chocolate almond cake

This is the deservedly famed “Reine de Saba” cake from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It is not the most photogenic of cakes, but its taste is exquisite – it has a creamy center (the cake comes out of the oven before the center is fully cooked), a rich chocolate and almond flavor, and a simple but decadent chocolate frosting. I’ve never been a fan of over-the-top, frilly, covered in sickeningly-sweet frosting kinds of cakes (well, ok, I was as a small child, but who isn’t?). I prefer desserts that are not too sweet but intensely-flavored at the same time. Savor each bite of a small slice slowly, and you will find yourself thoroughly satisfied, instead of feeling sickly and having a sugar rush.

One of my New Year’s resolutions from last year, which I found recently on a sheet of paper stuffed away in my desk, was to finally save up/otherwise acquire enough money to buy a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. I very recently managed to do just that (with quite a bit of help from family members who gave me money for Christmas), and I decided that this cake would be the mixer’s inaugural project. There are so many different techniques required for this cake that the mixer didn’t really make it that much faster or easier, but I am looking forward to many other recipes that the mixer will simplify – I’ve been using a cheap, crappy hand mixer for a few years, and will not miss having my hand and arm jarred or the mixer grinding to a halt in moderately thick cookie doughs.

Now that I have the stand mixer, one of my kitchen-related resolutions for this year is to extend my bread-making repertoire (er, beyond my extremely limited skills with no-knead bread and pizza dough). I also want to get better at menu-planning – my m.o. at the moment is to make a big meal on the weekend, expect to eat leftovers for the rest of the week, and then run out during the middle of the week when I am most busy and have the least time to run to the store and figure out something new to make – and thus generally end up getting take-out. Finally, I have a huge list of recipes I have been meaning to try (seriously, my recipe bookmarks folder has 417 items in it), or meals I have had at restaurants that I want to try and recreate, so I am planning to check some of those off the list. Feel free to post any kitchen resolutions you have for this year in the comments!

The recipe follows below the fold…

Chocolate Almond Cake

This recipe is pretty fussy for a cake that looks so simple when it is finished (probably for the best, as I’d otherwise be eating this a lot more than I should). It is worth every minute you spend on it. I think of it as a special occasion cake, and, if one is making a cake for a special occasion, one ought to expect to spend a bit more time on it. If you’re a novice baker (I certainly was the first time I made this), you’ll get to learn/practice all kinds of useful kitchen techniques – blanching almonds, whipping egg whites, and doing an awful lot of folding. I’ve broken the recipe up into several steps – on the almonds, I recommend making a larger amount than what you’ll need for the cake. This way, you can freeze the leftovers for later use. Because chocolate is a dominant flavor here, I recommend buying a good quality block – I generally use Scharffen Berger 62%, but there are plenty of other good options out there. The original recipe says you can use either rum or coffee – I’ve always used rum, but imagine the cake would be equally delicious with coffee (then it would be a mocha cake!). I use an inexpensive gold rum – Julia recommends dark Jamaican rum, which tends to be more expensive, and I generally don’t feel like paying that much for cooking alcohol. In any case, don’t use light (i.e. clear) rum.

Makes one eight-inch cake

Ingredients:

For the pulverized almonds:

1 cup whole almonds
2-3 tablespoons granulated sugar

For the cake:
4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate
2 tablespoons rum or freshly brewed coffee
1 stick butter, softened
2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
3 large egg yolks
3 large egg whites
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup pulverized almonds (from above)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup cake flour

For the icing:

2 oz. semi-sweet chocolate
2 tablespoons rum or freshly brewed coffee
5 tablespoons unsalted butter

Directions:

For the pulverized almonds:

(If you can find blanched almonds, then you can skip this first part.) Preheat oven to 350F/176C.  To blanch the almonds and remove their skins, bring a pot of water to the boil. Pour in the almonds and boil for one minute. Drain, and allow to cool for a few minutes, until you can work with the almonds without burning yourself. Squeeze each almond between your thumb and forefinger, and the almond will slip right out of its skin – careful, as some may shoot across the room if you aren’t prepared to catch them with the other hand! Once you have skinned all of the almonds, place them on a baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes – this will dry them out. Remove almonds from oven, and allow to cool thoroughly.

