Today we’re going to pass along an important baking maxim. It’s one that we knew before we made this cake, but we learned it yet again. It’s the kind of maxim that you don’t think that you’d forget, but we did, much to our regret. And it’s such a simple thing too. So, even though we think that you might have to learn this maxim on your own, and we might re-learn it sometime in the future, we’re going to pass it along.
All springform pans leak. That’s it; that’s all you have to remember. Say it with us, “All springform pans leak.” There, we feel better now. If you haven’t used a springform pan, you might be wondering what’s the big deal, but, if you’ve ever, as we did when we made this cake, forgotten to put the springform pan on a rimmed baking sheet before putting it into the oven, resulting in a puddle of melted butter on the oven floor, you’ll see the truth of these words, and understand why they’re so important to remember.
Keeping that in mind, let’s scratch up a cake. This recipe comes from Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, by Jessica Theroux; it’s a traditional cake from the region around Lake Como.
First, note that we give measurements in grams for some of the ingredients. We started weighing ingredients when we began baking bread in earnest; it makes your baking much more consistent. So, if you want your creations to turn out the same every time, use a scale. Unsalted butter is really a must when baking or cooking. Otherwise, you might end up with a salt-surprise cake — interesting, but not in a good way. Eggs: for the best cakes, use the best eggs. We’re lucky to have found a source of eggs from truly pastured hens (we’ve seen them pecking and scratching in the grass), and it makes a difference. For the cream, we went with organic, since it doesn’t contain things like carrageenan (seaweed extract). Instead, it has one ingredient: cream. Call us silly, but we tend to think those Italian grandmothers wouldn’t have put seaweed in their cakes, so we thought we’d omit it, too.
Procedure in detail:
Mise en place. We think that there’s nothing more important when you’re making something like a cake than to get everything measured and ready before you start. So, take the butter out of the fridge, measure the cream, and separate the eggs. These three things need to come to room temperature if you want your cake to be the best possible. Always remember that it’s easiest to separate eggs while they’re cold, then let the yolks and whites warm.
Sift. As part of mise en place, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. We find it easiest to set the sifter right into a bowl, then measure the cocoa (it’s generally the lumpiest and needs the most sifting) into the sifter, followed by the baking soda, baking powder, salt, and finally the flour. Note that, if you’re using a scale, you can just set the bowl and sifter right on the scale, tare it, and quickly measure the flour. Then sift everything through.
Chop. The last thing you need to do to get everything in place is to chop the almonds. We used raw sliced almonds and ran through them a few times with a chef’s knife. We try to place a hand over the top of the knife while chopping to help keep the almond slices from hopping away. Once you’ve chopped the almonds, wait until everything — the butter especially — is room temperature, then you’ll be ready to make your cake.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Place a rack in the center of the oven so the heat around the cake is as even as possible.
Butter and sugar. Generously butter a 9-inch springform pan. We know that it’s probably a non-stick pan, but you’ll want to butter it, anyway. Then sugar it. Pour about a quarter of a cup of sugar into the pan and swirl it around. Swirl the sugar up the sides, too. All the way up the sides. Hint: do your swirling over the kitchen sink. Once the pan has been sugared, shake out the excess (probably over the sink again), and set it aside, while you make the batter.
Cream butter. Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium until the butter is smooth and creamy. If your butter is room temperature, this should take no more than a minute. If it does, your butter may not be warm enough, so wait a while and try again.
Add sugar. With the mixer on medium, slowly pour in the sugar and beat it, together with the butter, on medium until it’s light and fluffy. This is what recipes refer to as creaming the butter and sugar. The sugar crystals act as small whisks to whip air into the butter, making it light, which means a light cake. Creaming butter and sugar can take anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes of beating on medium.While beating, stop the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add eggs yolks and cream. Drop in the egg yolks, and, with the mixer on low, mix until incorporated. Once the yolks are in, add the cream, and mix until everything is uniform, scraping down the bowl as necessary. The batter might look curdled at this point, but it’s fine. From here on out, we’ll be mixing by hand, so, if you want, you can remove the bowl from the mixer and get a wooden spoon (a rubber spatula will work, too).
Add half the almonds. Add about half the chopped almonds (we’re saving the other half for topping) and the almond extract, if using, and stir them in.
Add flour mixture. Add about half the flour mixture and stir it in, remembering to scrape the bottom of the bowl to scoop up any pesky ingredients that don’t want to get incorporated. Add the rest of the flour mixture and mix it in the same way.
Transfer to a large bowl. Scrape all the batter (it’ll be quite stiff) into a large mixing bowl, as you’ll need to use the mixer again.
Wash bowl. Wash the mixer bowl thoroughly, along with the whisk attachment, while you’re at it. Any grease or oil remaining on either the bowl or the whisk will prevent the egg whites from whipping, and we don’t want that. We always wash the bowl and whisk twice, then dry them with a clean towel. You might think that’s obsessive, but we’ve never failed to whip egg whites. Never.
Whip egg whites. Using the whisk attachment on a stand mixer, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar, if using, until they form soft peaks. The peak should droop over when you lift the beater. We start the mixer on medium-low until the whites look frothy, then increase the speed, working up to high, if necessary. Oh, the cream of tartar is only there to help ensure that the whites whip nicely.
Fold. In three additions, fold in the egg whites. The batter is quite thick, so it will be difficult to fold the egg whites in properly; just do the best you can. The original recipe has one stirring in of the whites, but we think that folding will result in a higher-rising cake.
Fill pan. Scrape the batter into your prepared pan, smooth off the top, and sprinkle with the remaining almonds (we didn’t forget about them). This cake will rise from the outside in, so try to get almonds all the way up to the edge of the pan.
Bake. Place the springform pan on a rimmed baking sheet (all springform pans leak), and slide it into the middle of the oven. Bake until the center is no longer jiggly and a toothpick or skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 60 minutes. To be sure that you don’t over-bake your cake, start checking after 50 minutes.
Cool. Let the cake cool for about an hour, then remove the springform pan, and transfer to a plate to cool completely.
This is not an overly-sweet cake, nor is it a cake packed with flavor, but it’s a good cake, a very good cake. Instead of being sweet and flavorful, it’s more refined, perhaps suited to late afternoon tea, or when you want a dessert, but don’t want to feel as though you’ve eaten a cup of sugar. It’s also quite rich — probably that butter — so a single slice is more than sufficient. It can definitely stand on its own without the need for frosting. With the chopped almonds, the cake has an interesting texture, as if it were slightly chewy. We might consider using ground almonds in the batter next time, and possibly even toasting them to bring out a bit more almond flavor, but even as is, we were happy with the way it tasted. Four stars.