3.20.2010

the cake that almost wasn't

Look up.

No, silly, not at the ceiling - look up at the top of your screen!

See that cake? The one you've been staring at for a couple of weeks now? Well, it's high time I finally stopped torturing you and gave you the recipe, don't you think? Only, this recipe - and the cake made from it - has a bit of history that I think you should hear first.


This is what the recipe looks like, right here, right now. It is stained and rippled from moisture. Parts are quite blurry. And with all the notes, cross-outs, and my handwriting in general, it looks like hen-scratching. One glance in its direction and you'd never guess at the revered place it holds in my pastry repertoire.

This is my wedding cake. And I almost lost it.

The life of this cake reads like a comedy of errors. I don't know where the recipe came from - I apparently scribbled it down one day on that torn-off sheet of notebook paper you see above, and promptly forgot the origin. I know it's a least 8 years old, because the first version I can remember making was when I was living in Brooklyn, NY, which was almost 8 years ago. (And also because all the scribbled notes on the back reference other parts of my New York life: The phone number of a restaurant Josh was working at. Details of a demo class being held at my culinary school. A street address.)

Anyway, I remember making it the first time, altered to be gluten-free, and falling head over heals for it. Seriously, my love for this cake rivaled my love for Josh. Since then, his rankings have increased steadily in my book and I don't think I'd be as torn between the two if forced to choose who/what to bring to the metaphorical desert island. But as cakes go, this one still tops my list.

So, since I loved it so much, I decided to make the original, gluten-full version when my sister came to visit. I figured that if I was going to bake it for others, I should bake the best version that I could. I assumed a great gluten-free cake would, for the ones able to eat it, taste even better made with gluten. I have never been more wrong. The cake didn't work at all. It never baked through. And Josh said it didn't taste as good as the gluten-free one. It was as if it was a different cake completely.

And then I went about a year without making it again. Finally, when it came time to decide on a cake for our wedding (and I had decided that, in order to get a delicious gluten-free one, I'd have to bake it myself), this was the first and only cake we considered. We loved it, we knew it tasted great, we liked the idea of incorporating a traditional Italian wedding custom (almonds) into our celebration, and since it was unfrosted it would keep with the extremely casual theme we were going for. (The groom's party wore jeans and flip-flops. The ceremony was in a field that sloped down to the ocean. The reception was in my grandfather's backyard. We played lawn games all afternoon. And it's still my most favorite party ever.)

The only hitch? I'd have to make eight of them to have enough for all our guests, and we were in the middle of moving into our new house! Not a problem, I was working in a local bakery and was given permission to use their kitchen after-hours. So two days before the big day, I lugged all my ingredients downtown and cleaned before I baked, trying to avoid cross-contamination. But a 20-quart Hobart, a stack of cake pans, and a commercial oven made quick work of getting the cakes in the oven. And then the waiting started. I cleaned up after myself. I chatted with the bread bakers, who were just coming in to start their overnight shift. I kept checking my cakes. I don't remember exactly (I was exhausted and stressed out!), but I think it took approximately 1 1/2 hours (and felt like four) for the cakes to bake through. And when they were finally out of the oven and cool enough to remove from the pans? The bottom of every one was charred black. Hmmm. What to do?

Well, I'm sure I'm not the first to say this, but . . . my microplane saved the day. The following night, I stood over the kitchen sink and proceeded to grate off about 1/8-inch from the bottom of all eight cakes, until a nice toasty brown color emerged that matched the shade of the cake's surface. Wedding cake disaster averted! (And since my cakes required no tricky tiers, or temperamental buttercream, or any other traditional accoutrements, it was pretty much clear sailing from there.)


The cakes turned out great, everyone loved them and no one guessed at the degree of consternation they had caused me. And then I misplaced the recipe. For five and a half years.

I'd think about it every 6 months or so, do a thorough search of all my recipe collections, and come up empty-handed. I scoured all my cookbooks and the Internet, and the closest I ever came to finding a similar recipe was David Lebovitz' version of the Chez Panisse almond cake, which was good, but was not my cake. (That was, however, the first time I came across his website, which was a lovely diversion!) I feared I'd never taste my wedding cake again.

