1.14.2009

first love

One short week ago, sweet, Sweet Amandine, you were born! Two slices of toast, a tin of anchovies, a couple of roasted chickens, some muhammara, a doomed blue bowl, and a very pretty dress later, here we are. Along the way, dear readers, you've learned some more about me, and I have discovered something quite thrilling about you...

You exist!

And I'm blushing. When your encouraging responses to my musings started rolling in I got all wibbly wobbly. You caught me off guard! Thank you, truly, not only for reading, but also for sharing your own thoughtful, funny, and smart ideas about what nourishes you.

Speaking of sharing, it's about time I unveil the tasty treat that inspired the title of this blog. Here she is, in all her luscious, almond-y glory:

almond tart

This tart is first love in edible form. I know, I know, that sounds terribly melodramatic. But I have witnessed enough wide eyes and meaningful silences following buttery first bites to know that this metaphor rings true. I speak not of first crushes or heady infatuations, but of first love: that heart-stopping moment when you are bowled over by the realization that your own capacity to love is infinitely greater than you imagined. It's the love that teaches you once and for all that "oh, this, THIS, is what love is!" and nothing else will suffice.

While some have a life-long affair with chocolate, my heart was captured at a young age by the allure of all things almond: almond extract, almond paste, marzipan, (and much later) almond liqueur... My mom traces this love back to my early encounter with Lazzaroni amaretti cookies (the cookies are actually made from apricot kernels, but the flavor is undeniably similar to almond).
Mom may be onto something. We moved from New York to the Midwest when I was five, and I brought the elegant, long-empty, Lazzaroni tin with me. I remember lying on the floor of my bedroom in the big Ohio farmhouse, lifting the top from the red tin, inhaling, and trying to reassemble the flavor of these little treats from the aroma that still clung to the metal.

Years later, home from college for a visit, I discovered the star of this post perched innocently on the kitchen counter. Life has never been the same. I honestly don't know which I enjoy more, eating or baking this tart. It was this recipe that first got me thinking about the kind of baker (and occasional cook) I wanted to be. This crumbly first love set the tone in my kitchen: The sweets and savories from my oven would be straightforward and true. They would be beautiful, yes, but humble, and unabashedly rough around the edges.

Like many of the sweet recipes that have become staples in my kitchen, this one was passed on to me from my step-mom, Amy. I have preserved its original title, "Marcella's Butter Almond Cake." Recently, I asked Amy, "Who is Marcella, anyway?" She had no idea. The recipe, clipped from the Columbus Dispatch, was given to her ten years ago by her friend, Patricia. Well, thanks to my one foot in academia, I thought a little research was in order. It seems that "Marcella" is one Marcella Sarne of Long Beach, California, who entered this recipe in a baking contest sponsored by C&H sugar. She won the grand prize, a $40,000 custom kitchen! A whopping prize, you may be thinking, for a recipe that demands so little time and so few ingredients. But I urge you to grab this recipe and head to your kitchen immediately. You'll see. She deserved it.

almond tart, from above

Marcella’s Butter Almond Cake

1 ½ c. sugar
¾ c. butter, melted
2 eggs
1 tsp almond extract [I've been known to up the quantity by an extra 1/2 tsp...]
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
1 ½ c. flour
3 T sliced almonds [that's sliced, not slivered, folks]
1 T sugar for garnish
[I've rewritten the following instructions to reflect the order of my own steps in the kitchen. I do believe I have streamlined this procedure for maximum efficiency!]

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
While the oven is heating up:
Melt the butter over the lowest possible flame and set aside to cool.
Grease and flour a 9-inch round pan. [I like to use a fluted pan with a removable bottom.]
Measure the 1 1/2 c. sugar into a mixing bowl.

Then:
Spread the sliced almonds on a baking pan and toast them in the oven while you mix the batter. Toasting should take about 7 minutes. Follow your nose: When you smell toasted almonds, you've got toasted almonds!

