Photos by Greg Nesbit Photography
Everyone knows how I feel about secret recipes: they’re against my religion! Enjoying a dish and then requesting the recipe is just the highest compliment you can give. And some things are just so wonderful, they have to be shared. I received this incredible recipe from an extremely talented pastry chef with whom I worked in DC at Lespinasse in 1996-97, Caroline. She and I worked the pastry “line” together every night, plating elaborate desserts and enjoying the rush of service together. I was totally green in the industry, and couldn’t have been placed next to a more perfect person to train me. She taught me how to use a squeeze bottle of sauce and put it right back where it was, so we wouldn’t waste time looking up to grab it the next time. Together we perfected spooning identital egg-shaped quenelles of ice cream and sorbet onto a beautiful silver platter quickly enough so that the 7th flavor was plated before the 1st ones started to melt (an order of 4 ice cream & sorbet samplers for one table was a particularly riotous challenge for us). She, together with our boss Jill Rose, taught me that attention to detail is what changes something good into something great. These lessons have stayed with me, and I teach them to every student who comes through our kitchen. These women were talented, and I was so lucky to be in their hands so early in my career.
But the recipes…oh my goodness…the recipes! We made some amazing stuff in that kitchen: Lemon-lavender chiboust (the inspiration behind my popular Lemon-Lavender Posset), Ginger Souffles, Coffee macarons. I gained skills and confidence with every new recipe. So much of what I learned still peeks its head into something new that I might try today: a variation on a theme, a new twist. There are some recipes that are so perfect, however, you just don’t want to mess with them at all. This cake, for me, is perfect. Caroline actually used to make it at home and bring it in for me; it wasn’t on the menu. It was just the most divine, sublime, meltingly delicious cake I’d ever had and she would provide me with occasional fixes, taunting me that someday she would share the actual recipe. It actually came from a fantastic San Francisco restaurant where she had previously worked, called Oliveto. I don’t know where it was before that, or who exactly had the genius idea to schmear a load of tart and creamy lemon curd on top of a delicious almond cake batter, scatter it with sliced almonds, and then bake everything together into a bubbling, browned, rustic pan of deliciousness. I just don’t know. But I thank them with all my heart. Please enjoy my most favorite cake:
You can buy a jar of lemon curd to put on the cake, or you can make a batch yourself. The only change that I made to the original cake recipe (ah ha! there’s always something, no??) was to use my own lemon curd recipe, given to me by some very proud and capable English farm women with whom I worked at the Sussex University farm shop when I was a student there. Betty was so generous to share this gorgeous lemon curd with me: the winner of the local Women’s Institute award, no less. Enjoy the rest of the batch on toast, in tartlettes, or just keep making Tuscan Lemon-Almond Tortes, like I do…it keeps well in the fridge or the freezer for many weeks (if it lasts!).
6 oz lemon juice
zest 3 lemons
2 1/4 c sugar
1/2 lb butter
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, place the butter, sugar, salt, lemon juice and zest. Over medium heat, let butter melt and gently bring contents of the pan to a simmer. Whisk the eggs in a medium-sized bowl. When mix is boiling, take off of the heat and drizzle a bit onto the eggs, whisking quickly to avoid scrambling the eggs (a helper can be useful at this point). Once the eggs are warmed quite well, whisk them back into the pan and return the pan to medium heat. Whisk constantly until entire mix comes to simmer to sterilize the eggs and thicken the curd. Take off the heat and strain into a heat-proof container. Allow to cool and then refrigerate until you’re ready to make the cake.
Tuscan Lemon-Almond Torte
The rustic look of this cake pleases me just as much as the cake itself. It’s so unusual, I had to feature it when I first opened my bakery, Cakewalk, in Lee, MA in 2002. I just loved the contrast with the highly decorated and precisely-cut and designed things that were typically in a bakery case. You just schmear the curd on with a spatula, scatter the almonds over, let it bubble and brown in the oven every which way: each one looks different and irresistible with no fussing over it. I wasn’t sure if it would hold mass appeal, but I just wanted to see it in the case next to all of the traditional cookies and tartlettes. And I shouldn’t have doubted: this cake was a huge seller every day at the bakery from day one. I have made this recipe with good results with Jeanne Sauvage’s gluten free flour blend, as well as with Einkorn flour. Use the same amount as the cake flour indicated.
Oven 325, makes One 9 inch cake
Line spring form pan: butter, parchment, butter
1/2 cup almond fl.
1 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 oz soft butter
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla ex.
2/3 cup lemon curd
1/3 cup sliced almonds
-Prepare the pan with the parchment liner to prevent sticking. Preheat the oven and start creaming the butter in the mixer with the flat beater, then add the sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. The mixture will get very fluffy, double the volume. Sift the dry ingredients together. Add the vanilla to the mixer and then fold in the sifted dry ingredients. Scrape into the prepared pan and spoon 2/3 cup of lemon curd onto the mix. Spread out the curd over the top of the batter, leaving about 1/2 in border. Scatter 1/3 cup sliced almonds over the mix and bake for about 25-30 minutes, until a tester is clean (it’s hard to test! I usually put the tester in at a sharp angle to go underneath the curd as best as I can to see that the batter under the curd is cooked). The cake will be set in the middle, bubbly and brown. Take out of the oven and allow to cool thoroughly before slicing into it. It is actually one of those rare cakes that tastes even better after a day or two.