Recently, however, I stumbled across it, stuffed in a box of old bills, files, and other paperwork that needed to be thrown away. Of course! What a logical place to store a treasured recipe! Why it had taken me half a decade to find it, I'll never know

I held off on making the cake, though. You see, I didn't have any amarena cherries. In my mind, amarena cherries are the perfect pairing for this cake. This is how we served it at our wedding. The tart, strong cherries are the perfect foil for the intensely sweet, dense cake. And they're beautiful and glossy, too, unlike so many brandied cherries I've had (and let's not even talk about the cartoon-ish nature of maraschino cherries), which is important to me. They're also fairly hard to come by, if you don't want to pay an arm and a leg for shipping.

But for my birthday, when I decided I wanted a Black Forest cake, Josh ordered me amarena cherries to go with it. A whole gigantic can of them, much more than I needed, which meant there were a lot of cherries hanging around in our refrigerator. And so, of course I had to make wedding cake soon after.


Now, I have to warn you: this is some serious cake. It does, after all, contain over a pound of almond paste. When it's finally done, the outside becomes really gorgeously burnished brown and crisp, with a chewy caramelization factor that is addicting. Inside, it's tender, rich, and practically melts in your mouth. When she ate her slice, my wedding photographer told me it was the best wedding cake she'd ever had. I believe I blushed.

If you don't have amarena cherries lolling about in your refrigerator (and, let's be honest, who does?), you can pair this cake with almost any fruit you like. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines - they all pair well with almonds, whether the fruit is fresh or cooked/preserved. This time of year, obviously, your best bet would be to get some frozen fruit and cook up a quick compote or sauce. But come summertime, you can just throw a handful of fresh berries at it and call it done.


Almond Wedding Cake
serves 8-10

I have to admit something here: after digging up the original recipe and looking at it more closely, I discovered the reason the cake has always had such amazing flavor, yet been so difficult to fully bake through without burning: I read the recipe wrong, and have always put in 17 ounces of almond paste, instead of the one 7-ounce package called for. Big difference. Like I said, comedy of errors. I think the recipe is actually supposed to be even closer to David's version than I realized. But I really like mine better. So if you make it with the larger quantity of almond paste, don't crowd the oven, turn it down to 325 degrees after about 30 minutes, and keep an eye on it - you may need to cover it with foil near the end if the top is getting too dark. But it will be worth it, believe me. Totally worth it.

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
17 OR 7 ounces (your choice) gluten-free almond paste, broken into pieces and microwaved on medium for 30 seconds if it's really firm
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp Kirsch (clear cherry brandy) (optional)
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup Tara's gluten-free pastry flour mix
1/4 tsp xanthan gum
1/2 tsp baking powder

Preheat the oven to 350ยบ. Butter an 8x2-inch round cake pan, line the bottom with parchment, and butter and (gf) flour the parchment and pan sides.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and almond paste in a large bowl until creamy. Add the sugar, beating until well-blended. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Mix in Kirsch, almond extract, and salt. Whisk together flour, xanthan gum, and baking powder in a small bowl, add to batter. Mix just until blended.

Spoon batter into prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake until golden brown and a tester comes out clean, anywhere from 30-90 minutes, depending on your oven and how much almond paste you decide to use. Cool in the pan on a rack. Dust with powdered sugar before serving. Cake keeps, wrapped and at room temperature, for at least three days. Probably more, but we always eat it too quickly to find out. It also freezes well.

4 comments:

  1. Great post! Any chance you found Grammy's original recipe for needhams in that bill pile???

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  2. Oh, I wish! I'm still counting on you to come through with that one . . .

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  3. I still have vivid memories of that cake, and am still in awe of the fact that you made them all yourself! I think it was hands-down the best wedding cake I've ever tasted.

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  4. Aw, thanks Christine! It's humbling to hear you say that! I find it so amusing that I could make such a significant mistake with the recipe, and have the cake come out BETTER for it! Doesn't happen often in baking, I assure you . . .

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