I spent two weeks at home in Veneto in late October and, in retrospect, it seems to me as if all I did was baking. I arrived the day after my birthday (I’ve officially entered the last year of my twenties) and kicked off all celebrations by firing off the oven. Then, a week later came Mum’s birthday, and with it came more cake. Nothing fancy, you see; nothing whose sight had people going ‘oooh, and ‘aah’, and take their phones out of their coat to snap a photo. No, nothing of the like. In both cases, all I produced was a rather unassuming number; minimal cake affairs that could come together easily, and with barely any washing up.
Practicalities aside, the truth is that neither Mum nor I have much of a sweet tooth. We like cakes, but multi-layer frosted cakes are very much lost on us. Our preference goes towards crumbly fruit tarts and rustic cakes that are possibly not too sugary. Which is why our birthday cakes often look just like any other cake we’d bake throughout the year…only, with sparklers on top.
Incidentally, both birthday cakes happened to have ground almonds at their core. One was an apple frangipane tart (more of which in a future post). The other (this one), a dense flourless white chocolate cake scented with citrus zest. That in both cases I reached out for the jar of almonds might as well be a coincidence. More likely, though, it’s a cake genre that just appeals to me and I’m instinctually drawn to. I might just as well blame it on my Venetian genes.
Almonds have for long been a key ingredient in Venetian cuisine, and in Venetian desserts in particular. During the golden age of the Serenissima, Venetian traders would sail through the Mediterranean to return with a shipload of spices and dried fruits from the Levant. This is why, while ingredients like almonds were prohibitive anywhere else with the exception of the Southernmost regions of Italy (where people would grow their own almond trees), they were easily accessible in Venetian land, thus giving way to a lasting tradition in producing all matters of almond-based sweets.
Anyways, the cake I made is most definitely a far cry from anything vaguely Venetian. In fact, the idea actually sparked, rather than from my ancestry, from a much-written-about cake paradigms that entails combining dark chocolate and ground almonds into a cake that is as rich, dark and as moist as a brownie. (I have, to date, failed to write about it myself; but soon). For now, suffice to say thay I wanted to keep that concept intact – think dense, fudgy heart and sunken, crisp top – while also making something that wasn’t, well, a chocolate cake. That’s when the idea to use white chocolate came about.
In this recipe, white chocolate acts as a binder as well as a partial replacement for butter and sugar, yet without interfering much with the overall taste of the cake. I wanted it to be like the most flattering of make-ups: enhancing and yet discreet; essential but concealed. Its presence is almost imperceptible in the final product – save a vague note of cocoa butter in the background. What really comes through is a fine balance between the gentle bittersweetness of the almonds and the freshness of the citrus. Which, come to think of it, is one of the most astounding flavour combinations ever conceived.
Of the many variants I’ve baked since that birthday cake in late October – with orange zest, with clementine zest, with lemon zest, with a mix; with more or fewer eggs, more or fewer ground almonds – this is where I settled. The recipe is still very forgiving: the only thing to really be careful with is the temperatures at which all ingredients are stirred together, and the stiffness of the whipped egg whites. From there onward, it’s all downhill. In less than an hour, you’ll have a rich, perfumed cake that needs nothing more than a dusting of icing sugar to be ready to serve. Leafy clementines for garnishing, if you want to add a pop of colour. Or, if you’re anything like me, sparklers. For it sure makes for a lovely birthday cake.
Flourless White Chocolate Citrus Cake
Makes 1 x 20-cm (8-inch) cake
250 g ground almonds
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of sea salt
40 g unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
180 g white chocolate, roughly chopped
100 g caster sugar
3 eggs, separated
Grated zest of 3 unwaxed clementines (or 1 orange or 2 lemons, or a mix)
Icing sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 180°C/360°F. Grease a 20-cm (8-inch) springform cake tin and set aside.
In a large bowl, combine ground almonds with baking powder and salt. Set aside.
Melt the butter in a saucepan set over a low heat. Add the white chocolate and sugar and allow them to melt, stirring all the while. At this point, remove the saucepan from the heat; transfer the chocolate paste to a glass or metal bowl and leave it to cool down.
Meanwhile, place the egg whites in a clean glass or metal bowl. (A slightly oily bowl or a plastic bowl will prevent your egg whites to whip properly). Whip them up (with a stand mixer, electric egg beater or, if you feel brave, with a hand whisk) just until firm peaks form.
Return to the chocolate paste and check the temperature: it shouldn’t feel warm to the touch. Now, stir in the egg yolks and the citrus zest, followed by the dry ingredients, until combined. Finally, fold the egg whites through with gentle movements from the bottom to the top so as not to squash them.
Transfer the cake batter to the greased cake tin and level the top. Set it on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until cooked all the way through. If you see that the top tends to turn too dark too quickly (a common happening in nut-based preparations), cover it with a sheet of foil.
Once done, allow the cake to cool in the tin for 20 minutes. Run a knife all along the edge to free the spring form. Transfer the cake to a rack and allow it to cool completely before slicing. Serve with a light dusting of icing sugar.Print recipe