06/07/12 • NUTS FOR CAKE!
From the June, 2012 Food and Wine (click here to view the recipe)
Several weeks ago I was on the phone with my friend Scott when he announced, “I love cake!” The comment wasn’t completely out of the blue—I’m sure we were discussing something food-related—but the spontaneous quality of the statement took me by surprise and I immediately burst out laughing (before scribbling the phrase on a Post-it note and slapping it above my desk, where it still hangs today). Because with this one simple phrase I was returned to my eight-year old self, mouth stuffed with cake, face smeared with chocolate icing, mind consumed with the pressing question of whether a second slice was in my future. And that’s the magic of cake. Other foods may hold associations with the power to transport us to other times or places in our lives, but nothing can rocket us back to childhood quite the way a slice of cake can. Which is, perhaps, why a good cake recipe is invariably the first thing to stop me in my journey through a cookbook or cooking magazine, and why an accompanying photo of any quality can propel me directly to the kitchen.
That’s pretty much what happened with the recipe I bring to you here. It comes from the June issue of Food and Wine (or more precisely, from pastry chef Jessica Hicks, of Detroit’s Astro Coffee, who supplied the magazine with the recipe), and while it’s a cake that’s decidedly more adult than the icing-slathered variety of my childhood memory, it still exerts the same seductive pull of that earlier version. At least it did for me, a response I credit with the presence of four key ingredients, namely whole almonds, polenta, lemons, and crème fraîche. So no chocolate, and no butter cream, but rather grownup flavors for a grownup cake that’s both lighter, and brighter, than the kind that got my eight-year old heart racing.
It also has a hint of crunch, something I probably wouldn’t have appreciated forty years ago, but that here proves a welcome addition to the mix. That characteristic is a direct result of the almonds and polenta mentioned above. The first (raw and unsalted) are briefly roasted in a 350 degree oven, then roughly chopped, and ultimately pulsed in a food processor until finely ground—homemade almond flour, if you will, that’s both nuttier and less texturally consistent than what you might find at the market. Together with the half-cup of instant polenta, they imbue the cake’s loose crumb with a pleasantly rustic quality, reminiscent of a really good corn muffin—the kind whose texture announces it hasn’t been made from a bunch of overly processed ingredients.
Since the polenta is key to achieving this quality, and since the “instant polenta” called for by the recipe lead to some head scratching on my part, a few words about the ingredient are probably in order. First, what exactly, is polenta? That one proved easy: cornmeal—typically a coarsely ground yellow variety, though white, and a finer grind, are also acceptable.
The second, and more complex question was how to tell instant polenta from the standard type. The obvious answer to this is language that says as much on the packaging. In other words, if you’re lucky enough to locate a dry variety (and those salami-shaped tubes of wet polenta are not what you want here), and it’s emblazoned with language that says, “instant” or some such, you know your search is over. My efforts, however, were complicated by the fact that neither the variety I had in my pantry (Bob’s Red Mill, which I recommend), nor any of the other brands I found on the shelf at my local grocery, offered this degree of detail. What the Red Mill package did tell me, however, was that its contents only required about five minutes (mixed with water or broth) at medium heat on the stovetop. Compared to the forty-five minutes listed in the standard cooking instructions I found online, I could only assume that this meant that what I had on hand was, in fact, “instant.” So to recap: five minutes or less means instant; thirty minutes or more means standard. (Phew, glad we cleared that up!).
In any case, the almonds and cornmeal are joined by a variety of standard issue dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, a small amount of salt) before two other guest stars make their appearance, namely a teaspoon of minced rosemary and the zest of one lemon—items that bring a subtle zing to the finished product. And into all this is folded a decadent-looking combination of eggs, sugar, crème fraîche, and a stick of melted butter, a mixture that looks something like marshmallow cream but that tastes about 100 times better (yes, such a thing is possible). It also bears mentioning that this wet mixture is assembled by first whipping the eggs and sugar in a standing mixer for ten minutes (a process that sees it triple magically—and delectably—in volume), before the sugar and the cooled, melted butter are introduced. And as you want to make sure that all these good things are fully integrated with the dry ingredients while not losing any of the air the mixing process has introduced, the recipe suggests folding the wet into the dry in three separate batches—advice you definitely want to heed. In any case, once fully incorporated, the mixture is poured into a buttered springform pan and slipped into a 350-degree oven.
