I seem to be going through a phase and it’s all about cake. Walk into my kitchen and there are cakes in various stages of doneness and eatenness. Layers waiting for frosting. Frosting waiting for layers. Half cakes waiting to be given to neighbors. Whole cakes waiting for someone to take the last slice. We’re all so polite that we shave off nibbles, leaving some for the next person. Or maybe none of us wants to take the last slice and then have to wash the plate. Altruism or avoidance? Happen in your house?
Usually, if there’s an abundance of cakes in the house, it’s because I’m testing new recipes. These past few weeks, the cakes turned up because they’re what I wanted to bake, share and eat. I made the Brown Butter Snickerdoodle Cake because I fell in love with the brown-sugar-cinnamon swirl that meandered through the big cake and baked to a smile. I made the Devil’s Food Party Cake because I fell in love with my son even before he was born and wanted him to have his favorite dessert on his birthday.
And now there’s this almond cake. I made it to celebrate spring, to have it ready to give as a gift to friends for Passover this week and because, as plain as it is, I find it both irresistible and fascinating. For reasons that must have more to do with magic than baking science, this five-ingredient, naturally gluten-free cake tastes complex and bakes to a texture that you’d think you’d have to fiddle with to get just so. If I hadn’t already named a recipe The Everything Cake, it’s what I’d christen this beauty.
CAKEDOM’S LITTLE PLEASER
At its heart, this is a European nut torte, a one-layer cake that gets its rise from egg whites, not baking powder. It doesn’t have butter or oil and is naturally gluten-free – I’m guessing that cakes like this were enjoyed long before anyone used that tag. I make it with almond flour, but it’s good with hazelnut, pecan or pistachio flour. Since there’s almost nothing that masks the flavor of the nut, if you love the nut, you’ll love the cake, so choose your favorite.
Since the cake is intrinsically delicious, it can be served without fuss. My French friends would bring it to the table with nothing more than a dusting of sugar and maybe a dollop of crème fraîche or lightly whipped cream. But because it bakes up so beautifully – it rises evenly and fully and has a texture that’s delectably light and chewy – you can slice it in half and have fun deciding on a good filling. And topping. I love it as a shortcake with abundant cream and lots of berries. Swipe the middle layer with jam or curd before going big on whipped cream and berries. Or don’t. It’s your cake. It’s your party.
And it’s your chance to tinker with the flavor, too. There are plenty of suggestions in the recipe’s Playing Around section, just scroll down. The list is long, but not exhaustive. Let me know how you play with it.
Bake and play and come back on Friday for another really good springtime recipe. And for those of you celebrating, I wish you a sweet Passover.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
The eggs: Eggs separate most easily when they’re cold, but egg whites beat to their fullest volume when they’re warm. So, separate the eggs before you do anything else.
The pan: Because the cake rises so nicely, you need a 9-inch round pan with sides that are at least 1 1/2 inches high; 2 inches is better. If you’re in the market for new cake pans, look for pans with taller sides.
Buttering the pan: Make sure to butter the pan generously and to dust it with flour evenly – you risk a tad of stick otherwise. I’ve never used bakers’ spray (a mix of oil and flour) for this cake, but I think it would work. If you use it, let me know how it goes.
The almond (or other nut) flour: Over the weekend, I made the cake with Bob’s Red Mill Almond Flour and Kirkland Brand almond flour from Costco – both cakes were great. I usually buy almond flour made from blanched (skinned) almonds, but if you find an almond flour made with unskinned almonds use it – the dark color from the skin is an interesting addition.
5 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of fine sea salt
2 cups (200 grams) almond flour (or an equal amount of another nut flour)
To finish (optional)
Whipped cream, berries, jam, toasted almonds, confectioners’ sugar (see PLAYING AROUND)
Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F. Generously butter a 9-inch round cake pan – it needs to be at least 1 1/2 inches high, but 2 inches would be better – or a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper, butter the paper and then dust the pan with flour and tap out the excess. For a gluten-free or Passover cake, dust the pan with gluten-free or almond flour.
Put the egg yolks in a large mixing bowl and put the whites in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a bowl that’s large enough for you to beat them with a handheld mixer. Put 3 tablespoons of the sugar in a small bowl; set aside.
Working with a whisk, beat the yolks and all but the set-aside sugar together until the mixture thickens slightly and the yolks look a little more pale. Whisk in the vanilla.
If you’re using a stand mixer for the whites, fit it with the whisk attachment. No matter which mixer you’re using, add a pinch of salt to the whites and beat them on medium speed until they’re opaque, about 1 minute. Still whipping, sprinkle in the reserved sugar and beat until the whites hold medium peaks. You want the whites to be supple rather than stiff.
Give the yolks another whisking, then grab a flexible spatula and use it to stir about a quarter of the whites into the yolks. You’re mixing in the whites to lighten the yolks, so you don’t need to be gentle. Scrape the rest of the whites into the bowl and then spoon over about half of the almond flour. Switch into gentle-mode and start folding everything together. You want to use a light touch and you don’t want to be thorough – partially blended is good here.
Spoon over the rest of the almond flour and continue to fold until you have a light, homogeneous batter. Pour and scrape it into the pan and shimmy the pan to settle and level the top.
Bake the cake for 33 to 38 minutes, or until it is golden brown and just starts to pull away from the sides of the pan. It will feel springy to the touch. Transfer to a cooling rack and let the cake rest for 5 minutes before running a table knife around the edges of the pan. Turn the cake out onto the rack, peel away the paper and then invert onto another rack. Let the cake come to room temperature right-side up.
When the cake is cool, decide if and how you’d like to finish it – see PLAYING AROUND
STORING: Wrapped well, the (undecorated) cake will keep for about 5 days at room temperature. It may get a bit denser, but it won’t get less delicious. It can be frozen for up to 1 month; defrost still in the wrapper.
SPICE CAKE: You could add a little spice to the cake – anything that goes with almond will work. Nutmeg would be nice, cinnamon or cardamom or even sumac. Whatever you use, use just a bit – you want to augment, not bury the almond flavor.
ZEST CAKE: Either orange or lemon zest would be a good addition here. Remove the 3 tablespoons of sugar that you’re going to use with the whites, then grate the zest of 1/2 orange or 1 small lemon over the remaining sugar. Use your fingertips to smush the zest into the sugar.
JAM or CURD CAKE: Slice the cake in half and fill it with a layer of jam or curd (you can use storebought, but here’s a recipe for a lovely homemade curd). Finish the top with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar or some whipped cream and maybe a smattering of toasted sliced almonds or berries.
SHORTCAKE: Slice the cake in half and fill it with jam or curd and/or a layer of whipped cream. If you’d like, you can add some sliced berries to this layer - I did. Top the cake with cream and finish with berries and, if you’ve got them, some toasted almonds.