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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    This almond cake is both simple and special

    I rarely mention sweets in this column because it’s primarily about interesting, adaptable and relatively easy dinner-appropriate recipes. But this week we’ve gone off script in honor of my one true love, pastry. To celebrate eating voraciously and as a special treat, I’m sharing one of my favorite cake recipes ever. It’s a one-bowl almond cake that comes together quickly, requires fewer than 10 ingredients and takes less than an hour to bake.

    It’s a recipe I learned when I worked in restaurant kitchens in college, and I have since adapted it to be buttery and nutty but not too sweet. I make it often, for fancy dinner parties or weekend snacking, birthdays or brunches. I was reminded of it earlier this year when I tasted a similar cake at the Duck and the Peach in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. That night, my friend and I went all in on pastry chef Rochelle Cooper’s desserts.

    This is a longtime habit of mine. Whenever I go out to dinner, there’s a good chance I’ll ask my dining companion to linger a little longer at the table with me so I can order the entire dessert menu. Sometimes I’ll do it when I’m dining alone, but it’s more fun to share. I love the drama of it, the glee, the way the server at first thinks I’m joking, the way a procession of plated desserts through a dining room causes other diners to turn their heads, the way the table looks when it’s covered in cakes, tarts, custards and all sorts of sweet pastry.

    This habit started in high school, continued through college and then cemented itself in my life when I went to pastry school and began working as a pastry chef in New York. My first pastry assistant job was at a Midtown restaurant that was known for its desserts. The chef and owner paid close attention to the pastry department. He (rightly!) believed that last impressions were important. When a table of his friends or investors or some other Very Important People came in to dine, he’d make sure they finished their meal with what he called a “Dessert Storm” — he would tell the server to order all of the desserts on the menu for that table and then, as the pastry department scrambled to plate everything, he’d flicker the lights in the kitchen on and off, mimicking a thunderstorm’s lightning.

    On an adrenaline high, I loved the rush of sending out so much dessert, loved peeking into the dining room to see the diners murmur and gush with delight as the plates landed on the table, loved watching their lips curl into smiles as they took a bite.

    At the next restaurant I worked at, the chef didn’t pay as much attention to dessert. He didn’t ask to taste our latest experiments or order rounds of dessert for his favorite tables. The servers preferred to sell cocktails and wine; dessert was an afterthought. What bummed me out the most was when I would be standing in front of my station, ready to plate dessert for the last few tables around midnight or 1 a.m., and a server would come into the kitchen to say the diners were too full for dessert. Crushed, I’d (often) have to toss all of my prep — the unbaked souffles, the freshly made pastry shells, the delicate cakes and cookies, the sauces, the ice cream and sorbet.

    That’s when I realized that ordering the whole dessert menu wasn’t just fun for me and my friends. It was also a way to support pastry chefs, their creativity and their labor. So, when you’re out to dinner, especially if it’s a special occasion, if you’re physically and financially able, don’t skip dessert. There’s probably a pastry cook in the back of the kitchen hoping against hope that you’ve saved some room.

    And the next time you’re in the mood for cake at home, give this almond cake recipe a try. Everyone I’ve ever made it for has loved it. Unlike a lot of almond cakes, it doesn’t sink in the center but stays evenly aloft after it cools. It needs no frosting, though you could turn it into a layer cake with vanilla buttercream and strawberry or peach jam filling. Its adaptability and plush density make it easy to love — and ensure it keeps well on your counter for a few days. A dollop of crème fraîche or whipped cream is nice on the side, though it’s not necessary. I love serving it simply with fresh, roasted, macerated or sauteed seasonal fruit.

    Almond Cake

    Active time: 15 minutes

    Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes

    10 to 12 servings (makes one 9- or 10-inch cake)

    This recipe will work with vegan butter, but I have not tested it with a vegan egg substitute.

    If you can’t find almond paste you can make it.

    I love this cake with fruit in every season: fresh citrus in the winter, lightly sugared berries in the spring, fresh or roasted stone fruit in the summer, and sauteed apples or pears in the fall.

    Ingredients

    16 tablespoons (2 sticks/226 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan

    7 ounces (198 grams) almond paste, at room temperature

    3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) granulated sugar

    1 teaspoon baking powder

    1/2 teaspoon almond extract

    1/4 teaspoon fine salt

    6 large eggs, at room temperature

    1-1/4 cups (155 grams) all-purpose flour, sifted

    Powdered sugar, for serving (optional)

    Fresh or cooked fruit, for serving (optional)

    Directions

    Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a 9- or 10-inch cake pan, line the bottom with parchment and lightly grease the parchment.

    In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or using a large bowl and a handheld mixer, beat the butter, almond paste, sugar, baking powder, almond extract and salt on medium speed until well combined and smooth, about 5 minutes.

    Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stop to scrape down the bowl a few times to ensure the batter is well combined. After you’ve added the last egg, scrape down the bowl again and beat the batter on medium speed for about 30 seconds. It will look slightly separated at this point, and that’s normal.

    If using a stand mixer, unlock the bowl. Using a silicone spatula, partially fold in the flour. Relock the bowl and mix on low speed just until the batter looks smooth, about 30 seconds.

    Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and, using a small offset spatula or butter knife, smooth the top. Bake for 40 to 55 minutes, or until the cake springs back when lightly pressed in the center and the top is deep golden brown. (It will take longer to bake if you use a 9-inch pan and less time in a 10-inch pan.)

    Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes, then invert the cake onto the rack, remove the parchment paper and turn right side up. Allow to cool about 20 more minutes, or until slightly warm. Serve immediately or at room temperature with powdered sugar and fresh or cooked fruit on top or on the side, if desired.

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