Sunday, February 8, 2009

This is the Almond Cake that’s Gonna Save my Soul?

Adam Roberts, I read your blog. I find inspiration, comfort and distraction in your witty entries. You’ve become a bit of a hero to me. So when you declare that Amanda Hesser’s almond cake will “Save My Soul,” I believe you.

How much do I believe you? I decide to bake this very cake for my uncle’s birthday. I drive to Super Stop & Shop and buy a whole 7 oz. tube of almond paste. I also purchase: almond extract, butter, eggs, flour, sugar, confectioner’s sugar, sour cream, baking soda, and a cake pan. Hell, who am I kidding? I buy an electric mixer for $16.99. I haven’t baked a cake since I was eleven.

Then I lug all the ingredients to Otto’s apartment.

And look, Adam, just look at that picture up top. If that is the almond cake that’s supposed to save my soul, well, then I’m going straight to hell.

I’ll have you know that we checked on our cake 35 minutes after placing it in the oven, not the hour you and Amanda recommend. So why the burnt edges? Where, may I ask, did we go wrong?

I’ll start from the beginning:

Friday night, around 9 p.m., I knock on Otto’s door, ingredients in hand. I hear Thundercats being switched to CNN.

We proceed to bake. Initially, it’s smooth sailing. We preheat the oven to 350 degrees, we butter a pan, we mix one cup of sour cream and a teaspoon of baking soda. Then we encounter our first glitch.

“It says to ‘sift’ the flour and salt together,” I say with a frown. I eye the 2 cups of flour and ½ teaspoon of salt warily. I’ve already added both to a bowl.

“Sifting flour adds air,” Otto calls brightly from his computer. “Flour straight from a bag has settled; you want the flour to be less dense. We should sift it before measuring.”

“Hmmmm,” I say. I remove a few spoonfuls of flour from the bowl. “Sifted.”

Then we run into our next problem. We take two sticks of softened butter and 1 ½ cups of sugar, and deposit them into another bowl. I unwrap my brand new electric mixer. I plug it into the wall, and move the button from “zero,” to a conservative “one.”


“Great Christmas!” Otto shouts, as butter hits him square in the forehead. “Shut it off, shut it off!”

I shut if off.

We both examine the mixer, wondering if perhaps the numbers are in reverse: like, 1 is the strongest, and 5 is the weakest. Otto flips through the flimsy manual. “The other pages are in other languages,” he mumbles.

“I’m going to try it again,” I announce. I put the mixer in the bowl, and quickly move the button from “zero” to “five.”

“I don’t think it works,” Otto says, once he’s cleaned more butter off of his chin and changed his shirt.

We decide to play it safe and mix everything with a wooden spoon. I start throwing in little pieces of the almond paste as Otto mixes, until the entire 7 oz. tube is in the bowl. Next, I take 4 egg yolks (that’s right, I’m not a total amateur – I can separate egg yolks from egg whites!), and add them, one at a time. Otto never stops mixing.

Now that the eggs have been added, I think it’s safe to try the electric mixer on “one” again. This time, it works better. We throw in our sour cream mixture, and a teaspoon of almond extract (“That smells great!” Otto exclaims enthusiastically). We’re on fire.

Once everything’s mixed nicely, it’s time to add 2 cups of flour. We add this a little at a time, mixing by hand, and then give it a few final whisks with the electric mixer.

Finally, we pour the batter into our buttered pan and spread it evenly. We throw it in the preheated oven. There’s nothing left to do but high-five each other and boogie down to “Brass Monkey” for the next hour.

“That smells wonderful,” I say sniffing the air, after 35 minutes have elapsed. “Let’s go check it out!”

Otto and I peer into the oven, and ogle our beautiful creation. The crust is a delightful golden brown, and the smell is magnificent, as if someone had just heated up a giant piece of marzipan. “It looks ready,” Otto says.

I softly press the center of the cake.

“Nope,” I say. “The recipe says it’s done when you press the top and it returns to its shape.” (The cake has a small indentation where I have pressed it.) “Let’s dance some more!”

And Adam, this is where things get really, really effed. Otto and I dance for but a minute when we both smell the unmistakable odor of something burning, or on the verge of burning. We race to the oven and witness our cake blackening before our eyes. “Get it out, get it out!” I yell to Otto.

Alas, it’s too late.

We salvage the cake as best we can. We place it on a wire rack, and after it has cooled, cut off the most offensive burnt pieces. Then we halfheartedly dust our creation with some confectioner’s sugar.

We go to bed feeling like failures.

The next day, we drive to my mom’s house, and serve the almond cake alongside her Thai Jewels. We cut the cake into small squares, and Adam, guess what? Underneath all that blackness, our cake is moist!
Yes, we tricked you! Your cake was no failure and neither were we! Amanda’s almond cake really did save our soul! The cake might’ve looked like a sad old disappointment straight out of the oven, but it was actually quite delicious, and a true hit at my Uncle’s birthday.

So, thank you, Amateur Gourmet!

(But seriously, check on your cake after 35 minutes. It’s probably even better if you don’t let it burn.)


  1. You're welcome! But I think the major problem was not using the mixer; since the recipe says let the mixer beat the mixture for EIGHT MINUTES on a relatively high speed, that's an INSANE amount of beating going on--especially since it's a machine doing it--way more than a human could ever even try to mimic. Next time, drape a kitchen towel over the mixer before turning it on to block butter chunks from hitting you in the head. But glad the cake came out good anyway!

  2. That frowny cake picture makes me laugh.

  3. I made this cake in the food processor in a springform pan as directed but it leaked. Should I have put aluminum foil all around the bottom of the pan? So when it was done, it smelled delicious, and tasted pretty fine too, but was very dense and very sweet. Do you all find that it leaks from the springform pan you use? I used extra high fat butter -- could that have been the problem? The cake was delicious though -- I will try making it in a mixer & see if I have the same problem. Comments welcome!