Back at the mixing bowl:
Pour the melted butter into the sugar and blend. Beat in the eggs. Stir in the almond extract and vanilla. Add the salt and flour, and mix well.

Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and 1T sugar for the garnish. Bake 30-40 minutes, until just golden on top. When the tart is baked through, a toothpick inserted into the center will come out clean.

My favorite ways to enjoy this tart:
- with a mug of Earl Grey tea
- alongside a little mound of sliced wild strawberries
- warm, beneath a scoop of vanilla ice cream

43 comments:

shannon said...

Thank you so much for sharing this with the MS crew it is DELICIOUS! YUM YUM YUM!

jess said...

Hi, Shannon
Thanks for your comment! I'm so glad that you enjoyed the tart. I agree -- this recipe is definitely worthy of all caps. YUM indeed.

Carrie said...

Wow. I have to say - by the looks of this recipe alone, I never would have made it. How could something with so few ingredients and so few steps be any good at all? (Especially without any chocolate.) But with that description, how could I resist? Thank you for sharing this recipe. A definite repeat.

jess said...

Carrie, thanks for giving this recipe a shot despite its humble list of ingredients. I'm so pleased that it didn't let you down!

Erin said...

This was absolutely spectacular last night! You do realize I'm going to share your secret recipe with everyone, right?

Jess said...

Thanks, Erin. Share away, m'dear! I am decidedly not a secret recipe kind of girl. Personally, I can't imagine taking a bite of this cake and not wanting to climb up on the nearest rooftop, sing its praises, and shower the passersby down below with a confetti of notecards bearing the recipe!

Shannalee said...

I had coffee with a friend tonight and would you believe Starbucks was selling amaretti cookies, like authentic ones from Italy, amongst the cups and mugs? I can't believe I held myself back.

Now that I've read this, I feel justified in heading to the Italian market - well, and making this cake. How lovely!

Jess said...

Hi, Shannalee. I don't know how you managed to restrain yourself! This cake is just the thing for a fix of rich, almondy goodness. I can't wait for your first taste. If the folks over at Starbucks knew how easy it is to throw this recipe together, maybe they would start selling slices of this cake too!

Anonymous said...

I've been looking for this almond cookie/cake I tried a few wks ago from a bakery I found. So I've been trying to find a recipe similar to it and your picture seems to match it. I mean I plan on making yours non the less since the reviews all say how amazing it is. I just wanted to know, is it soft on the inside and is it crumbly?
Thanks so much!

Jess said...

Hi, Anonymous. I would say that the inside of this tart is soft, rich, and dense. The outer edge (meaning, the perimeter that bakes against the pan) can be a little hard and crumbly, and there are always a few sliced almonds and sprinklings of sugar that fall off onto the plate. (Perfect for a final press with the finger, and an indulgent lick.) Happy baking!

Anonymous said...

Could somebody explain what "T" stands for in "3 T sliced almonds". Thank you.

Jess said...

Hello, Anonymous. "T" stands for tablespoon, as opposed to "t" or "tsp," which stands for teaspoon. I hope that clears things up.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Jess.

Sue said...

I just tried this "cake" at a neighborhood gathering and I feel in love with it and had to have the recipe. I believe she made it in a springform pan, though. I plan to serve it at our son's rehearsal dinner next month. Delicious!

Jess said...

Anonymous - No problem at all.

Sue - Congratulations on your son's marriage. Celebrating with this cake sounds like a wonderful idea. Thanks for your note!

Sue said...

The cake was a big hit. I did use the springform pan and it worked great.

Jess said...

I'm so glad to hear it, Sue. Thanks for reporting back.

Anonymous said...

This looks delicious. Is it more of a cake or tart? It looks like the latter in the picture but the method seems to produce a cake batter as there is no separate recipe for crust.

davidr said...

Thank you!!! My kids are gluten-free, so I used almond flour instead. Wow! Even my husband, who is not a big desert fan loved it. This is a keeper!

newcookontheblock said...

