It’s been busy at our house lately. The kids are finally getting settled in school and it would make sense for me to have some extra time on my hands. Somehow every hour get’s filled with this and that and I find myself carving out time for things that I’d promised I’d do. I committed to pulling together a wedding dinner for 100+ in October. The wedding will be held at the gorgeous Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, CA. I loosely made the suggestion that they have their wedding there and I’m so glad they decided to go for it. The farm will be a wonderful backdrop to the gorgeous, rustic wedding they are planning and I’m so glad that I can contribute with a delicious meal to match. The menu quickly came together. I created some wonderful savory dishes. Simple yet sophisticated and I plan on writing more on that in a future post. We had a tasting and the vote was unanimously delicious. When it came to the cakes, I had to put in the most effort. This was not surprising to me. Pastry is, not always but often, more of a challenge to develop. At the tasting last week we tried the second round of almond cake. It was good but needed something. The first round was too dense and short. Yummy but more like a coffee cake or pound cake. The second was very light but too eggy and deflated. It made us think of clafoutis, the groom’s favorite dessert, a french egg heavy dessert somewhere between cake and custard. Not a bad thing but not quite what I was going for. It was almost like a dutch baby pancake with sliced almonds on top. Perhaps I’ll keep that recipe for a brunch in the future. The third was perfect. Light, high and soft. BINGO! EURIKA! Or as the bride put it in a text message late last night: The cake is BOMB!
I had a few requirements to meet for this cake. French Almond Cake is a favorite of the bride but she’s lactose intolerant and they aren’t big “cake people”. So I did away with my visions of a classic iced wedding cake and begun to comb the internet for some ideas. I knew I wanted a soft, light and moist cake that could stand on it’s own. One of my favorite ways to achieve this is to use sour cream, creme fraiche, buttermilk, yogurt or milk but that might be tricky here. The dairy brings a softness and if it’s cultured a complexity of flavor. The bride later told me that she could have Kefir which is a lactose free cultured milk, thicker than milk but less thick than yogurt. Hallelujah! Perfect! So I picked up this one feeling fairly confident that it would function in a similar way as the other ingredients. I found 3-5 recipes that seemed viable and began to chip away at their structure, volume and technique. Some recipes you find online can be much more complex than necessary in their methods. I like to write simple recipes if at all possible. The one I’m sharing here is NOT a one bowl mix job but I tried to simplify how the ingredients come together so that anyone who can make head and tails of a whisk will be sinking their teeth into a perfect cloud of almond cake in the not so distant future. In other words, I try to idiot proof for the best possible outcome.
Over the years I’ve become accustomed to the structure of a pastry recipe. I can usually catch it if “that’s too many eggs” or, “wow that’s a lot of baking soda, that can’t be right!”, or “is it really necessary to sift the flour 3 times?”. This takes years of trial and error. Ahem! Lot’s of error. The thing that sets pastry development apart from savory development is that pastry is more like science. Sometimes a lot of accuracy is needed or you’ll end up with a total flop. Increase the butter by 2 tablespoons and you’ll notice the texture change, leave out the salt and the flavor disappears, skimp on the sugar and you’ll not increased dryness. Sometimes you can fudge and blur the lines a bit and get away with it but it’s usually safer to stick to the recipe. I’ve pushed the envelope so many times so give me your hand and I will lead you through the woods to this lovely miracle of an almond cake..
Here are a few tips when making this cake or any cake. When separating the eggs, use a clean bowl and clean hands. Any grease or grime that makes contact with the whites will trump you chances at soft white peaks. Having all ingredients at room temperature, unless otherwise noted, makes a big difference. Particularly in this recipe, when mixing the melted butter with the kefir it will become lumpy if the kefir is cold. Sifting matters when it comes to cake flour or pastry flour. Cake and pastry flour are low in protein which is what makes them so tender but also makes lumps. Sifting once or twice should be sufficient. A third time is just for fun. When measuring dry ingredients work over a piece of parchment paper. Anything that spills over the sides you can easily pour back with the rest by picking up the paper and funneling it down. Always pour or scoop your dry ingredients. Never shake them or tamp them down unless noted. You can tap once or twice with a straight edge and then scrape off what is left on the top. Try not to over mix when any glutenous flour is involved except for when making bread. When you over mix the batter will become tough. Try to mix just enough so that everything is incorporated. Always bake in the middle of the oven and turn your cake 180 degrees half way through. Unless your oven is totally magic an unicorns live in there, I bet it has a hot spot so it’s always good to check. Lastly, have fun, chill out and let some kids help. They love to count and are good at measuring.
Almond Cake For Carolyn
3 eggs, separated
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon butter, melted plus more for pan
1 cup whole milk kefir, room temperature if not a little warm (Can’t find kefir? Try using buttermilk. Let me know how it turns out.)
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 1/4 cup cake or pastry flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sliced almonds
powdered sugar for dusting
Set your oven to 350F. Butter a 9 inch spring form pan, line the bottom with parchment, flip it over so it’s buttered on both sides and then dust with flour (idiot proof method, leave out the flour if you want to live dangerously).
Mix the melted butter, kefir and almond extract in a small bowl and set aside.
Sift the flour 1-3 times with 3/4 cup of sugar, baking powder and salt and set aside.
Using a whisk, beat the whites either by hand (bonus exercise!) or with an electric mixer, once they become foamy add 1/2 cup of the sugar slowly, a tablespoon at at time. Continue to whip until you have soft peaks.
Using a whisk, beat the yolks with 1/4 cup sugar until they are light in color and a little fluffy.
Using a rubber spatula fold/mix the yolks into the kefir mixture.
Continue by folding the dry ingredients into the wet making sure not to over mix.
Gently fold the whites into the rest of the ingredients all at once (if you know the 1/3, 2/3 method, forget about it this time, it’s not worth it). Continue folding, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl until just evenly mixed.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and sprinkle the sliced almonds on top evenly.
Bake for 35-45 minutes or until golden brown, the wiggle in the middle is just gone and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 1 hour, remove the ring and gently loosen and slide the cake free of the pan. Dust with powdered sugar and serve. I also like to drizzle with honey or offer a side of home made plum jam.