Serious Eats: Recipes

Seriously Italian: Almond Olive Oil Cake for Valentine's Day

Editor's note: We are thrilled to welcome back Serious Eats Italian bureau chief and Babbo pastry chef, Gina DePalma. Not only is she one of the best pastry chefs on the planet but a gifted writer as well. These days she's back in New York City but needed to channel her inner Italian spirit through this almond cake, just in time for Valentine's Day. Take it away, Gina!

20090209-cake3.jpgValentine's Day is swiftly approaching, and as a pastry chef, I am starting to get that gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that comes from being surrounded by way too much chocolate.

Chocolate on Valentine's Day is too obvious a choice, for me, I guess, probably because my job makes chocolate a daily part of my life. Yes, it is glossy and silken and rich; I understand the intense attraction, but the stuff stains my damn chef jackets. The notion of a decadent chocolate creation as an over-the-top romantic gesture left me a few decades ago, quickly followed by the other absurdly predictable choice imposed on pastry chefs in February--the passion fruit. Ugh.

From this chocolatey excess, the almond has emerged as my personal Valentine's Day icon, and I think it is quite the romantic choice. The flavor and scent of sweet almonds is understated and elegant, like the lady in pearls and a fabulous cocktail dress I've always imagined I would be on an actual Valentine's date with someone who actually likes me.

In their natural state, almonds need to be coaxed out of their fuzzy, pale green pods, and if you ever get the chance to open an almond fresh off the tree, you'll find this process to be downright erotic. The almond's flavor profile teases, going from subtle and sweet when raw to deep, warm and toasty when baked.

If that isn't enough to sway you, take a moment to consider the story of Phyllis and Demophoon, from Heroides, the collection of love poems by the Roman poet Ovid. Phyllis was the Queen of Thrace, madly in love with Demophoön, the son of Theseus and Phaedra and a soldier in the Trojan War. Demophoön leaves Phyllis to assist his father in Greece, promising to return in a month. When he doesn't show, Phyllis commits suicide in the throes of her despair, but the gods intervene and change her into an almond tree. When Demophoön finally returns, he finds the dormant and bare tree in the spot where he left Phyllis.

Realizing what happened, he throws himself around the tree in a passionate embrace, causing it to burst into brilliant, white almond blossoms. Phyllis is brought back to life, and almonds become a symbol of true and everlasting love. Top that, chocolate.

Almonds are still used to mark the deep love and fidelity of a new marriage in Italy, where a favor of candied, almonds, known as confetti, are a must at Italian weddings. Ovid's hometown of Sulmona in Abruzzo is still ground-zero for confetti production.

My version of Torta di Mandorla is a light, moist way to say I love you, with the scent of sweet almonds, lively citrus and the lovely back notes of extra virgin-olive oil. I love that it comes together with two bowls and whisk; there is something supremely satisfying to me about making cakes without an electric mixer and a bit of elbow grease.

You can use either natural or blanched almond flour; I personally don't mind flecks of skin from natural almond flour in my cake. The cake is perfect on its own, but the brown butter glaze gives it even more polish and flavor. After the glaze has set, dust the entire cake with a bit of confectioner's sugar for a pretty touch of extra sweetness.

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