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On Italy's Feminist Holiday, Women Have Their Cake And Eat It, Too

Mimosa cake is made of layers of sponge cake brushed with citrus liqueur and liberally spread with pastry cream, then topped with small cubes of even more sponge cake that are meant to mimic the small blooms of the mimosa flower. It's the taste of the Festa della Donna, an Italian holiday when women of all ages leave the menfolk behind to celebrate each other.

Today, for American women who are participating in A Day Without A Woman protest, the idea of taking a day off to celebrate their womanhood may be a new experience, despite the fact that International Women's Day has been observed worldwide for over a century. Leave it to Italian feminists, however, to take a holiday that is steeped in the struggle for women's rights and turn it into a day, the Festa della Donna, where women of all ages leave the menfolk behind to celebrate each other with flowers, wine and, above all, cake.

The torta mimosa is not just any cake. It's an airy confection designed to resemble the tiny, bright yellow mimosa flowers that dot the Italian landscape in early March, typically the first flowers to bloom each spring. Bouquets of the flowers are sold on nearly every street corner across Italy on March 8th, to be clutched in the hands of small boys who give them to their teachers, as well as sons to mothers, brothers to sisters, and husbands to wives. (Of course, women can and do buy bouquets for each other, too.)

As evening approaches, women clad in yellow head out on the town together in droves to eat, drink, and be merry at restaurants offering special discounts for female diners. Mimosa-themed food in shades of yellow dominates the menus of local trattorias, from mimosa eggs, the ancient Roman version of what Americans know as deviled eggs, to tagliatelle mimosa, fresh spinach pasta dotted with tiny saffron-infused balls made of fish and breadcrumbs.

The menu may vary from one locale to another, but the torta mimosa reigns supreme as the official dessert of the day across the country. Layers of sponge cake are brushed with citrus liqueur, usually tart limoncello or bitter orange Cointreau, then liberally spread with lemon-scented pastry cream and sometimes even dolloped with fresh lemon curd. The domed exterior of the cake is covered in small cubes of even more sponge cake, meant to mimic the small blooms of the mimosa flower, which are then dusted all over with confectioner's sugar.

If the torta mimosa sounds heavenly, that's because it is — and it tastes even better the next day as the flavors begin to meld.

Beyond the torta mimosa, food is a theme that comes up more than once in connection to International Women's Day. Perhaps that's no coincidence, considering that even in our modern society, 68 percent of women are still largely responsible for food preparation in the home. The holiday is rooted in the labor movement: Today actually marks the 100th anniversary of the "women's demonstration for bread and peace" in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1917, when women took to the streets to demand an end to World War I and the regime of Czar Nicholas II, but particularly against the rationing of bread and flour.

The strike of tens of thousands of female factory workers incensed by the food shortages of the war led in short order to the collapse of czarism, which was quickly replaced by a Communist government that not only gave women the right to vote, but also declared March 8th, International Women's Day, as an official holiday — although they didn't allow women to take the day off to celebrate. Women in other Communist societies around the world observed it as a non-working holiday for decades before Soviet women finally got the day off starting in 1965.

The Italian holiday became more popular in 1946, on the first March 8th following the end of World War II, when Italian feminists chose the mimosa flower as a symbol of sensitivity, strength and sensibility. For some women, la Festa della Donna continues to be a serious day of reflecting on the political, social and economic impact of women. This year, museums across Italy will offer free admission to women, with special exhibits highlighting female artists. For others, the day may be an excuse to leave the boys at home and dance the night away at the local discotheque with a gaggle of girlfriends.

But for every woman, there's cake.

There are several classic recipes for a torta mimosa, including this one by an Italian expat living in Australia, and even a vegan version made with homemade rice milk custard. If you're pressed for time, you can make a quick version with a store-bought vanilla pound cake brushed with citrus liqueur and layered with softly whipped cream sprinkled with fresh lemon zest, then topped with cubes of cake and a dusting of powdered sugar. Buona Festa della Donna!

Kristen Hartke is a food writer based in Washington, D.C.

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