Admittedly, this is not my best photo. Simple cakes get a raw deal in that they are so elegant and beautiful in real life, but often difficult (for me) to capture on film. I promise you, it is gorgeous in real life.
In my quest to learn more about Jewish holidays and the foods associated with them, I committed myself to making something for each (major? I’m a non-Jewish person, so I don’t know how to classify these) holiday. Since I am new to this, all of my offerings have been after the actual holiday has occurred. First, there was the great hamantaschen experiment for Purim; I got so caught up in oil-based versus butter-based hamantaschen and homemade jam fillings that those didn’t show up until the week after Purim. Now, here we are at my contribution for Passover, which has come and gone, and evidently we’re just days away from the holiday which falls 7 weeks after Passover, so it’s safe to say that I’m tardy in posting this one too. Please forgive me: I’ve decided to expand my Jewish food exploration to two years in the hopes that next year I’ll be ahead of schedule.
This is the lemon almond cake I made for our Easter celebration, although it is a Passover cake; let’s consider this a big head start on Passover 2014, okay? Alternatively, consider this as a really great spring and summer cake, as it is packed with fresh lemon flavor and would feel right at home alongside some fresh summer berries. Normally for Easter I would make a lemon tart, which is a much more pronounced use of lemon in a dessert. This cake hits you softly with lemon; it’s there, but instead of being the main event, it’s more the co-star alongside the equally lovely almond flavor.
Speaking of the almonds, there are two types in here: almonds finely ground into flour, and almonds chopped into crunchy bits. I’ll encourage you to do what you like with this part; if you prefer a smoother, more traditional cake, either blitz the chopped almonds in a food processor until very tiny, or go all the way and grind them up with the almond flour ones. I enjoyed the texture the crunchy almond bits added, but it may not be for everyone, so consider your guests when you make this.
I don’t know about you, but syrup cakes are a wee bit unnerving to me. I imagine a situation where I poke holes and pour the liquid into the cake as directed, only to cut into it and find my entire cake has turned to mush inside, ruined my dessert course, and made my guests question my baking abilities. I’m sure this situation has happened, but it won’t with this cake: it bakes up dry and sturdy, making it a perfect vehicle for the syrup. I liked my syrup reduced and thicker than the original recipe calls for, which allows it to cling a bit more to the cake as you pour it; a good thing when you’re dealing with a cake which will sink in the center. Although you can do the syrup several hours before, I like to give this an overnight setup time to blend the flavors and let everything meld together in the way it should.
I have big plans for this cake in the future: I’m going to experiment with other syrup flavors just to see how it turns out. Cakes like this are fun in that way: almonds lend themselves so well to fruit companions that it makes them easy to mess around with. I encourage you to do the same if you try this, although admittedly, it’s hard to beat fresh lemon.
Adapted from my newly beloved Food & Wine Annual Cookbook 1997: An Entire Year of Recipes from America’s Favorite Food Magazine. Seems like this was an excellent cookbook year for them; at last count, there’s 837 recipes in here I’m pretty stoked about.
Lemon Almond Cake
for the syrup:
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
- zest of 1 lemon
- 1/3 cup water
for the cake:
- 1 tablespoon oil, for pan
- 2 tablespoons matzo meal, for pan
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup ground almonds/almond flour (measure after grinding)
- 3/4 cup finely chopped almonds*
- zest of 1 lemon
- 8 large eggs, separated
*your version and my version of “finely chopped” may differ; this I know. Go by what sort of texture you’d like in your cake. If you run a knife through them a few times, you’ll end up with a very unique “crunch” factor to your cake which people will notice. If you’re wanting to play down this crunch, either use a nut grinder or small food processor to break them down to the size you want. If you’re not into any sort of varying texture, use those almonds to grind into additional almond flour and just add it to the cake with the rest of it; it’s a forgiving cake, so there’s no harm in that.
Make the lemon syrup:
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, lemon juice, zest, and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly to dissolve sugar. When the mixture comes to a full boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and let simmer until the syrup has reduced to 2/3 cup, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 325˚F. Oil the bottom and sides of a 9-inch Springform pan, line with a round of parchment paper, and oil the top of the paper. Spoon in the matzo meal and (as you would with flour) coat the bottom and sides with it, tapping out any excess. Place the prepared pan in the refrigerator to chill.
In a large bowl using a spatula or wooden spoon, mix together the granulated sugar, almonds (almond flour and chopped almonds) lemon zest, and egg yolks until combined. Set aside.
In another large bowl, whisk the egg whites using an electric mixer (I’m not going to pretend I ever do this by hand, but if you do, fantastic) until stiff peaks form. Scoop one-quarter of the egg white mixture into the almond mixture and fold it in gently to lighten it. Once this is combined, gently fold in the remaining egg white mixture into the almond mixture in three additions, working slowly, until everything is homogenous.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan gently, being careful not to tap your spatula on the pan edge. Smooth the top if needed. Bake in the center of the oven for 50-55 minutes, checking at the 45-minute mark for doneness. When done, the cake will be golden and a toothpick inserted in the center will come out dry or with very few crumbs. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool for around 15 minutes. Run a knife around the cake edge (as needed; the cake will probably pull mostly away from the sides while baking) and remove the collar of the Springform. Invert cake onto a plate, peel off the parchment, and place face-up on a wire rack to cool.
Once completely cooled, reheat your syrup if needed; it should just be warm, not steaming hot. Transfer the cake to a plate and poke holes, semi-deeply, all over with a wooden skewer – I find that you have much more control using a wooden skewer than you do using a fork, and the cake tends to stick less, which makes for a better finished product. Pour the syrup slowly and evenly over the cake, working from the outside in: if your cake is like my cake, it will sink in the middle, causing the syrup to pool. This is perfectly normal and fine, but it’s why you want to be sure to hit the outer sections first.
Set aside at room temperature to absorb the syrup, at least 4 hours or preferably overnight. Serve at room temperature.
This cake keeps well stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.