An Italian baker determined to develop the ultimate flourless chocolate cake more than a century ago found his answer not in chocolate, but in nuts. And the bakery he founded has been serving it up ever since, while somehow managing to keep the recipe secret.

Many imitators have tried and failed to copy the iconic, brownie-like dessert created by Eugenio Gollini and served since 1886 at his namesake Pasticceria Gollini in the small medieval town of Vignola, Italy.

As the origin story goes, Gollini was consumed with creating the ultimate chocolate cake. He performed experiment after experiment, enlisting friends and customers to take part in his taste tests. Eventually, he landed on a version that relied on an unusual ingredient—ground peanuts, or peanut “flour”—to give the cake its tender crumb.

Certain he’d perfected his creation, he dubbed it “torta nera” (or black cake) in reference to its deep, dark chocolate intensity. Later, in an outburst of hometown pride, Gollini rechristened the cake “torta Barozzi”—a nod to Vignola’s famed native son, Renaissance architect Jacopo Barozzi, whose name is synonymous with ornate basilicas and lavish villas. With that, Gollini fused one local legend with another: his own.

Torta Barozzi proved wildly popular. But its success also spawned a plethora of copycats. In response, the family officially trademarked it around 1948. And while they have been able to keep the recipe under wraps, admirers continue to create their own. Intrigued, we decided to take a crack at it ourselves.

Barozzi 12
Barozzi 12

To achieve a dessert as lusciously chocolatey as torta Barozzi, we first took a page from Gollini’s playbook and embarked on some methodical testing of our own. We surveyed half a dozen recipes that attempt to recreate the flourless chocolate cake. All of them had a few select components in common: peanut flour, almond flour, butter, eggs, sugar, espresso powder, rum and (of course) chocolate. And after many tests, the version we liked best used all of these ingredients— except one.

Surprisingly, we found that peanut flour, one of the most distinctive ingredients of the original Gollini torta (and an ingredient that can be difficult to source in the U.S.), could be omitted without sacrificing flavor or texture. Instead, we found that using almond flour alone gave us an equally flavorful and moist cake.

For maximum chocolate effect, we opted for both melted bitter-sweet chocolate and cocoa powder (along with a touch of espresso powder to further boost the chocolate notes). Here, it’s important to use Dutch-processed cocoa powder, which is made from alkalized cocoa beans. The resulting cocoa powder not only has a mellower taste and incorporates more easily into liquids, it’s also darker, the better to give our cake its classic “nera” appearance.

We also found that it was crucial to separate the eggs and whip the whites into soft peaks before adding them to the chocolate batter, which injected a little extra airiness into what could otherwise be a very dense cake. In the end, our quest led us to a cake that may not be true torta Barozzi, but is deliciously decadent all the same.