The Almond Cake from Alice Medrich’s fantastic Pure Dessert is a perfect example of what her book is all about–this simple, rustic cake is a true celebration of the earthy flavor of almonds. In trying to figure out how to describe it to you, I’ve decided that the Almond Cake is basically the most excellent Mad Lib of anyone’s dessert dreams–buttery, rich, nutty, incredibly moist, crunchy, crispy, chewy, tender, melt-in-your-mouth–you name it, it’s in there. A slice of this cake works with your 10 a.m. coffee, after dinner, as a sudden sweet bite from the countertop while passing through the kitchen in the middle of the afternoon.
And the flavor–oh, the flavor! Absolutely drunk with almonds. To start, imagine a pumped up, cake version of those crispy, perfectly sweet almond cookies you might get from your favorite Chinese take out place. One of the most interesting things about this cake is that its sweetness comes not just from the sugar in the batter and the smattering of it in the prepared baking pan, but also a different kind of sweetness altogether–a fragrance, really–that is provided by a dose of heady almond extract and the almonds themselves in different forms (ground into flour for the batter and layered in the pan to create a gorgeous crust).
If the promise of amazing flavor and texture isn’t enough, let me tell you that after a bit of mise, this cake comes together in minutes in a blender or food processor. No creaming, folding or alternating wets and dries required, people! You now have no excuse to miss the opportunity to make yourself and loved ones deliriously happy by trying this recipe. Like, now.
Crunchy Almond Cake
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert
For the crust:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, very soft
Generous 1/3 cup sliced almonds
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
For the cake:
4 ounces whole almonds
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
3 large eggs
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, slightly softened
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set a rack to the lower third of the oven. Generously butter a 9 inch cake pan with 1 tablespoon of very soft unsalted butter–it seems like an insane amount of butter, but you are also creating a crust for the cake here. After the pan is buttered, sprinkle the sliced almonds in a single, even layer over the bottom of the pan and work some of the slices up the sides of the pan as well. Sprinkle two tablespoons of granulated sugar over the butter and almonds and set the prepared pan aside.
To make the cake batter, throw the almonds, sugar, salt and almond extract into a blender or food processor and blend until the nuts are finely ground. Add the eggs and butter, blending throughly. Add the flour and baking powder and blend just until everything is incorporated. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is a deep golden brown and a tester comes out clean, about 32-35 minutes. Cool cake completely in the pan on a wire rack before sliding a thin knife around the sides of the pan to release it. Turn the cake out onto a serving platter so that the sliced almond-covered bottom becomes the top of the cake. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.
Anyway, even though I showed great restraint and just brought home the one flat of berries, panic set in the next morning after I finished my cereal piled high with fresh strawberry slices–there were still a whole heck of a lotta strawberries in that box. And with every hour that passed, they were expiring. I simply did not have the time nor the inclination to get into jam-making–even though living in California allows us to have gorgeous summer fruits months before what is fair, it just seems wrong to make strawberry jam in April. Unless I wanted waaay too much fiber in my diet over the next couple of days and enough vitamin C to retroactively prevent scurvy for the entire planet, I was going to have to get creative.
So here’s where I get honest with you guys. There was a recipe I worked on that used a lot of strawberries. It was indeed creative, a riff on another recipe that called for the juice of another fruit. And boy, did I have good intentions for it. I mean, swapping out most fruit juices in recipes is usually pretty foolproof. I should say that I will be trying my hand at a Strawberry Chiffon Cake with Strawberry Glaze again sometime in the future, because the experiment wasn’t altogether unfortunate–the cake was a solid chiffon effort, risen beautifully, tender and light and not too sweet, a good balance with the fruity, very sweet glaze.
But because I didn’t want to use any colorings or fruit extracts in the batter, the cake tasted more of the teeny bit of lemon zest that was in it than the heap of strawberries that went into it, and even though the berries were bleeding the most gorgeous shade of red and the puree swirled into the batter looked promising, there was no rosy punch in the finished cake–it had the strangest reddish-gray cast you’ve ever seen. Adding onto that the jammy cooked glaze that was not the firm icing glaze that I was after (although the strawberry flavor was excellent here), and I was bummed–so close, yet so far. And still so many berries left in the box! Punch-kick-sigh.
After that half-hearted result, I wanted a sure thing. Can you blame me? So I did the remaining berries up right, simply slicing them and letting them do their thing, macerating with some fragrant vanilla sugar. And then piling them onto tender sour cream shortcake biscuits with a crown of whipped cream. Heaven. And so yet another lesson learned: when life gives you beautiful strawberries at an insanely good price, let them be themselves and don’t jack up your good fortune by trying to get smart.
