Spongata is a flat round cake made with a thin, crunchy pastry dough, covered with powdered sugar. It has a soft, light-brown filling with a very pronounced, spiced flavor.
The original recipe was first written down at the end of the 14th century and requires three days to complete. The cake is made of toasted bread, amaretti cookies, walnuts, honey, sugar, pine nuts, raisins, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange peel and white wine. Its name comes from the Italian word for spunge, or spugna, referring to the consistency of the filling, the small holes on the outside and the sugar coating.
Some people believe that spongata was brought to Italy by the Jews, while others suggest that it is a Roman dish that was kept alive during the Middle Ages thanks to the tradition of panes melati ac pepati, or spiced, honey breads. The ducal family of Este regulated the production of spongata by a special decree.
Spongata is made in and around Reggio Emilia and Brescello. It is also produced in the provinces that border Parma, including Busseto, Corniglio, Berceto, Cassio, Piacenza and Modena. Traditionally, it can also be found in Pontremoli, in the Valle del Magra , and in Sarzana. In Busseto, spognata has particular historical importance. While Giuseppe Verdi was composing Don Carlos, he would visit the Antica Pasticceria Muggia, founded in 1867.
The pastry shop served a special dessert made of pastry dough, filled with honey, almonds, pine nuts, candied fruit, citron and raisins. Verdi thought the cake was a masterpiece and the spognata became the official dessert of Busseto. In Brescello, a small city near Reggio Emilia, spongata was first documented in 1454 and the following year a cake was sent to the duke of Borso d’Este. Thanks to priest don Palazzi, the ancient recipe for the real Spongata di Brescello was rediscovered in 1830 and given to Panizzi, a spice vendor. Since 1863, Spongata di Brescello has been associated with Luigi Benelli, who commercialized production of this regional specialty.
In the past, spongata was made during the winter, beginning on All Saint’s Day, or November 2nd. The cake was stored in special containers. Today, it is available year round and you can even find a chocolate version.