Once the almonds have cooled, transfer them to the food processor (you can use a blender if you don’t have a food processor, but you will have to pulverize the almonds in smaller quantities, a half cup at a time). Add 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, and pulse until the almonds are finely ground. If the almonds appear gummy or are sticking together too much, add another tablespoon of sugar – this makes them easier to combine with other ingredients later. Once the almonds are finely ground, they are ready to use – if you have any leftover, you can freeze them in a freezer bag until you need them again. You can prepare the almonds well in advance to save time when making the cake.

For the cake:

Preheat oven to 350F/176C. Butter and flour an eight-inch cake pan.

To melt the chocolate, place chocolate in a small pot with the rum. Cover the pot. In a medium pot that the small pot can nest in, bring some water just to a simmer. Turn off the heat, and place the smaller pot into the medium pot – the small pot should be able to nest in the medium pot without the water coming up to the rim of the small pot. Leave the chocolate there to melt while you complete the next few steps.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large bowl if you are using a hand mixer), place the butter and 2/3 cup sugar. Beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks, and beat until well blended.

Place the egg whites and pinch of salt in a separate bowl. Using the whisk attachment on a stand or hand mixer (or a whisk if you don’t have a mixer), beat until soft peaks are formed. Add the 1 tablespoon of sugar, and beat until stiff peaks are formed. Set aside.

Add the melted chocolate to the butter and sugar mixture, and blend with a rubber spatula. Stir in the almonds and almond extract. Stir in one fourth of the egg whites – this will lighten the batter. Add another third of the egg whites, and fold in carefully. When partially blended (i.e. you can still see a few streaks of white), sift in one third of the flour, and fold in carefully. Alternate with more egg whites and flour, folding carefully after each addition, until all of both are thoroughly incorporated. Do not overwork the batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, and spread evenly. Bake on the middle rack in the oven for about 25 minutes. The cake is done when it has puffed, and a toothpick plunged 2 1/2-3 inches from the edge comes out clean. The center may jiggle slightly, and a toothpick plunged in the center should come out oily, with a few crumbs attached. The key to this cake’s wondrousness is the creamy center, so do not overbake.

Once you have removed the cake from the oven, cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Then run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake, invert the cake onto a cooling rack, and remove the cake pan. Cool entirely before frosting. When you are reading to frost, turn the cake right side up onto a serving platter.

For the icing:

Use the same method described above to melt the chocolate with the rum or coffee. Leave the chocolate mixture in the small pot for about five minutes to melt thoroughly. Remove the chocolate pan from the hot water, and beat in the butter one tablespoon at a time, until all the butter is thoroughly melted. In a large bowl, place a tray of ice (or some loose ice cubes) and cover with cold water. Set the chocolate pot into the ice water, and beat the chocolate with a rubber spatula. It will gradually cool and firm up. It may look grainy at first, but don’t panic – keep beating and it will smooth out and darken. Once the chocolate has cooled to a spreading consistency, remove the pot from the ice bath, and immediately spread the icing over the cake with a spatula or knife. If you want, you can make a design on the cake with slivered almonds – I never do this, because I don’t want to interrupt the creamy texture, but Julia recommends it.

The cake will keep for about 4-5 days if stored at room temperature in an air tight container. It goes especially well with a cup of strong coffee.

Adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

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6 Comments on “chocolate almond cake”

  1. That looks absolutely wonderful – I do adore a good gluten free chocolate cake!

    • Well, it does have a wee bit of cake flour in it, which makes it not gluten-free – but it is wonderful :). I know very little about gluten-free cooking (something I should work on), but I’d think this could be converted pretty easily by someone who knew what s/he was doing, as it only has 1/2 cup of flour.

  2. Mimi says:

    This also looks amazing. As for a gluten-free version, sweet white rice flour seems to substitute nicely for small amounts of cake flour like this.

  3. Jennie says:

    Just found your blog-beautiful! 🙂


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