Andrew’s birthday cake: almond butter cake with amaretto Italian buttercream

The finished cake’s cross-section.

I want to get better at making cakes, so I’ve volunteered to make them for any interested friends to get the practice in. Related, a recent visit to a secondhand bookstore led to my acquiring The Art of Fine Baking by Paula Peck (1961), which contains several classic Northern and Western European cake and pastry recipes of the sort that a proper English grandmother might have in her own collection. These kinds of books have a certain appeal to me, mainly because they completely ignore modern tropes like trendy ingredients (or trendy aversions), moralizing (“guilt-free desserts!” and “clean eating!” and similar), health claims, celebrity chefs, food manufacturer promotions, gadget promotions, and the like, and focus on classic recipes with simple ingredients. Reading them is soothing to me, since I can just focus on the recipes instead of being at the mercy of thousands of dollars of applied marketing psychology.

This book’s recipe for almond butter cake was also intriguing to me because it’s rare to find nuts in cakes these days due to allergy consciousness, and when nuts do end up being involved, it’s pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, and peanuts (yes, technically they’re not nuts) you’ll run into far more than almonds. Almonds seem quite Old World in comparison. The recipe called for marzipan, some of which I conveniently had left over from the last tea party’s Battenberg cake, so the first person to speak up for my “let me bake for you” offer agreed to let me choose this recipe for his birthday.

Print Recipe
The Art of Fine Baking: Almond butter cake
Course Dessert
Cuisine European, French
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
9-inch cake layer
Ingredients
Course Dessert
Cuisine European, French
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
9-inch cake layer
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Grease and line a 9-inch cake pan and preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Start a genoise: combine whole eggs, one yolk, vanilla extract, and sugar in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of just barely simmering water (do not let the bowl touch the water) and stir well, allowing the mixture to warm. Take it off the heat when it looks like syrup and is warm to the touch.
  3. Cream together remaining yolk, marzipan, and butter.
  4. Take genoise mixture and whip well until tripled in volume and light, creamy yellow.
  5. Fold flour and almond mixture into genoise base.
  6. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake about 20 minutes, until golden brown and springy to the touch.
  7. Let cool 5 minutes in pan, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.
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Of course, you can’t have a proper birthday cake without filling and frosting/icing (I don’t know the difference between the latter two, but I’m told it’s regional). I still had a little marzipan left over and I didn’t want to weigh down the cake with a standard American buttercream, so I pulled out my trusty copy of the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef and looked up its Italian buttercream, which consists of a meringue base with sugar syrup and butter beaten into it.

Print Recipe
The Professional Chef: Italian buttercream (adapted)
This recipe yields half the amount of buttercream as the original, and is enough to fill and frost one 9-inch cake comprising 4 layers.
Prep Time 20 minutes
Servings
pounds
Ingredients
Prep Time 20 minutes
Servings
pounds
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Add water and 170 grams of the sugar to a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil on medium-high heat.
  2. While sugar syrup is cooking, add egg whites to the bowl of a stand mixer and whip on high speed until frothy. Add remaining sugar and beat until meringue firms to the medium-peaks stage.
  3. When sugar syrup reaches the soft ball stage (238F/114C), remove it from the heat and, while the mixer is still running at high speed, slowly and steadily pour the syrup down the inner wall of the mixing bowl. Keep whipping the mixture until it cools to room temperature.
  4. Add butter in small bits, blending fully in between additions and scraping down the sides of the bowl. The mixture will deflate as you add butter, then begin to reinflate as you add the last of it, so don't panic.
  5. Blend in the vanilla extract.
Recipe Notes

To store the buttercream, tightly cover it and refrigerate for a few days, or freeze for a few months. To use buttercream that has been refrigerated or frozen, allow it to come to room temperature, then whip it until it's smooth and spreadable again.

Other flavourings:

  • Chocolate: Melt and cool 140 grams bittersweet chocolate, then whip it into the finished buttercream
  • Coffee: Mix 20 g coffee paste, 20 mL brandy, and 7.5 mL vanilla extract into finished buttercream
  • Mocha: Add 30 grams melted and cooled bittersweet chocolate to coffee buttercream

 

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After assembling the cake — a bit messily, since I haven’t had much practice decorating pastry — and taking it to its destination party for everyone to have a piece, I made the following observations:

  • The sponge was a bit denser than I would have liked, likely due to a certain amount of deflation happening in the whipped egg-and-sugar mixture when I folded in the almond mixture and flour. I would probably add some baking powder to the recipe next time as insurance, even though, strictly speaking, a genoise should be a mechanically leavened cake, not a chemically leavened one.
  • The sponge was also a little drier than I’d consider ideal. I’m not sure what about the recipe it is that would account for that; is that what butter cakes are supposed to be like? Should I have let it sit another day before assembling and serving? As it is, I would probably counteract this next time by brushing all of the cake surfaces with a bit of sugar syrup, likely with almond flavouring, both for moisture and for flavour enhancement.
  • I chose to flavour the buttercream with a homemade crème de noyaux (cherry pit liqueur) as well as the remaining marzipan. This gave the cake a lovely delicacy of flavour, but considering the robustness of the sponge, a bolder flavour would probably have been better suited to the overall pastry.

I may see how this works with almond butter (roasted and raw), though the additional fat in these ingredients may need a lower butter addition, and more sugar will be necessary since nut butters are typically unsweetened. If this works, I don’t see why other nut and seed butters can’t be used as well. Odds are I’ll probably find a cake recipe that is specifically formulated to use nut butters, though, so I’ll hold that thought.

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