Thursday, May 22, 2008

There is plenty of room for the subtle, delicate cakes

Though I do not understand why, my father doesn't really have a sweet tooth. He has a pasta tooth, and a steak tooth and a Chivas Regal tooth. But he doesn't have a sweet tooth.

It's a challenge, then, to bake him something he'll truly enjoy for his birthday. Sure, he will have a slice of whatever birthday cake ends up in front of him on May 19, but to make him something he'll really love? That is quite a challenge. The trick is to find a confection that is either (a) not too sweet, (b) includes cherries or (c) approximates something his mother used to make for him.

Sister did a magnificent job this year when she presented him with a pineapple upside-down cake in honor of his 65th birthday. He ate a customary slice, then -- to the delight of Sister -- returned to the kitchen and served himself another piece. Sister wins the prize! It was an amazingly delicious and moist dessert and the brown sugar-crumb topping was crunchy and divine. I am impressed with her mad skillz.

Her Dad-cake success got me thinking about other recipes that would please his not-very-sweet tooth. There's a Ligurian lemon cake with raspberries that I made a few years ago that seemed to hit the spot. He enjoys cassata -- indeed, I chose it as one of the tiers of our wedding cake so that the father of the bride would have something to snack on with his guests. Then I came across Giada De Laurentiis' recipe for almond, pine nut and apricot crumb cake. I thought: this has Dad written all over it.

First, it is Italian. So is Dad. Second, it seems to be only marginally sweet. While Dad is very sweet, he does not like his cakes that way. Finally, it includes a lot of nuts -- a dessert characteristic that's always a win with Dad. So even though his birthday had passed, I gave this cake a shot in the hopes of adding it to the list of Cakes Dad Would Like. Perhaps it will make an encore appearance next May, for his 66th. Or maybe I will just bake it lots of times between now and then for no reason whatsoever. I feel like if you have an almond, pine nut and apricot crumb cake sitting around the house on an ordinary average day -- waiting to be consumed with a cup of coffee in the morning or after a healthy helping of rigatoni with pesto at night -- you are living a charmed life indeed.

This cake has a soft crumb that plays nicely with the crisp, caramelized "crust." The nuts lend a pleasing aroma and texture, asserting themselves through the moist cake. Just like Dad would like it, this cake is just barely sweet enough to be legally defined as a dessert. The nuggets of dried apricot offer the occasional "sugary" burst -- but other than that, the cake is only mildly sweet. It's simple, and surprising and humble. It's a real treat.

Happy belated birthday, Dad. As you get older, I get wiser about the range of delicious but not-cloyingly sweet dessert options out there. Life doesn't have to be filled with rich chocolate confections (though such goods do have their place). There is plenty of room for the subtle, delicate cakes that rely on dried fruit, nuts, even pine nuts for their unique texture and complex flavor. All along I thought you were crazy and/or stubborn about your dessert attitude. Turns out, you are actually onto something. I guess father does know best.


Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis' recipe

1/2 c. whole almonds, toasted

1/4 c. sliced almonds, toasted

1/2 c. pine nuts, toasted

1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour

1 t. baking powder

1/2 t. kosher salt

4 eggs

1 1/4 c. sugar

1 1/2 sticks butter, melted

1/3 c. milk

1/4 t. pure almond extract

1/2 c. dried apricots, diced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan.

Toast the whole almonds, sliced almonds and pine nuts on a cookie sheet for 6-8 minutes, taking care not to burn them. Remove from the oven and let them cool.

Combine the whole almonds and 1/4 c. of the pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse the machine until the nuts are finely ground. At this point, your kitchen will smell marvelous. Transfer the nuts to a medium bowl. Add the flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk to combine and set aside.

In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer beat the eggs and the sugar until the mixture becomes thick and pale yellow. Beat in the butter and milk. Stir in the almond extract and apricots. Stir in the dry ingredients.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Sprinkle the top of the cake with sliced almonds and the remaining 1/4 c. of pine nuts.

Bake until the cake is cooked and a toothpick comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Let the cake cool on a wire rack. Use a knife to loosen the edges. Turn the cake out, slice and serve.

Serves 8. Good at all hours of the day and night!


Unknown said...

Pineapple UpsideDown Cake from Jan Etling's cookbook....

Dianne said...

Yay Jan Etling!