I was going to be hardcore this week. I had a kickass recipe lined up, involving chicken and orange-harissa glaze and maybe even dandelion greens. It looked delicious. It was delicious. But when I sat down to write, I couldn’t stop thinking about my almond cake.
This happened for many reasons. I think I‘ve made how I feel about baking pretty clear. A love affair, life long, etc? Also, there were also no less than three birthdays to be celebrated this week. And, as usual, I was craving things from our expanding bakery section at Paris Grocery. Among our recent acquisition were almond meal, a second brand of rose water, and a cookbook called Warm Bread and Honey Cake. (Doesn’t that title make you want to get up and bake, right now?)
Though not from that collection, this almond-rose cake embodies the same distilled warmth. Simple and tender, it’s the recipe I wanted to share with you this week.
I usually make this cake with fruit on top, pear or apricot. But I once had a recipe for baklava that I loved. Hardcore. I was so nuts about it that I twice chopped and pounded a Ziploc full of almonds with a rolling pin until they were cracked enough to resemble coarsely ground almonds. (And if you’ve never tried to chop whole almonds, let me tell you, it is rough.) It was a baklava unlike the ones I’d eaten at Greek restaurants, puffy and honey-drenched. This one had a thin, crisp crust and was sweetened with simple syrup, rose water, and a touch of cardamom. I learned this was a more Middle Eastern style; it certainly resembled the baklava that Sam and I would buy at the marché biologique Sunday mornings in Toulouse. The table, manned by eager gentlemen who called out cousine, cousine as I walked toward it, dipped under the weight of oblong trays stacked with an array of baklava: almond, walnut, pistachio.
I lost the recipe in a pile of moving boxes a few weeks after I made it for the second time, and never found it again. Clearly, I haven’t been able to move on. I wanted to recreate the flavors in soft, spongy cake version that wouldn’t require meticulous assembly and chopping. I needed two cakes, so I topped one with sliced almonds and threw pine nuts on the other at the last minute. Pine nuts are just too cute to pass up sometimes. I skipped the cardamom and flavored it only with rose water, feeling that with the spice it would taste more like a fall cake, putting you in the mood to hibernate, than a nymph-like birthday cake for spring.
I may never go back to the fruit version again. The cakes were heavenly with just nuts and rose water. I was surprised at how much I liked the one with pine nuts; I thought they would be distracting. The almond meal flavor did get a bit lost in there, but the pine nuts were plump and crisp with the sugar on top of the cake, buttery and bringing out the rose flavor at the end. I would probably use pine nuts again if I left out the almond meal and made it with just wheat flour. Both were rich and fluffy, not at all like baklava but just as alluring, with the rose aroma weaving through the background. Floral, soft, and something you should get up and bake, right now.
Almond Rose Torte
Inspired by Molly Wizenberg’s Almond Torte with Sugared Apricots
1/3 cup almond meal
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
Pinch of salt
8 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature*
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp rose water
1/3 cup sliced almonds (or whole pine nuts)
1 tbsp granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 350F. Line the bottom of an 8½“ (ideally) spring form pan with parchment paper. Do no grease the pan, as the batter is quite thick and needs traction to rise.
Sift together dry ingredients, minus the sugar. In a separate bowl beat the butter until fluffy and creamy, at least three minutes (count ‘em!), then add the sugar, eggs and rose water.
With the electric beater, mix in the flour mixture until just combined. Transfer to cake pan and smooth out the batter. Scatter the nuts evenly over the surface of the cake. Then sprinkle the sugar over everything. (I like a little under one tablespoon. You may like a little more. It’s all ok.)
Bake for 45 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean and edges are a crispy golden brown. If you don’t have a spring form pan, the cake will be virtually impossible to remove whole from the pan, you’ll have to serve it from the pan. Cover it in plastic wrap, and it will keep for at least a week.
*A quick word on butter: “room temperature” is a deceptive term. 65F is the ideal temperature for creaming butter for baked goods. Most kitchens are warmer than that, and the notation “butter at room temperature” can make it sound as if the whole stick is supposed to get soft right to the core. It doesn’t take long for butter to reach 65F. The best way to handle it is by cutting each stick into three cubes, and when the butter is still cold, but can be imprinted when you press your finger against it, start beating. Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to see what would happen if I let the butter get soft to “normal” room temperature. Though it shaved a few minutes off of the mixing time, the cake lacked in structure, sinking a bit in the middle and being more crumbly than usual. When butter becomes too soft, it can’t hold the pockets of air that the beating is supposed to work in, and the result is flat, if not sagging, pastries that brown too quickly.