This was great! I just made it in tartlet form to celebrate my Christmas-gift ramekins and I loved it. I posted a link to the recipe on my little blog at http://newcookontheblock.com/2009/12/30/sweet-amandine-tartlets/.

Thanks for sharing, and it's great to see other Cambridge food bloggers out there :D

Jess said...

Anonymous - That's a good question. And I suppose that I've only added to the confusion by calling it a tart in the body of the post, and a cake in the recipe title. I would actually say that it's a little bit of both. You're right that it's prepared like a simple cake; there's no separate tart shell. (That's part of the beauty of it, in my opinion.) But the result isn't exactly cake-like. It's rich and dense, and not at all spongy. More than once, I've been asked by (very satisfied) guests at my table about the "crust" and the "filling," and they're surprised to learn that the whole thing comes forth from a single batter. I think that's because the outside crisps up very nicely, and cracks and crumbles beneath the fork. Meanwhile, the inside is moist and buttery, almost like (a rather cakey) marzipan. Does that help? I hope that I haven't confused you even more! If you decide to give this recipe a go, I would be grateful to hear how it turns out, and where you would place it along the tart-cake continuum.

davidr - You just made my night! I love the idea of substituting almond flour. Do you know that despite my deep, abiding love for all things almond, I have never baked with almond flour? I bet it did all kinds of wonderful things to the texture and flavor of this tart. I'll have to give it a try. Thank you so much for reporting back.

newcookontheblock - Congratulations on your new blog! I'm always so happy to hear from local Boston bloggers. I'm honored that you decided to make this recipe a part of your holiday gifting, and I thank you for your kind words on your blog. I hope you're staying warm this winter. Happy New Year!

Stephanie said...

Jess, Do you think you can replace the sugar with maple syrup in this? Perhaps add a bit more flour?

Jess said...

Hi, Stephanie. I've never tried substituting maple syrup for sugar in any recipe, so I'm afraid that I have no idea what the result might be. I would be nervous about replacing granulated sugar with a liquid sweetener. I would worry about the cake setting up properly. If it does set up, I have a feeling that you'll have a cake with a very different texture (not necessarily a bad thing). I'm also not sure that I can imagine this cake with a maple-y flavor twist. But I'm a total wuss when it comes to experimentation in baking. If you're feeling brave and bold, and you decide to give it a shot, please do report back! I'm sorry that I can't be of any more help.

Anonymous said...

Stephanie.... I made 2 of these wonderful cakes last night. Why two? well one was plain and the other was orange marmalade. I dabbed home made marmalade on the top on the cake then swirled it with a skewer and baked it just like that. It turned out great. Everyone at the party thought I bought the cakes in a professional bakery. They were both a hit.

Anonymous said...

whoops .. Hi Jess... my mistake..

Shelley said...

Just wondered approximately how long you cook the tartlets and what size they are - as shown in the later posting. Thank you, Shelley

Jess said...

First, Anonymous, it looks like I missed this comment a while back. I love the sound of an orange marmalade version of this cake, and I bet I'd love the taste of it even more. What a brilliant idea!

Shelley, I happen to be sitting right next to my recipe file, and so I just pulled out the recipe to find an answer to your question about baking time. Would you believe that I didn't make a note of it?! I'm so sorry. I do remember that they took longer than I expected, something between 20 and 25 minutes, I think.

As for the size, my mini tart pans are 3 inches across on the bottom, and 4 inches from rim to rim. I hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

My cake did not set up even after nearly 70 minutes in the oven. Did I do something wrong or is it supposed to stay super soft in the center? It seemed uncooked, so I was hesitant to eat it. Also, I noticed there is no leavening of any kind. I suppose that is what makes for the soft, dense center that I should've been able to achieve? I may have to give it another go as I, too, love all things almond and your cake looks delicious.

Jess said...