Individual Strawberry Shortcakes
Adapted from Nancy Baggett’s All-American Dessert Cookbook
Makes 6-8 individual servings
The amount of sugar tossed with the berries really depends on how sweet they are to begin with. Here, I use the minimum amount suggested by the original recipe. Be careful not to be too stingy with sugaring the berries, though, because the juice they release while macerating will moisten, sweeten and flavor the shortcake.
For the berries:
5 1/2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
1/2 cup vanilla sugar or granulated sugar
For the shortcakes:
2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for shaping the dough
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar plus extra for sprinkling
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 1/2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small bits
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Toss the berries with the sugar and and set aside to macerate for at least an hour while preparing the shortcakes.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and set a rack to the middle position. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Sprinkle the butter pieces over the dry ingredients, and using your fingertips (or a pastry cutter or dump everything into a food processor, but I like using my hands) work the butter and flour mixture together until the butter is incorporated and in very fine bits, like coarse meal.
Add the sour cream to the flour-butter mixture and stir gently, just until the dough comes together. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons flour evenly over the dough and give it 5-6 good kneads to make a smooth dough. Let stand for 1 minute, then turn out onto a lightly floured surface and with floured hands, pat the dough into about an 8 inch round. Using a 3 to 3 1/2-inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds, punching straight down into the dough without twisting for the most tender biscuits. When you’ve cut out as many as you can from the first round, keep gathering the dough scraps together and recutting biscuits until you’re out of dough.
Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet, brush them with a bit of heavy cream and sprinkle them with a bit of sugar. Bake for 10-14 minutes, until the shortcakes are risen and golden brown on the tops and bottoms. Cool completely on a wire rack.
To serve the strawberry shortcakes, slice the biscuits across with a serrated knife and place the bottoms on individual serving plates. Pile the berries onto each biscuit bottom, making sure to get a few spoonfuls of the sweet juice soaked into each biscuit. Place the biscuit tops on, and garnish each shortcake with lightly sweetened whipped cream and more berries and juice.
So before my last post, you probably noticed that it had been, um, a
since I last visited with you. And some false starts before that. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I say that I just straight up lost my baking mojo, people. But happily, it’s all coming back to me now and everything is getting okay. I’ve been so
to be back in kitchen, holed up with a great cookbook or a promising idea, my steadfast and true KitchenAid mixer purring along, not even once giving me grief for being away for so long. We just don’t speak about it.
In this case, the great cookbook that got the mojo working once again was, but of course, the Tartine cookbook. I am lucky to live a healthy walk away from Tartine (healthy enough to offset any guilt, anyway), and every time I glance in the windows while passing by, I just want to hurry home and caress the gorgeous photography and read through the intricate recipes in the cookbook. Like I’ve said before, many of the recipes have so many steps it will just blow your mind, like the Three Day Cake, but there are a few simple beauties in the book that come together more quickly than that favorite cookie recipe you can bake by heart.
The Tartine shortbread recipe is so easy you might wonder if you’ve suddenly taken a wrong page turn into another cookbook. But that’s just the kind of baby step I needed to get back into the kitchen. The simple ingredient list and method yields a shortbread cookie so tender and buttery, it’s practically restorative. Well, it was for me, anyway, because it got me back to tying my apron strings after a long hiatus, and even sparked some extra creative energy, like adding a small pile of finely grated lemon zest to the dough for a little extra somethin’.
Adapted from Tartine
Makes about 40 cookies
The butter should be so soft that it has the look and consistency of mayonnaise or thick whipped cream; this can be quickly achieved by putting the cold butter into a saucepan, melting about a third of it, and then stirring all the butter together to create a very soft result. Create superfine sugar for dusting the shortbread by taking granulated sugar for a spin in your food processor, blender or clean coffee grinder.
1 cup plus two tablespoons unsalted butter, very soft
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (2-3 lemons’ worth)
1/4 cup superfine sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and set a rack to the middle position. Butter a 9×13-inch glass baking dish.
Place the butter in a mixing bowl–it must be very soft, think the look and consistency of mayonnaise or whipped cream. Stir the salt into the butter. Sift together the flour and cornstarch. Using a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, stir the sugar into the butter and then stir in the flour and lemon zest until a smooth dough forms, using your hands towards the end if necessary (run your hands under cold water first to keep from making the dough too warm). Press the dough evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until the edges and bottom of the shortbread begin to turn golden. Cool on a wire rack until just warm to the touch.
