on almonds and excess
Almonds are fickle little critters indeed.
During my daily eating routine, they rarely demand any time in the limelight. Of course, coaxed into boldness via the toaster oven, they make a splendidly crunchy cap for my morning bowl of oats or a warm salad of sorts, and I always have some lying around for just such purposes. But as far as snack foods are concerned, I’m much more likely to root around the fridge for a nubbin of something ripe and stinky, or carve into a just-this-side-of-ripe avocado, a flurry of salt scattered atop, rather than munch on a handful of almonds. Something about the concept seems almost too diet-esque for my taste, redolent of counting out twelve specimens and toting them about in a little plastic baggy until a predetermined time for nibble. Also, they squeak unpleasantly in my teeth and leave me flapping about, in desperate need of floss. A pleasant afternoon munch should never leave one pining for a visit to the dentist for a deep clean.
That being said, I am certainly not one to deny that almonds, dressed up with a sugar sash, can be seductive indeed. Exhibit A: the farmer’s market. Chris and I arrived bright-eyed, bushy tailed, and ravenous at just before 9am this past Sunday morning, a day that dawned sweetly spring-like, warm, chirpy, and delightful. Our plan: beeline to my favorite, insanely popular French pastry stand, select one baked good to rationally share as we perused the market, spend a reasonably small sum of money on a modest amount of produce to last us the week, and calmly return home.
Well, as you might imagine, our plan did not proceed as smoothly as hoped, although I can’t say we were disappointed with the outcome. Upon arrival, we discovered that in fact, the market opened at 10am and wouldn’t open earlier until April. Coffee procured, and a lap around the market later, we joined the line, already thirty-deep, at the aforementioned baker extraordinaire, and patiently waited the forty-five more minutes for the bells to chime.
So famished were we, that by the time we squeezed our way through the sun-maddened throngs back to the car, we had acquired the following, in addition to vegetables: one tub each ricotta and smoked mozzarella, one loaf of kalamata olive bread, two chocolate chip cookies, one oatmeal cookie, one peanut butter cookie, one pint of pear gelato, one apple tart, and to end the spectacular mess, one ridiculous, powdered-sugar swathed almond croissant that I ate in the car on the way home, showering the interior with a fine white dust.
It’s quite obvious that we cannot be trusted.
Now, I’m sorry to report that I don’t have the recipe for that fine, fine almond croissant. But I may have something even better, and slightly less sweat-inducingly rich. In fact, it’s what piqued my interest in said croissant and prompted me to pass over my usual apple turnover. The week after the great kitchen drought of 2010, feeling sorry for myself and out of sorts, I decided that what I really wanted was some cake, even though I had run out of both butter and baking chocolate. Flipping through a Marcella Hazan book, I found myself staring at an unassuming sounding recipe for an almond cake, that required neither butter nor chocolate, only a fluffy paste of egg whites, sugar, flour, and ground almonds.
My dear friends, I may have found my new most very favorite cake. It comes together in just a few minutes, retaining all of the pleasing, fragrant qualities of almonds and ditching the odd textural ones. Firm to the fork, light on the tongue, relatively virtuous, and fresh for a week, it was perfectly plain and sweet on its own, but could serve as a base for any number of fancier dessert concoctions, should you so desire. My snacking relationship with almonds has improved immeasurably.
Marcella Hazan’s Almond Cake
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
10 ounces shelled, unpeeled almonds, about 2 cups
1-1/3 cups granulated sugar
8 egg whites
the peel of one lemon grated without digging into the white pith beneath (now would be the time to break out the microplane. also, I used a meyer lemon, and I don’t think I need to tell you that it was spectacular)
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
An 8-or 9-inch springform pan (I lost my springform pan in a historic kitchen disaster, the story of which I will regale you with later. suffice to say, a standard cake pan works just fine.)
butter for greasing the pan
Preheat the oven to 350.
Place the almonds and sugar in a food processor, and whiz them together until they’ve reached a fine consistency. They shouldn’t turn pasty, however, so keep watch.
Beat the egg whites together with 1/2 teaspoon salt until they form stiff peaks.
Add the ground almond/sugar concoction and the grated lemon peel to the egg whites, a little bit at a time, folding them in gently but thoroughly (I did this in four stages). The whites will probably deflate just a bit, but there shouldn’t be any significant loss of volume.
Add the flour to the mixture, a bit at a time, shaking it through a strainer and again folding it in gently.
Thickly smear the pan with butter (I was generous and the cake still stuck a bit), and dump the batter into the pan, shaking the pan to level the batter. Place the pan in the middle of your preheated oven, and bake for one hour. A toothpick pierced in the center should come out dry.
When done, leave the cake in the pan to cool for about 10 minutes or so on a rack, then place a plate on top of the pan and invert the cake onto it. Return the cake to the cooling rack and allow to cool completely before serving. Wrapped well, it will keep for a week.