Oh no! I'm so sorry to hear that this recipe gave you trouble. How frustrating. Let's try to figure this out. While it's impossible for me to know exactly what went wrong, my first thought is that you might have a problem with your oven temperature. When I've accidentally left the cake in my oven for longer than 40 minutes, it threatens to burn. If your cake's still uncooked after 70 minutes at 350 degrees, well, that just doesn't sound right to me. Do you keep a thermometer in your oven? If not, you might want to give that a try to see if your oven is running cool. In my experience, the temperature on the oven dial can sometimes be quite different from the actual temperature in there. To answer your question about the consistency of the cake: I would say that the entire cake is somewhat soft beneath the outer layer, but it should certainly be cooked through! When you insert a toothpick into the center of the cake, it should come out clean, or with only a crumb or two clinging to it. That's how you'll know it's done. I do hope you'll try it again, and that it will work for you. Please do let me know if I can be of any help, either here, or by e-mail.

Sylvia said...

I love the almonds on this! Makes me start drooling just thinking about them.. I didn't even see any other ingredients besides the almonds. I bet it's delicious!
-Sunny
ioLite Vaporizer

Anita B said...

I don't remember how I found your site, but thank goodness I did. This cake is to die for and too easy to be believed. I made it for some friends, one of whom never eats the dessert. I sent some home with her, and she called me a few minutes later, and begged me for the recipe. She said it is the first dessert in 40 years that she liked. I'll be making this again and again! Thank you so much,.

Jess said...

Hi, Anita. What a wonderful note to wake up to on a Monday morning! Thank you so much for taking the time to write. I'm so glad that this cake was a hit in your kitchen - and beyond!

Anonymous said...

Wow, thank you -- this cake is absolutely beyond *delicious*! And if you're in a super-hurry as I was the first time I made it last week, you can use TJ's pre-toasted almonds instead of toasting your own (slivered work just as well as sliced, btw -- they actually add a hearty crunch that my BF prefers); and you can melt the butter in a bowl in the microwave, then simply add the other ingred's in order -- no need to bother with an extra pan and spatula.... (-: (Note: I used scant measures of whole-wheat pastry flour b/c I didn't have white flour on hand, and the cake/tart came out seriously scrumptiously. (-: )

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to write and say THANK YOU SOOOOOOOOO MUCH for sharing this recipe! This is hands down one of my all time favorite desserts ever. I baked it today and my husband agreed. I had one slice and had to restrain myself from going back for seconds. Thanks again!

M said...

This looks delicious. Jess, what would you say to browning the butter? Whenever I see melted butter my impulse is always to brown it...

Jess said...

Hi, M. Now that is a terrific impulse! You know, I'm not sure I should admit this, but I have painfully little experience with brown butter. I have no idea how it would work in this recipe. If you try it, would you please report back? You have me very curious...

M said...

I browned the butter before adding it to the sugar. Once everything was mixed up, I had to stop myself from stealing the batter! I did a few other things differently: I dialed back the vanilla to 1 tsp, doubled the almond extract, and sprinkled turbinado sugar on top. The cake baked up beautifully and I served it with a simple raspberry sauce. It was delicious and the brown butter enhanced the nuttiness of the almonds. Thank you!

Jess said...

I'm so glad it worked out for you, M! Your version sounds just wonderful. Thank you for reporting back. I appreciate it.

amanda said...

i'm thinking of making this for thanksgiving. how far in advance do you think this can be made and still hold up covered at a cool room temp? do you ever refrigerate or freeze it?

i've made it before but it's never lasted more than one dinner!

Jess said...

Hi, Amanda. I've only ever made it the day of, but I bet it would do fine if you want to bake it a day in advance. I've never frozen it, and I actually don't have much experience freezing cakes, so I'm not sure how this one would do. I think you have the right idea covering it and keeping it at room temperature.

Patty said...

Is the flour used all purpose? No leavening is used so I wanted to confirm this is accurate.
Thanks

Patty said...

Is the flour used all purpose? No leavening is used so I wanted to confirm this is accurate.
Thanks

Jess said...

Hi, Patty. Yes, all purpose flour. It is a low, dense cake, though the eggs do give it a bit of a lift. I hope you'll love it as much as I do.