt.
- The mixture will be crumbly and look like coarse breadcrumbs.
- Stir through sugar, almonds, oil, anise oil or lemon zest and egg yolk (if using).
- Spoon into two springform pans and press a few almonds on top before baking.
Prepared as written, this is a traditional recipe that has been made for centuries and supplied to me by a lovely baker from Mantova, Italy. But I suspect this is her version and, while it is amazingly delicious, I’m sure there are many other versions.
Try some of these variations or substitutions depending on what you and your family enjoy most.
- swap almonds for other nuts like hazelnuts or macadamias
- substitute semolina for the polenta or yellow cornmeal
- other than anise oil or finely grated lemon zest try a teaspoon of cinnamon or 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract
- add chopped dark chocolate or mini chocolate chips
These are just some suggestions. I’m sure there are heaps more variations possible because of the simple ingredients used.
Tips for making this cake
First, it is important to note that this “cake” is not a cake in the traditional sense. Instead think of it more as a large cookie and you will not be confused. Don’t expect this cake to rise – it should not be much more than 12mm or 1/2 inch high.
The next most important thing to remember is not to press the mixture down firmly in the baking pan. Just press lightly with your fingertips, allowing the surface to still be rough and crumbly.
How far in advance can this recipe be made?
As with all baked goods, this is best on the day of baking. However, this classic Italian cake keeps very well. Store in a sealed container at room temperature for a week.
Can this cake be frozen?
No problem, this cake can be frozen. Be sure to wrap it well in plastic and pop it into a zip lock bag or sealed container. Defrost still sealed so that it doesn’t sweat and soften.
My Italian friend who shared this recipe says that it is best served with grappa or nocino (a walnut liqueur). The idea is to drizzle a little over your piece of crumbly cake.
However dining in Parma with my cousin, sbrisolona was served with an alcohol infused zabaglione. I can think of nothing more delicious to end a wonderful Italian meal. If you are look for a good zabaglione recipe, check out my Tiramisu.
Whether drizzled with grappa, dunked in zabaglione or snacked on with a cup of tea, this Torta Sbrisolona, an Italian Crumble cake, is bound to become a firm favourite!
This updated recipe was first published 17 August 2010
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Italian Crumble Cake (Torta Sbrisolona)
- 3/4 cup almonds plus more for decorating
- 2 1/3 cup plain (all purpose) flour
- 1/3 cup polenta or cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon fine salt
- 150 g (5oz) unsalted butter room temperature
- 3/4 cup castor (superfine) sugar
- 5 teaspoons sunflower oil
- 1 teaspoon anise oil OR 1 lemon zest grated
- Grease two 20cm spring form pans.
- Chop almonds coarsely, uneven pieces are fine. Set aside.
- Combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt.
- Rub in the soft butter until the mixture is crumbly.
- Stir through sugar and almonds then add the oil and anise oil (or lemon zest, if using)
- Divide and spoon into the two prepared pans and press down with your fingertips – just a little but not too much. It is meant to be rough and crumbly not pressed flat and too firmly.
- Scatter extra almonds over and press in slightly.
- Bake at 160ºC/320ºF for 45 minutes.
- First, it is important to note that this “cake” is not a cake in the traditional sense. Instead think of it more as a large cookie and you will not be confused. Don’t expect this cake to rise – it should not be much more than 12mm or 1/2 inch high.
- The next most important thing to remember is not to press the mixture down firmly in the baking pan. Just press lightly with your fingertips, allowing the surface to still be rough and crumbly.