Sunday, January 4, 2015
Goldilocks’ Almond Torte
Once upon a time there was the most amazing almond torte in the history of the known universe. It wasn’t too light. It wasn’t too dense. It wasn't too dry. It wasn't too sweet. It was juuuuuuust right. This torte was one of the desserts at The Ragtop Grill. My first ever restaurant job in a long line of them that ultimately supported me through high school and a couple of college "careers," The Ragtop was a cute little bistro with an octagonal footprint, and eight panels of canvas roof that rolled up and away so that the entire dining room was open-air, with a fireplace in the center and surrounding redwood trees for a canopy. Locals would drive their ragtops down from the hills and in from the coast for the grill’s lovely, classic Sunday brunch, which was my first exposure, at the impressionable age of 15, to foods other than my mom’s southern down-home cooking.
There was an oyster bar with raw oysters on the half shell, Oysters Rockefeller, oysters all kinds of ways, all of which were brand new to me. There was gravlax, brioche, and half a dozen variations on Eggs Benedict. The Ragtop blew the roof off my concept of food. It is where I first realized that there was a whole world of food out there, a world waiting to be explored, where none of the dishes were flavored with canned of cream-of-chicken soup or Cool Whip.
At some point in my history of waitressing jobs, I figured out that just about any chef was happy to stay after a shift to teach an eager student how to make something from the menu that she particularly loved. The almond torte, however, was before that time and it simply didn't occur to me to ask for -- or abscond with -- the recipe. I didn't know, as a young teenager, that this torte would haunt me into adulthood, and that decades later I'd still be trying recipes in the hopes of finding one that matched the perfect density and not-too-sweet-ness of the first almond torte to ever pass my lips. I didn't know that the distance of years and the fallibility of memory would be putting this torte more and more out of reach as time went by.
The search has taken me around the world. The Majorcan Flourless Lemon Almond Cake, at the light end of the spectrum, is wheat- and gluten-free and lightened with whipped egg whites; it’s practically health food. The very dense, very buttery Italian Almond Cake, which is most definitely a dessert, represents the heavy, indulgent end of the spectrum. The otherworldly Cranberry Pecan Frangipane Tart is amazing and lovely (and a new favorite), but different than what I've been aiming for. The hazelnut torte from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, which I tried with both almonds and pecans, is wonderful with any nut, but again, different than what I was after. All these years later, I still hadn’t found the magic recipe, so finally, left with no other choice, I made one up.
Experimenting like this is rarely as successful as it was with this effort. At least in my experience, something is always not-quite-right, there's too much of one ingredient, and not enough of another, with results that remind me that I don't entirely know what I'm doing. But, surprisingly, somehow, borrowing elements from both the lightest and densest tortes, aiming for middle density and as much almondiness as possible, this one worked -- I mean really worked -- the first time around. It will, of course, be ever impossible to achieve a perfect match for a 30 year old memory of what is now an unreachable pinnacle in almond torte-dom, but this recipe might just be as close as I’ll ever get. It’s juuuuuuust right enough. (And it's easy.)
1 1/3 cups almonds
1/2 cup wheat flour*
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chopped
*Make it wheat-free by substituting an additional 1/2 cup of almonds, processed, for the wheat flour.
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ tsp almond extract
¾ cup slivered almonds
½ TBSP sugar
1/8 tsp salt
Process almonds in food processor to a flour-like consistency.
Add wheat flour, nutmeg and salt. Pulse to combine.
Add butter; pulse to combine.
In a separate bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until sugar starts to dissolve, then stir in extracts.
Gradually add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and combine.
Scrape batter (it will be thick) into a buttered and floured 9” springform pan and spread it evenly.
Sprinkle slivered almonds over batter; sprinkle sugar and salt over almonds.
Bake at 350 for 40 minutes. Let it cool for as long as you can stand before cutting it.