I should note here, however, that the instructions call for an 11-inch pan, which I neither had nor could locate (making me think it’s more of a professional baker’s size than one that the average home chef is likely to find or have on-hand). Either way, I went with my 9-inch pan, and though my cake was higher than the relatively low-lying version presented in the magazine, and required roughly fifteen minutes more than the 25 minutes called for in the recipe, it was still springy, moist, and delicious. So feel free to play around with the size of the cake according to what equipment you have on hand, but at the 25-minute mark do be sure to start testing it for doneness—a point you’ll know you have reached when the top is firm and bronzed, and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
Still with me? Just two more small steps to go and we’re there! The first involves the making of the syrup, which is nothing more than a combination of water, sugar, and lemon juice, reduced at a boil for five minutes, then allowed to cool completely before being poured across the top of the cake. Aside from the obvious flavor boost the combo delivers (lemon no less!), this move has the added benefit of binding together the cake’s relatively loose crumb, while also adding some all-important moisture to each slice—key, as any dessert lover knows, to any successful cake eating experience. And, once the syrup-drenched cake has cooled completely (an hour or so should do it), and the bottom and sides of the pan have been removed, the cake’s crowning glory can be added—a simple glaze of (more) crème fraîche, (more) lemon juice, and a quantity of confectioners’ sugar, whisked together until smooth and slathered across the cake’s golden brown surface. Allow five minutes or so for things to harden up, and dig in!
One of the miraculous things about this confection is the way the tart/sour quality of the topping plays off the sweetness of the cake itself—a quality due, in large part, to that lemon flavored syrup. Factor in the cake’s nutty, rustic texture and you have something truly inspired. It’s a grown up sort of sweet to be sure, but one that still reminds why we fell in love with cake in the first place.
Ingredients for the cake:
—1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for the pan
—1 cup unsalted raw almonds
—1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
—1/2 cup instant polenta
—1 tbs baking powder
—1 tsp minced rosemary
—Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
—1/2 tsp salt
—4 large eggs, at room temperature
—1/2 cup granulated sugar
—3/4 cup crème fraîche
Ingredients for the syrup:
—1/2 tsp salt
—1/2 cup granulated sugar
—1 tbs fresh lemon juice
Ingredients for the glaze:
—1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
—1/4 cup crème fraîche
—1 tbs fresh lemon juice
—An 11” springform pan
TRG note: I used a 9” pan, producing a higher cake that required an additional 15 minutes in the oven.
—Preheat the oven to 350˚. Butter an 11” springform pan.
—Spread the almonds on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 4 minutes, until they are slightly fragrant. Let the almonds cool completely, then coarsely chop them. In a food processor, pulse the almonds until they are finely ground but not pasty.
—In a large bowl, whisk together the ground almonds, flour, polenta, baking powder, rosemary, lemon zest, and salt. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the whisk, combine the eggs and sugar and beat at medium-high speed until tripled in volume, 10 minutes. With the mixer at low speed, add the crème fraîche, then drizzle in the melted butter just until incorporated. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg mixture into the dry ingredients in 3 batches. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
—In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar, and lemon juice and boil for 5 minutes. Let cool.
—Set the hot cake on a rimmed baking sheet and pour the hot syrup evenly over it. Let the cake cool completely. Remove the side and bottom of the pan and transfer the almond cake to a platter.
—In a medium bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, crème fraîche, and lemon juice until smooth. Spread the glaze over the top of the cake. Let stand until the glaze sets slightly, then cut into wedges and serve.