Monday night I drove to Napa with this sweet almond tart wrapped and wedged in the seat behind me. Napa is a funny thing now. The vineyards of the present. The orchards and ranches of the past. And the continual soft, rural breeze of summer. We went to the memorial service of a good family friend, a woman who spent her life watching Napa shift and change right under her shoes. She was matron of honor in my mother's wedding. She's known my siblings and I since we were babes. And according to the speeches that night, she gave away love and music like my mother used to give out love and gum - it was just a common courtesy, a reflex action, to share what fun she had tucked in her purse.
The cake never left the car. I brought it for the dessert table but didn't want to carry it in at the beginning. And at the end, when we went out to the courtyard lined with fruitless mulberry and clusters of redwood, the dessert table was already full.
In case you didn't recognize it, this is Jessica Fechtor's signature almond cake. The one she named her blog for and bakes each Hanukkah for her imitable holiday party. She believes in the cake so purely that her confidence alone could have convinced me to try it. But I didn't need much goading. Her first book, Stir, came in the mail the other day, and I read it nearly straight through. There have been many really good books I've read lately, but this one hit a tender spot, all her talk of love and feeding, of relocating the self and discovering identity. It has been months since I've had a simple cake sitting on the counter.
And it was good. To bring the cake home after all the mourners had been fed. After we ate whatever homemade taquitos and guacamole, tacos and salsa, flan or oatmeal cookies or lemon bars we needed to get through the night. To slide sweet amandine on my counter as some blushing sign. That we can recover ourselves. That our normalcies can live on - cake and music, hospitality, love and gum.
Sweet Amandine Cake
The original recipe for this cake was, according to Jessica, a contest winner. And it is obvious why. It is fragrant, rosy, simple, and delicious. Perfect, in fact. That said, I wanted some actual almonds in the cake if it was going to taste like almond. This version remedies that. If you want the original, substitute 1/2 cup all-purpose flour for the almond flour and proceed as usual. Either way, buy Stir. Read it. Bake the cake. And enjoy.
3 heaped tablespoons sliced almonds
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon, for finishing
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup almond flour
two or three pinches salt crystals, like Maldon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a fluted tart pan with a removable bottom and set aside. Spread almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake about 4-6 minutes, until they just start to color. Let cool completely.
In a large bowl, stir together the melted butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring well after each.
Pour the extracts and the sea salt into the bowl and mix until smooth.
Fold in the all-purpose and almond flours until just combined.
Scrape the batter into the prepared tart pan and smooth the surface, then sprinkle on the almonds, the salt crystals, and the sugar. Preferably in that order.
Pat yourself on the back, and slide the cake into the hot oven. Set the timer. The cake needs about 30-35 minutes. Barely baked and a knife will come out clean, but the center will be like marzipan. Slightly more baked and the cake takes on a bit more lift and structure and edge. I like it either way. You may want to try both.
Pull the cake from the oven, and let cool to almost room temperature. Then, loosen the edges with a knife, remove the cake from the pan (Jessica uses the word ease here - good word for it; the cake is delicate), and cool the rest of the way on a wire rack. Serve simply. Enjoy!