Once in a very rare while, a recipe found via internet search resonates in such a way that it seems Fate has guided the algorithms and web crawlers to bring it to you. That’s because searches can often seem so RANDOM. Key word combos lead to long-winded recipes that aren’t quite—or aren’t at all—what you’re looking for—which is why it’s so thrilling when you actually find exactly what you were looking for—whether you knew you were looking for it or not.
Take an ‘almond cake’ search I made last year. (I had almonds, I had eggs, I wanted to make cake.) The first link I clicked on led me to a recipe on Epicurious by Claudia Roden, adapted from her cookbook, Food of Spain. Just reading that – Claudia Roden…Food of Spain… gave me a shivery thrill—I have MET Claudia Roden at the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery only last year! She’s been a food hero of mine for a very long time, so happening upon a recipe by her felt like striking gold.
‘This is a splendid cake’ the first line proclaims. (And since this is Claudia Roden, I believed it). The text goes on to open up whole new worlds of culinary history. It talks about how the cake –Tarta de Santiago hailed from Santiago de Compostela in Spain. (Another shivery thrill…I have visited—and loved—Santiago de Compostela myself.) It touches on the dessert’s ties to the pilgrimage site and its possibly medieval Jewish roots.
I read on. The recipe had a medieval feel to it with no flour, no dairy, no leavening and, traditionally, a St. James cross stenciled on the top. It called for whole almonds to be ground into a powder. (Another kismet-y frisson…I had exactly the amount of whole almonds called for.) So I made it, following the instructions to the letter. (This is Claudia Roden, after all.)
Despite the cake’s humble look and super-simple ingredients, it had a flavor worthy of a special occasion. It’s ideal for Easter or Passover with its dual Jewish and Christian heritage. I’ve even served it as a birthday cake for a friend who would have much preferred something chocolate…and it went on to win her over.
Over time, I’ve tweaked and simplified the original ever so slightly to make it less sweet, more foolproof, more suitable for Passover (no flour in the greased pans), etc. and generally suit my cooking style better. Whether you make my version or Claudia Roden’s doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you make it!
Santiago Almond Cake/St. James Almond Cake
8 oz./230 g./1 ¾ cups blanched whole almonds
6 eggs, separated
1 cup/230 g. sugar, divided
1/2 tsp. almond extract
¼ tsp. salt
1 Tbs. grated orange zest
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
confectioners’ sugar and fresh fruit, for garnish
PREHEAT the oven to 350˚F/180˚C. Cut a piece of parchment paper the size of the bottom of the pan you plan to use: anything from a 10 or 11-inch round cake pan, two 8-inch round tins, or a square or rectangular pan. Coat the pan with cooking spray or brush with oil, place the parchment in the bottom of the pan, and coat it with cooking spray or oil. (Do not skip the parchment step; because the cake has no oil or butter, it can stick to the bottom.)
PULVERIZE the almonds in a food processor or high-speed blender until finely ground. (It’s OK if the almonds are not completely powdered; this gives the cake texture.)
WHISK the egg yolks with 3/4 cup (180 g.) of the sugar by hand or with an electric mixer until the mixture is smooth and has turned a pale yellow. Whisk in the almond extract and salt, then the orange and lemon zests.
BEAT the egg whites with an electric mixer (or a handheld egg beater) until soft peaks form. Beat in the remaining ¼ cup sugar until the whites look smooth and glossy.
FOLD the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Spread the batter into the prepared pan and bake 30 to 40 minutes (depending on size of pan), or until it is golden brown on top, begins to pull away from the sides, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 15 minutes in the pan, then unmold, remove the parchment paper, and cool completely. Serve dusted with confectioners’ sugar and garnished with fresh fruit. Serves 8 to 10 (it’s a rich cake)