While the shortbread is still warm, sprinkle the surface with superfine sugar, tilting the pan to coat the shortbread evenly with sugar. Tap out any excess that doesn’t cling to the surface. Use a very thin, sharp knife to cut the shortbread into 40 equal cookies. Chill completely in the pan before attempting to remove the cookies with a small offset spatula–the first cookie will be hard to remove, but the rest should come out cleanly.
Hooray! Ahh, it’s good to be back. I’ve missed you!
Now that we’ve settled in San Francisco and have been out of L.A. for a few months, I’m able to selectively remember only the things I love about having lived in Santa Monica. One of those things is the whimsical and utter delight that is Vanilla Bake Shop. I had the pleasure of meeting Amy Berman (co-owner along with her husband, how cute is that?!) right before the shop first opened, and boy, is all the hype well deserved. Everything in there is totally inspired and completely delicious, my favorite cupcake being the Meyer Lemon Raspberry. And wouldn’t you know it, this morning I heard Amy is appearing tomorrow on The freakin’ Martha Stewart Show to make Meyer Lemon Raspberry cupcakes with Martha! Too much! The craving hit me full force after seeing the preview. And even though I have my Tivo set to find out what the real recipe is, I am just way too impatient and so I cobbled together my own version today, using some of my favorite components from different recipes.
To me, lemony desserts of all kinds just scream Spring!–like sunny days, tea parties and a smattering of flowy skirts on the sidewalks (okay, so I’m understanding I probably won’t ever see weather consistently balmy enough for flowy skirts here in San Francisco, but whatever). These cupcakes turned out to be the perfect Spring celebration, with my very favorite soft white cake recipe as the base, billowy vanilla buttercream atop, and a filling of just-tangy-enough lemon pastry cream that has a bit more of a dreamy character than Vanilla Bake Shop’s lemon curd filling. Success! I opted to make them pretty Vanilla-style with a layer of pastel yellow sanding sugar, which also adds a nice crunch to the perfectly smooth buttercream beneath. A little cheery button of a fresh raspberry finishes off the cupcake, and you can almost hear it chirping, “I’m too cute to eat!”, but guess what, it’s not. Nom, nom, nom.
Lemon Cream Cupcakes
Makes about 24 cupcakes
If you can find Meyer lemons, absolutely use them in the lemon pastry cream, but regular lemons will work just fine. To use this recipe in a different way, omit the lemon pastry cream and make a classic vanilla cupcake with the cake and frosting recipes, adding a bit of interest to the buttercream with a scraped vanilla bean in addition to the extract. All three elements can be made a day ahead and refrigerated and the cupcakes assembled the day of serving, just set the pastry cream out to soften before using.
For the cake:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 1/4 cups cake flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
4 egg whites
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two 12 cup muffin tins with paper liners.
Sift together the flour and baking powder in a small bowl. In a glass measuring cup, combine milk and vanilla. In yet another bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Set all three elements aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until soft, creamy and pale in color. Alternately beat in the milk and flour mixtures in three parts, blending well after each addition. Fold in the beaten egg whites at the very end, making sure no traces of whites remain in the batter.
Fill lined cupcake pans 2/3 full. Bake for 18-20 minutes, when the tops are just set and beginning to turn a light golden brown. Do NOT overbake.
This recipe makes more than you’ll need for 2 dozen cupcakes, but trust me, you’ll find a way to use the leftovers. Like eaten from a spoon straight from the bowl.
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into 10-12 pieces
Fill a medium saucepan with a few inches of water and set to a simmer over medium heat. Whisk together the lemon juice, eggs, egg yolk, salt and sugar in a stainless steel bowl that just fits into the saucepan without touching the surface of the water. Continue whisking the mixture over the heat until it is thickened and it registers 180 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove it from the heat and cool to about 140 degrees, stirring occasionally to help release the heat.
When the lemon curd is cooled, pour it through a fine sieve to remove any bits of cooked eggs or lemon pulp, using a rubber spatula to coax it through, into a blender (or a clean bowl if using an immersion blender). Blend the butter into the lemon curd, one piece at a time at a low speed until all the butter is completely incorporated.
For the second addition of confectioners’ sugar, use anywhere from 2-4 cups more sugar and add more heavy cream as needed to get the consistency your prefer for buttercream.
