A few months ago I had an amazing dinner among friends at Vino's, a local family-run Italian restaurant in Fairfield, CT. We enjoyed all their best Italian dishes and their desserts accompanied by live music. One dessert stood out in particular, the almond cake. My friend demanded that I make one soon. I took it upon myself to bake one that captured the best of an almond cake: a soft yet textural interior, buttery color, crisp exterior, and most importantly a noticeable fragrance and flavor of almonds. It turned out that baking the cake was far from the hardest part of this recipe. The biggest feat was finding almond paste in my area. I visited every grocery store and supermarket and could not find a can or tube of it. Luckily I was reminded of the Italian market. How could have I neglected to look there first?
Almond paste has a sort of grainy texture due to all the ground almonds. But to further play on that texture, this cake combines cornmeal with flour. The cornmeal lends a homey quality and along with the butter and egg yolks, a beautiful pale straw color. To give the cake airiness, the eggs are separated and the whites are whipped with sugar until they resemble a meringue. The whites are then folded into the batter at the last minute before baking. Halfway through the baking process, sliced almonds are added to the top of the cake. They provide an extra textural component, flavor, and crunchiness. Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar, and it's a dessert that's ideal with tea or a cappuccino. And the cake is also a nice lighter alternative to heavy pumpkin or pecan pie for the upcoming turkey holiday.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1-1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, separated
1-1/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup almond paste
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup whole milk
2/3 cup sliced almonds with skins
confectioners sugar, for dusting
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan, line the bottom with a round of parchment paper, and butter again.
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites with 1/4 cup sugar until soft billowy peaks form. The whites should glisten like a meringue. Scrape whites into another bowl.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, at medium speed, cream the butter until fluffy. Add the almond paste and remaining 1 cup sugar; continue to beat until incorporated. Add vanilla and egg yolks, one at a time, and beat until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the mixer on low, alternately add the dry ingredients, then the milk, and finish with the dry ingredients. By hand fold in the egg whites, half at a time, until just combined.
Pour batter into cake pan and smooth top. Bake for 20 minutes. Cake will be raw and jiggly. Scatter the sliced almonds on top of the cake. Be careful not to jostle the cake too much while adding the almonds. It's best to do so right in the oven. Turn cake so that it bakes evenly. Continue to bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cake cool completely in pan.
Once cool, the cake should recede slightly from the rim of the pan. Run a thin knife around cake and turn out onto a rack. Some almonds may be lost. Remove pan and the parchment paper liner. Carefully flip cake onto a serving plate. Dust with confectioners sugar. Yield: 12 slices.