On the hutch in my dining room are framed wedding photos of my parents, grandparents, in-laws and grandparents-in-law. Oh, and me and my husband.

Cover courtesy of Hardie Grant

When we married, we had the photos arranged around our wedding cake with little notes about how they all met, how long they’d been married and something about them as a couple. We figured it was good karma for us since we both had grandparents alive and beyond their 60th wedding anniversaries.

Maybe that’s why I was so captivated by Emiko Davies’ book, “Tortellini at Midnight.” Although it’s a sumptuous cookbook full of classic Italian recipes from around her husband’s home country, Davies peppers it with old family photos and tales of those who created the recipes and their circumstances, bringing to life the people behind the dishes. Those tales trigger comforting memories of my own family’s traditional recipes and the stories behind them.

Davies has a Japanese mother and an Australian father, and has lived in China and the U.S. She uses her international point of view when describing some of the dishes and acknowledges that like her husband’s forebears, she adjusts some of the family recipes to suit her own tastes.

But overall, she presents Marco’s family’s traditional recipes from three regions of Italy where they settled — Taranto, Turin and Tuscany — as they’ve been handed down through the generations. Much of the book is dedicated to her husband’s great grandmother — Anna — the matriarch who learned to cook and set her own course for life by defying her patrician parents and choosing to marry Nicola, a common postman. Together they had nine children, including Mario, Emiko’s husband’s grandfather, who excelled at making desserts. His wife, Lina, reigned over the family kitchen from Marco’s birth to adulthood.

“Emiko is, like Nicola was, a messenger, posting stories and recipes by her family to hold and for us to walk side-by-side with,” Tessa Kiros wrote in the foreward.


The cookbook itself is a visual delight. There are old family photos and family stories scattered among the recipes reflecting Italy’s history through two world wars, extreme poverty and renaissance, as well as appealing photos of street scenes, bustling fish markets, bucolic olive groves and crumbling, ancient buildings juxtaposed with modern restaurants and cafés.

And of course the photography of the dishes throughout the book makes your mouth water. A bubbling pot of polpettes — Nonna Anna’s meatballs — simmering in a thick red sauce made me twitch for a hunk of crusty bread. You know the creators of this cookbook care about presentation when the edges of the pages are left ragged — a throwback to when deckled edges were common because bookmakers couldn’t afford the expense of hand trimming to make the pages even.

It is also laid out well. There’s a section on terminology, equipment, substitutions, measurements. But the bulk of the book is recipes from various branches of Davies’ husband’s family through the generations. The title, “Tortellini at Midnight,” reflects a family tradition started by her mother-in-law’s father, who owned a bar in Fucecchio in Tuscany. He made tortellini to serve with cheap spumante and a round of bingo at midnight on New Year’s Eve to welcome the new year.

It became a tradition among the bars in the region until the 1970s when house parties supplanted bar gatherings to ring in the new year.

A couple of small criticisms: Davies assumes a certain level of competence in the kitchen. In the cake I made, the instructions merely said “combine the butter, sugar, egg…,” but if you don’t know you should always cream the butter and sugar first and then add the other ingredients or you could end up with a gloppy mess.

Also, she offers measurements in metric and American options, but some of them don’t convert well and you must work to figure out the right portion. The recipe I chose — Torta di Mele di Angela e Panna — called for 200 grams or 7 ounces of butter. I’m accustomed to butter measured in cups or tablespoons, and did the math to convert to ounces and grams.


Which, of course, explains why this cake is so wonderful. Seven ounces of butter is nearly a cup, or two sticks, which for a one-layer cake, is incredibly rich, never mind the additional 5 tablespoons in the topping. The cake — translated as Angela’s Apple Cake with Cream — is to die for. The cake on the bottom is rich, dense and crumbly — a “support for all the apples that melt down into a surprisingly thin layer, topped with a veil of butter and sugar,” as Davies describes it.

I served it warm out of the oven with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. My husband and our neighbors, who all serve as my kitchen testers, swooned. I’m sure generations of my family bakers — eyeing me from their respective frames as I served the cake — would have as well.

EDITOR’S NOTE: After we published this review, we got a friendly note from cookbook author Emiko Davies. She wanted us to know — she wanted readers to know — that her apple cake recipe, published below, works perfectly without creaming the butter and the sugar first. She wrote, “…in this particular dessert, the combining of the butter, sugar and egg, flour, baking powder, lemon zest and juice is intentionally all together — you just throw it in a bowl and mix in one go! It is part of why I love this recipe, it’s so simple and unfussy.”

Angela’s Apple Cake with Cream

Serves 8

250 ml (8-1/2 fluid ounces or 1 cup) freshly whipped cream, to serve



200 grams (7 oz.) butter, softened, plus extra for greasing

60 grams (2 oz.) sugar

1 egg

150 grams (5-1/2 oz. or 1 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour

2 teaspoons baking powder


Zest and juice of 1 lemon


650 grams (1 lb 7 oz.) (about 4) apples, peeled and sliced

Splash of brandy or rum


80 grams (2-3/4 oz.) butter, softened


80 grams (2-3/4 oz. or  1/3 cup) sugar

50 grams (1-3/4 oz. or 1/3 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease and line a 20-cm (8-inch) round cake tin (I used a 9-inch pan and, strangely, had to increase the baking time by 12-15 minutes).

For the cake, combine the butter, sugar, egg, flour, baking powder, lemon zest and juice and a pinch of salt until creamy. Press into the prepared cake tin. Layer over the apple slices and sprinkle them with brandy or rum (I used rum).

For the topping, rub or mix together the butter, sugar and flour in a bowl. Top the apples with this mixture and place in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the apples have cooked down and become tender.

Allow to cool (or eat warm, the author’s preference) and serve with some softly whipped cream.

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