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
4-6 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream (perhaps a bit more to adjust the consistency)
Fresh raspberries, for garnish (optional)
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and vanilla together until the butter is very soft. Add just 2 cups confectioners’ sugar and beat for 2-3 minutes, until it starts to appear fluffy. Add the rest of the sugar and the heavy cream (adding more sugar and/or cream as desired), and mix on high for another 5 to 7 minutes until the buttercream is whipped, light in texture and shiny.
Use a pairing knife to cut a small cone shape into the center of each cupcake, making a well for the filling, being careful not to cut the wells too deep. Trim a bit of cake from each “cone” to make room for the filling. Fill each cupcake with a small spoonful of the lemon cream and replace the trimmed tops. Alternatively, use a pastry bag to pierce the top of each cupcake and fill them.
Frost the cupcakes with the buttercream. To decorate, coat with colored sanding sugar, add a small dollop of buttercream atop the sugar, and finish with a fresh raspberry.
Hope you will check it out!
The husband and I have a theory of sorts. It’s called the Skillet Cookie theory, and it goes like this: say you’re enjoying a cheap, moderately satisfying meal at a good old American chain restaurant (despite my love of truly great food, I am not opposed to this on occasion–hello, Chili’s queso dip?!). You’ve had your Monster Burger or Extreme Fajitas or whatever and just want something sweet. So you reach for the sticky dessert menu on the table (which also is bound to have some ridiculous cocktails served in like, galvanized pails or something in colors that just don’t come in nature, ever) and it catches you. The Skillet Cookie. A huge chocolate chip cookie! In a skillet! Two, three servings at least! Ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream–SOLD!! The table is giddy because of the impending Skillet Cookie and drunk with the promise of more commercially made food to add to overly stretched bellies. But it just looked so good on the menu and has every dessert-related thing you can imagine, all in a cast-iron vessel! Who can resist the Skillet Cookie? Communists!
So the SC arrives, and everyone digs in with vigor. One bite, two bites, three bites, goooood. And then…well, then the sugar punch to the palate wears off and you’re left with a cloyingly sweet mess–bland flavors, a badly underdone cookie with soggy edges, cheap ice cream and a chocolate sauce that tastes like it was melted down from an Advent calendar from 1984. Oh, dear. The Skillet Cookie is never as good as you think it’s going to be. Too good to be true. Sigh. One of my oft-recited phrases is, “I love when something tastes just the way you want it to”. The Skillet Cookie will never be that.
And so is the case with so many sweet treats that have more than one element to them. So many layered bars and embellished desserts and coffee cakes with too many things going on end up falling short somehow. So certainly I would never find the perfect blueberry muffin that I’d been craving and dreaming up for days–a sweet-smelling, tender crumb with just a bit of spring, plump berries that didn’t bleed all through the muffin, and a salty-sweet crunchy streusel topping. Equally delicious served warm or at room temperature, with coffee in the morning or vanilla bean ice cream after dinner. I didn’t want a mondo cupcake, but I didn’t want a dense, short scone-like thing. I wanted light, fluffy, but with the integrity to stand up to juicy berries and a crunchy top hat. And by God, I found it. Seriously, these are so good, I really do think God is involved somehow. Please try.
Blueberry Crumble Muffins
Makes 10-12, depending on size
For the muffin:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup milk
1 cup fresh blueberries (or frozen–thawed, well-drained and patted dry)
For the streusel:
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup butter, cubed, softened but still cool
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and set an oven rack to the middle position. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin or line with paper liners.
To make the streusel,using a fork or clean fingertips, mix 1/2 cup sugar, 1/3 cup flour, butter, and cinnamon until all the ingredients are incorporated, but the mixture is still very pebbly. Set aside.
To make the muffins, whisk together the flour, 3/4 cup sugar, salt and baking powder. In a glass measuring cup or similar, whisk together the vegetable oil, egg and milk. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until blended but don’t overmix. There may be a few small lumps, that’s okay. Carefully fold in the blueberries. Fill muffin cups right to the top, and generously sprinkle each muffin with streusel.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven, until the tops spring back slightly and the topping is set and golden brown. Cool in the tins for five minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely or serve warm.
Oh, dear. I’ve done it again. After promising you in my last post that I was going to get back on track with our conversations, I totally dropped the ball. Luckily, my ice cream maker for my KitchenAid has arrived and recently I made the most amazing batch of blueberry muffins that I have ever tasted in my entire life. They were really something and I will be sure to share the recipe with you very soon. Seriously.
