Before I talk about Almond and lemon cake, I need to tell you something. Actually that’s not true, I don’t need to tell you anything, I could just continue with the blog and not mention this detail, but considering the nature of both blog and detail, it would probably make things very lopsided and odd. Let me rephrase that, I’d like to tell you something.
I am, if all goes well, having a baby, very soon. Actually I thought the time had come this afternoon, and saw me, the most ill prepared mother- to-be in Europe, frantically consulting my 1972, soft focus, smock-heavy edition of the pregnancy bible Avremo un bambino. Once propped up on the sofa, book open at what I think was the relevant paragraph (it is, as the title suggests, an Italian book which means I don’t fully understand everything, not a bad thing when reading about potentially unpredictable and possibly painful experiences) I realized my cramps were more likely the result of the two oversized slices of aforementioned cake I’d washed down, inadvisably, with both iced lemonade and warm earl grey tea than any impending arrival. The official date is the 7th of september, but as my elderly neighbour keeps shouting from her kitchen window across the courtyard into my kitchen window, the baby will come when the baby is ready.
I am probably sounding very flippant. I don’t feel it. Well not usually. Despite this complicated goulash of a situation. Despite the fact the past nine months have been accompanied by painful sadness about the end of my relationship with the other stomach of Racheleats:Vincenzo, the man I thought I’d have children with, the man I thought I’d be with forever. Despite the fact a new relationship – and I say this with great affection – started at a time when I really should have been alone, I am very happy to be having a baby.
There, said it, and I haven’t forgotten that catching up and outbursts of (possibly too much) information should always be accompanied by good suggestions for lunch, dinner or in today’s case: cake.
Thoughts of this cake have been quietly bubbling away for some time now, for years if I think about it. Well, not this cake exactly, it’s more abstract than that. For years I’ve had it in mind that I’d like, at some point, no rush, to find a good recipe for a dense, moist but not gooey, fragrant but not fussy almond and lemon cake. My quest started nonchalantly with a piece of lemon scented almond cake from Lisboa the Portuguese cafe on Goldhawk Road. It gathered speed in 2001 when I worked at the Pelican organic pub in Ladbroke Grove and the formidable but fantastic chef Karen baked a deceptively plain-looking but glorious golden round, her take on an everyday cake and the various almond and lemon cakes she had eaten in Spain.
I was already well aware of what good dancing partners almond and lemon make. I’m the daughter of a Lancastrian, so I learned young that the neglected cousin of the Bakewell tart, the Lancaster lemon tart – which forgets jam in favor of a thick smear of lemon curd cooked under the almond and egg mixture – is by far the nicer of the two relatives. I’d experienced the joys of lemon syllabub and crisp almond biscuits. I’d gobbled up Maids of honor, those seductive little puff pastry tarts filled with cheese-cake-like almond and lemon cream.
But Karen’s cake was something else, a slice of lemon and almond alchemy, simple – something Florence White writing in 1932 in Good Things in England might have called a ‘cut-and-come-again-cake you never tire of’ - but aromatic and fragrant at the same time, a cake that reminds you almonds and lemons might well be English kitchen staples, but they originate from warmer more exotic climes. It was dense but not heavy, fragrant but not fussy. Karen was in an even more fearsome mood than usual when I walked into the kitchen (still brushing incriminating crumbs from my apron). I didn’t even manage a compliment, never mind a request for the recipe.
The search continued quietly, a recipe ripped from a newspaper, a note to myself to find a spanish recipe for torta de almendros di santiago because this – according to a friend – was the cake I was looking for, an attempt at torta de almendros di santiago and the discovery it wasn’t. Then I discovered Nigella Lawson’s clementine cake, which is in turn inspired by Claudia Roden’s Sephardic orange and almond cake, a recipe which spread faster than juicy gossip a few years ago. It’s the one made by simmering whole oranges or clementines until they are soft as my upper arms and then blending them – zest, skin, pith, fruit – into a thick orange pulp which you mix with eggs, almonds, sugar and a teaspoon of baking powder. Small kitchen epiphany, I’d replace the oranges with lemons, I’d found my cake.
I hadn’t. It was an interesting experiment, but on this occasion whole lemons are rather like sour-faced librarians, however long you simmer them, however much you flatter and try to sweeten them up with sugar, however hard you try, they refuse be won over, it’s the pith you see, it’s all just too pithy and the overall effect is decidedly mouth drying. My search continued, very lazily. Then about 2 weeks ago, an idea that had been baking for years was given a mighty shove by an uncompromising craving and next thing I know I’m cranking up the oven on one of the hottest days of the year to make myself an almond and lemon cake. Frantic book consultation, some risky mixing and matching of several recipes, a dash of improvisation and fifteen minutes of overheating in my new kitchen and I had not only a bun but a cake in the oven.
For me, impulsive baking usually ends in disaster or soggy disappointment! But not this time, I’d stumbled (or waddled) onto my cake, the lemon and almond round I’d been looking for, dense and moist but not heavy, fragrant and just a bit exotic but not fussy, the ‘cut and come again cake one you never tire of’‘. Well, the ‘never tire of’ remains to be seen, but I’ve consumed the greater part of three cakes now and I’m showing no signs of exhaustion. I already knew that one way to guarantee a moist crumb to your cake is to add ground almonds – the oil in the nuts lends dampness to cakes and, even better, means they get even moister after a day or two – this cake is a lovely example of this. It’s a fitting recipe for a great couple: his milky, nutty kindness soothing (but not smothering) her zesty sharpness.
It’s all pretty straightforward, butter and sugar, eggs, ground almonds, a flick of flour, the zest and juice of a lemon and some orange flower water if you fancy (I do) a list of ingredients sure to invite thoughts like ‘That’s it? What on earth was all her fuss and searching about‘. I thought the very same thing. It really is worth wrapping the cake up for a day or two before eating, the flavors deepen and the cake gets even more wonderfully damp and aromatic. Don’t worry if you can’t wait though, it is still damn delicious.
Almond and lemon cake
- 200g soft unsalted butter
- 200g caster sugar
- 4 medium eggs
- 50g plain flour, ideally Italian 00
- 200g ground almonds
- zest and juice of one medium-sized unwaxed lemon
- 2 tbsp orange flower water (optional)
Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl. Add the beaten egg a little at a time to the butter and sugar, with each addition sprinkle on some of the flour, keep beating continuously.
Once all the eggs and flour are incorporated, gently fold in the ground almonds, then the lemon zest, juice and orange flower water if you are adding it.
Pour the mixture into the lined cake tin and bake for 50 – 55 minutes. After about 35 minutes you may well find you have to cover the cake loosely with foil, otherwise it may burn.
The cake is ready when it is firm and a skewer, or better still a strand of raw spaghetti inserted in the center come out clean. Let the cake stand for 15 minutes before turning it onto a wire rack. Once the cake is completely cool, wrap it is greaseproof paper and then foil and leave it for a day or two.
Let us all eat cake.