I feel that when I is standing at a culinary and cultural crossroads, nervous and a bit unsure of how to proceed, there are only two people I really want to put my faith in – Deb from Smitten Kitchen and Thomas Keller of ethereal restaurant(s)-fame. Really? Who else do you think is going to get you through this little culinary hot spot you find yourself in? Your friends? PUH-LEESE. Your mother? Not this time. Honestly… truly… there are only two people I want in my corner on this particular culinary exploration, and there are absolutely no substitutes for Ms. Perelman and Mr. Keller.
Of course, you may be saying to yourself, “What little culinary/cultural traffic jam could you be in Natalie?”.
Well let me tell you. This spring, for reasons too plentiful and personal to put on the interwebs, I celebrated my first Passover in 15 years. Moreover, this is the first time in my life I have ever OBSERVED Passover. Now I feel that for a lapsed Catholic agnostic Mexican/Lebanese descendant, I am actually pretty knowledgable about Passover and have had quite a bit of exposure to it. I remember gathering around the dining room tables of Jewish family friends to participate in seders and experiencing these rituals as only a child can – in an over-simplified state of wonder about what all the adults were doing. Now I live in New York City which boasted the largest number of Jewish inhabitants of any other US city, but also happens to be the second largest IN THE WORLD (trumped only by Tel Aviv) and am blessed to have many Jewish friends who celebrate. And as I have told the Boyfriend MANY MANY times, for a gentile I have sort of an unnatural obsession with matzo (smeared with fresh pesto – it’s the best thing EVER). And I think for my first attempt at Passover in almost a decade and a half I did pretty well. I cleared out everything containing flour from my fridge (full disclosure: I left everything in my pantry) and stocked up on my favorite treat (Passover or not) mentioned above. (Seriously. Go out. Go now. To the store. Matzo, basil, parmesan cheese. Delicious!!)
I approached learning about Passover like a school project. I did research, pulling references and reading articles. The one aspect that made me nervous in this whole experiment was what to make for the seder I was attending. I knew I would make latkes because, not to toot my own horn, but I am totally awesome at making latkes. I don’t know why and really don’t have a recipe to share aside from potatoes, grated onion, matzo meal, egg, salt and pepper, mixed together and fried in olive oil over very high heat. But I wanted to stretch the old culinary legs a bit. Explore some new territory. This is where Perelman and Keller come in.
To smittenkitchen.com I went. And although there were flour-less chocolate cakes a plenty, I sort of felt like, “been there, done that”. Also, my friend Dan already had his favorite flour-less chocolate cake on the roster. No need to compete. But when I saw this recipe adapted from Thomas Keller for Almond Cake with Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote, I knew I had found a winner. I loved that the cake incorporated fresh, springy ingredients starting to show up in local green markets. I was also intrigued by the almond paste, an ingredient that I had never used but was always interested in. In her post Deb seemed to think that the cake got a little dense, but I think that is a positive quality for this cake. Also, instead of “brushing” the cake with amaretto I sort of just poured amaretto on top of the cake before the almond and powdered sugar step. Maybe that helped… The original recipe also called for crème fraiche which I forgot about truth be told. I am sure that would be delicious as well if you aren’t 3 glasses of wine into your seder meal, but the cake was still magnificent without it.
All in all, I rocked Passover. To next year!
(Lucy says Happy Passover too)
Almond Cake with Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote
For the compote
1/2 lb strawberries, rinsed and hulled
1/2 lb rhubarb, trimmed
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup + 2 tbsps granulated sugar
For the almond cake
Butter and finely ground matzo meal for the pan(s)
7 ounces almond paste
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled
2 tablespoons honey
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons amaretto, plus additional for brushing
1/3 cup matzo meal, finely ground in a food processor (a mortar and pestle would have also worked)
1/4 cup amaretto
1/3 sliced almonds, toasted
Make the compote
1. Select about 2 ounces of the smallest strawberries and cut lengthwise into quarters. These will be added raw to the cooked compote; set aside.
2. Cut the remaining larger berries in halves or quarters so that the pieces are about the same size. (You should have about 1 1/4 cups.) Place them in a medium saucepan.
3. With a paring knife, pull away and discard the strings that run the length of the rhubarb stalks. Cut the stalks into 3/4-inch pieces (you should have about 1.5 cups) and add to the saucepan.
4. Use a fine grater or a Microplane to zest the lemon. Add 1 teaspoon of the zest to the pan. Squeeze 1 tablespoon of juice and add it to the pan. Add the sugar and stir to coat the fruit.
5. Place the pan over medium-high heat and cook, stirring often to dissolve the sugar. By the time the sugar has dissolved, the fruit will have released a lot of juice. Boil for about 4 minutes to reduce the liquid somewhat, then reduce the heat and simmer for another 2 minutes, or until the rhubarb is soft. Don’t worry if some of the rhubarb falls apart.
6. Take pan off the stove and stir in reserved strawberries. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate in a covered container until cold. (This makes about 4 cups of compote, but the extra will keep for a couple of weeks and is delicious for breakfast, especially with crème fraiche.)
Make the cake
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Butter and flour four 4-by-1 3/4-inch-high miniature springform pans or butter and flour the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round cake pan. If using the 8-inch pan, line its bottom with a circle of parchment paper; this isn’t necessary with the small pans.
2. Place the almond paste and sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in another large bowl if using a handheld mixer. Begin to cream the mixture on low speed to break up the almond paste, then increase the speed to medium for about 2 minutes, or until the paste is broken into fine particles.
3. Add the butter and mix for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the mixture is light in color and airy; stop the machine and scrape down the sides as necessary. It is important to mix long enough or the cake will have a dense texture.
4. Mix in the honey, then add the eggs one at a time, beating until each one is fully incorporated before adding the next. Add the amaretto, flour, and a pinch of salt and mix just to combine.
5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan(s) and smooth the top. Bake the small cakes for about 15 minutes, the large one for about 25 minutes, or until the cake is golden and springs back when pressed. Transfer to a rack to cool.
6. Unmold the small cakes or invert the large cake onto the rack, remove the parchment paper, and invert the cake again so that the top is once again facing upward. Pour the remaining amaretto on top of the cake(s) slowly, letting the liquid soak into the cake completely and sprinkle with the toasted almonds. Dust with confectioners’ sugar. (The large and small cakes can be stored, well wrapped, at room temperature for up to 2 days.) To serve, cut the small cakes in half or the large cake into wedges. Serve with the strawberry-rhubarb compote.