Valentine'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 are 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 a 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.
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!
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup blanched or natural almond flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 large eggs
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
- Grated zest of 1 medium lemon or 1/4 a medium orange
- 1/2 cup orange juice
- For the Glaze:
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup confectioner's sugar
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- A few drops of fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 cup sliced, blanched almonds, toasted and cooled
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and flour 9-inch round cake pan or springform pan and set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, almond flour, baking powder, and salt to thoroughly combine them and set aside.
Crack eggs into large mixing bowl and whisk them lightly to break up yolks. Add sugar to bowl and whisk it in thoroughly in both directions for about 30 seconds. Add olive oil and whisk until mixture is a bit lighter in color and has thickened slightly, about 45 seconds. Whisk in extracts and zest, followed by orange juice.
Add dry ingredients to bowl and whisk until they are thoroughly combined; continue whisking until you have a smooth, emulsified batter, about 30 more seconds.
Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake cake for 30 to 45 minutes, rotating cake pan halfway through the cooking time to ensure even browning. Cake is done when it has begun to pull away from the sides of the pan, springs back lightly when touched, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
Allow cake to cool for ten minutes in the pan, then gently remove it from pan and allow it to cool completely on a rack.
While cake cools, make the glaze. Melt butter over medium heat in a small, heavy saucepan. When bubbles subside, lower heat and watch butter carefully, swirling it in the pan occasionally to distribute the heat. When butter begins to turn a light tan color and smells slightly nutty, turn off heat and let butter sit. It will continue to darken as it sits.
While butter cools, sift confectioner's sugar into a medium bowl. Whisk in milk until completely smooth but thick, then slowly whisk in butter. Taste the glaze and add a few drops of lemon juice to balance the sweetness. Stir in toasted almonds. Spread almonds and glaze onto the top and sides of cake and let it sit until set and dry.