Growing up, I often came across the widely held Indian belief that a daily diet of a few raw almonds in the early hours of the day is good for the brain. Somehow, my parents never bought into that idea.
We weren't all that fond of raw almonds in any case. In the dry fruit trays that we received as Diwali gifts every year, almonds weren't the first to disappear. I chose the walnuts first, even though they were (literally) hard nuts to crack, followed by pistachios and cashew nuts. Almonds often survived till the very end, long after the sounds of Diwali firecrackers had receded into silence. Despite being deprived of the brain enhancing properties of almonds, I think I managed just fine. There remains, however, the question of how much better my grey cells might have turned out with the aid of a daily diet of almonds.
Mine is a cashew loving family. This may have something to do with the fact that my father's childhood home in Kerala was surrounded by cashew nut trees, so that roasting cashews over the raw flame of a homemade fire in the backyard for an occasional snack was no big deal. We could hardly carry on this adventurous family snacking tradition in the Delhi flat in which my brother and I grew up. Still, my father ensured that cashew nuts made regular appearances in our grocery bags. As for me, I grabbed every opportunity to get my hands on kaju burfi, which remains one of my favorite Indian sweets.
But there is one form in which I have always enjoyed almonds - marzipan. As a child, I was enchanted by the imitation fruits and vegetables that marzipan is often shaped into. Of the many edible things that make me go weak in the knees, marzipan continues to rank high. And so, the idea of making an almond based dessert has been floating around in my head for some time now.
A happy confluence of events led me to this recipe for Tarta de Santiago, a rustic almond cake from Spain. Having recently acquired some fine baking equipment, I was itching to bake. Around the same time, a friend introduced me to her favourite fruit tart at a neighborhood cafe, the nicest bit of which was a delicately sweet ground almond filling. The moment I happened on an event worthy of celebration, I decided to scrounge around for a recipe for almond cake, which is what led me to Tarta de Santiago.
The list of ingredients is reassuringly short - ground almonds, sugar and eggs with a touch of orange and lemon zest and a tinge of almond extract. It sounded almost too simple. For a while, I fiddled with the idea of using a glaze or icing to make up for the simplicity of this cake. Eventually, I decided not to.
One of the things that I have learnt from my mother is that with make-up, as with most things, less is more. I ended up simply dusting the top of the cake with powdered sugar, as the original recipe suggested.
This is a an elegant cake with a gentle citrusy note from the orange and lemon zest combined with the nutty flavour of ground almonds - best to let those flavours speak for themselves, even if softly.
Tarta de Santiago (Spanish almond cake)
Recipe reproduced from this link
1/2 pound (1 3/4 cups) blanched whole almonds
6 large eggs, separated
1 1/4 cups superfine sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
Grated zest of 1 lemon
4 drops almond extract
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Finely grind the almonds in a food processor.
With an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a smooth pale cream. Beat in the zests and almond extract. Add the ground almonds and mix very well.
With clean beaters, beat the egg whites in a large bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold them into the egg and almond mixture (the mixture is thick, so that you will need to turn it over quite a bit into the egg whites).
Grease an 11-inch springform pan, preferably nonstick, with butter and dust it with flour. Pour in the cake batter, and bake into a preheated 350°F for 40 minutes, or until it feels firm to the touch. Let cool before turning out.
Just before serving, dust the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar. Or, if you like, cut a St. James cross out of paper. Place it in the middle of the cake, and dust the cake with confectioners' sugar, then remove the paper.
Notes: I used a 9-inch pan, and baking time was approximately 50 minutes. As you can see, I didn't bother with St. James' cross. Even without his overt blessings, this cake turned out to be divine.