December 30, 2007
Since landing in Illinois one week ago, my tastebuds have gone into overdrive. With just a couple days left in my hometown. The main sport around here has been munching all snackily, alternating salty and sweet flavors interspersed with sips of wine or diet Coke. We’ve all decided that our holiday activities have required such a steady stream of fuel, whether it’s being a Wii player or spectator, watching two little puppies play, making a trip to a megamall or having a big old-fashioned family Christmas with a 17 pound turkey and a beef filet the size of the countertop. There also was a drive up to Kenosha, Wisconsin today just over the Wisco-Illinois border to meet halfway with some dear Milwaukee-born friends at a little restaurant with a Wisconsin theme. There was beer and cheese soup on the menu, people. But I have also braved the cold and snow three times to go for a run around the neighborhood in this town where I did a lot of growing up. So that’s physical and emotional work which means extra snacks for me. Good thing I brought along a big container of a buttery, sweet, salty, nutty brittle, drizzled with dark chocolate.
Before I head back to a busy new year of work in California, some of which will be on national television which usually features people who don’t eat things like brittle or Chardonnay with potato chips, I really should start to scale back. The bottom of the brittle container is nearing, and I’ve decided that will be my stopping point. I mean, after the husband and I make a visit to the city tomorrow to visit our old neighborhoods and have a coffee at Julius Meinle, a big slice at Lou Malnati’s, and a warm, crackling bag of Garrett’s popcorn while walking along Michigan Avenue. And then I will stop. Because all good things, like a glorious hometown holiday eating tailspin, must come to an end.
Luckily, all good things have a beginning as well, and I blame this brittle as my undoing. It all came together quickly the night before our flight left San Francisco, a hybrid of several different brittle recipes I’ve collected. Among the laundry and phone calls and listmaking that come before a long vacation, there was still time to throw together this luscious, utterly satisfying candy. It’s a versatile recipe that allows for a lot of creativity. Use whatever nuts you like or happen to have in your cupboards, roasted or raw. I used roasted cashews and found that the cooking candy toasted and darkened the nuts even further, and gave a complex, deep caramel, almost coffee-like flavor to the candy. The chocolate can be semi-sweet, dark, a mixture of both, or even white chocolate, a drizzle of which would be lovely with Marcona almonds in the mix, now that I think about it. If you’d prefer to keep it traditional, this recipe would be just as delicious with the chocolate omitted altogether and using raw peanuts for a straightforward, old-fashioned peanut brittle.
Whatever variations you choose to make this recipe your own, make sure you’ve got the process and cooking temperatures down before beginning. A candy thermometer is your best friend here, and a necessity to achieving the proper snap when it cools. It may be tough to keep the flame under your pot at a good level, but just keep your eye on your thermometer and if the candy is hanging out at the same temperature for too long before jumping up to hard crack stage, just give it a jolt of heat to get it up to the right temperature. And don’t forget the baking soda–it seems like an odd ingredient here, but it’s the key to creating a porous brittle that is pleasantly, not painfully, crunchy.
Other things worth noting with this recipe are that if there was ever a time to finally invest in some silicone baking mats, this is it. Also, this is a fun recipe to prepare with another person, and definitely makes the hurried stretching of the rapidly cooling candy much easier. And finally, HOT SUGAR IS AKIN TO MOLTEN LAVA. Please be very, very careful while stirring and handling the cooking candy. Thank you. And thank you, delicious nut brittle, for setting me up for my holiday gluttony with great, great joy.
Roasted Nut Brittle
Makes 2 1/2 pounds
2 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 cup unsalted butter
2 cups roasted or raw nuts (cashews, peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons fleur de sel or other sea salt
3/4 cup semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
Line two baking sheets with silicone mats, or with plenty of nonstick cooking spray.
Combine sugar, corn syrup and water in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat and stir until the sugar dissolves and mixture comes to a boil. Stir in the butter, and continue to stir frequently once it reaches 230 degrees.
When the cooking candy reaches 280 degrees, (soft-crack stage), add the nuts and begin stirring the mixture constantly until the temperature reaches 305 degrees (hard-crack stage). Remove the pot from the heat and quickly and carefully stir in the baking soda until completely incorporated–it will bubble intensely. Immediately pour the candy onto the prepared baking sheets. Immediately start stretching it thin by lifting and pulling from edges using two forks. Allow the slabs of brittle to cool completely. Meanwhile, melt the chocolate over a double boiler or in the microwave for 30 second increments, stirring often, until melted and a nice drizzling consistency. When the candy is cool, drizzle the chocolate Pollock-style all over the brittle. When the chocolate is set, break the into generous pieces. Store in an airtight container.
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