Years ago when I was working at IBM, I made a variation of this cake for a dinner party. I brought the leftovers to work the next day and shared them with my co-workers. One gal, who seldom got excited about anything, came up to me and begged me for the recipe. She was so insistent that I asked her what was so special about this cake. She explained that it reminded her of cakes her mother used to make when she was a child… The power of food never ceases to amaze and thrill me!
Today is Christmas Eve and I am feeling nostalgic, missing the family dinners of my childhood. Our parents are both gone and each of us children has grown up and gone on to create new traditions with our spouses and circles of friends. But during the holidays my mind wanders back to the innocent days when we were all together and Santa was a magic elf who visited us during the night with bags of toys.
We lived most of my childhood in the small town of Orinda, California, a suburb of San Francisco. It was an idyllic community in many ways, with nearly perfect weather, a very good school system, and fairly traditional values even during the turbulent 60’s. There seemed to be chaos all around us (especially in Berkeley) but we had a little haven of peace.
It was the kind of community where we could walk anywhere by ourselves safely. We played with our friends without worrying about strangers. Most of the mothers didn’t work so they were home to supervise us after school. We had school plays and music recitals, Christmas pageants and Halloween parades. Everyone went to the same town doctor and we all grew up together, going to the same series of schools from Kindergarten through high school.
I am the youngest of four children, with three older brothers. And while some of my friends lost the innocent belief in Santa at a very young age, my brothers and parents perpetuated the myth for me with incredible diligence. I was given the opportunity to believe until I chose not to anymore – a blessing that I didn’t recognize at the time but am now very grateful for.
Each year we would write letters to Santa, which my grandmother would answer with letters written in red ink from the North Pole, telling us stories about Rudolph and the other reindeer, the elves, and of course Mrs. Claus! I was SO excited to get a letter in the mail and would jump up and down in excitement as we read it together. There were cute stickers punctuating the stories and before I could read the letters myself, the stickers made me feel like I knew what they said.
My grandmother would spend weeks making huge boxes of candies that she would ship to us. To this day, homemade caramels are my absolute favorite treat. They were cut into squares and wrapped in waxed paper. My parents would stash the box of candy high on a bureau, well above our reach. They would dole out the caramels judiciously so each of us got a fair share.
My father would make fudge from scratch – with no marshmallows! He would boil it to the soft-ball stage, let the fudge rest until he could hold the pan it in the palm of his hand. Then he would beat the candy vigorously and just before it hardened into firm candy, he would quickly pour it into a well-buttered pan, just like magic.
Our holidays were filled with home baked and decorated cookies, the smells of warm and filling meals wafting through the house, a huge Christmas tree adding the smell of pine needles to the room and laden with ornaments and sparkling with lights, and decorations in every room making our home look like a wonderland to a child.
I miss the fun stories my parents would tell of their childhoods in rural Indiana, sitting around the dinner table for hours as we ate, laughed together, and enjoyed rousing renditions of time-honored Christmas carols. We would often have a huge ham with roasted potatoes and vegetables. My mother would cover it with brown sugar and pineapple rings and it would bake for hours. I could hardly wait until dinner!
On Christmas Eve we would get bundled up in our coats and scarves, dressed in our holiday finery, and head to church for the evening service. I loved the tradition of reciting the same prayers with everyone, listening to the choir sing beautiful music, and singing along with many carols. The chapel was always filled with candles that lit all the corners of the room with a lovely glow. Then we would head back home to open presents. In the morning we would wake to the presents that Santa had brought us and it was always a mad house with all of us ripping into boxes, ribbons and paper flying in the air and shouts of delight as we discovered the hidden treasures.
Today’s cake is one that I have made for many years, with different variations in flavors of the filling and topping. I love the combination of chocolate and cassis and it blends beautifully with the delicate almond cake, lightly scented with lemon and filled with raspberry jam.
I hope you enjoy your holiday season and that it is filled with peace, joy, harmony and happiness. Merry Christmas to you all and may the magic of Santa stay with you all through the New Year!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
This is a wonderful option for Jewish holidays as well and will be a nice alternative dessert your family and guests. Replace the breadcrumbs with ground matzo or another kosher non-leavened bread product.
Use gluten-free breadcrumbs. Either make your own from gluten-free bread or a prepared product such as the gluten-free breadcrumbs from Schar’s. You can use Bob’s Red Mill Almond Meal or grind your own almonds in a food processor with a tablespoon of sugar.
Kitchen Skill: Using Eggs as the Primary Leavener in Cakes
When you see a cake recipe that has a lot of eggs, often separated, and little or no baking powder or baking soda, the eggs will carry the burden of the majority of the leavening. That means that the only thing that will make your cake light and fluffy is the amount of air that you beat into the eggs.
For this kind of cake it is extremely important that you use as strong a mixer as possible to get the maximum lift and whipping capacity. If you have to use a hand mixer, be prepared to beat the eggs for about twice the noted time. If you do not whip them enough, the cake will fall and be heavy. I also add a pinch of cream of tartar and some xanthan gum to help stabilize the egg whites and give the nut flour a little more strength.
The result is a delightful, tender and light cake with a hint of lemon. You can change the flavor of the filling, use a buttercream or pastry cream, or serve this as two single layer cakes. When you are serving a big heavy dinner where no one has a lot of room but everyone wants some dessert, this is the way to go!
- 1 cup almond meal
- 1/4 cup fine dry plain breadcrumbs (use gluten-free if needed)
- 3 tbsp cornstarch
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp xanthan gum
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp grated lemon zest
- 3 tbsp lemon juice
- Pinch kosher salt
- Pinch cream of tartar
- Raspberry Filling
- 1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam * See Note
- 1 tbsp cassis, optional
- Raspberry-Chocolate-Cassis Glaze
- 1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam
- 2 tbsp semisweet chocolate chips
- 2 tbsp cassis, port, or red wine
- Toppings/Garnishes (optional)
- Sliced almonds
- Freshly whipped cream or ice cream (leave off for dairy-free)
- Mint sprigs
- Fresh raspberries
- Butter two 8-inch layer pans. Line bottoms with parchment and butter parchment. Set rack in center of oven and preheat to 325°F.
- Prepare the Cake Batter: In a medium bowl, whisk together the almond meal, breadcrumbs, cornstarch, salt, and xanthan gum. The xanthan gum will help the ingredients stick together and be a little less delicate. Set aside.
- Separate the eggs into two small bowls (yolks in one, whites in the other).
- In the bowl of your stand mixer, beat egg yolks at medium speed until well blended. With the mixer running, gradually pour in the sugar and beat 5 minutes. Color will lighten considerably to a pale yellow. (If you are using a hand mixer, this may take up to 10 minutes.) Add lemon zest and juice and beat in. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients and beat until smooth. Remove bowl from the mixer and set aside.
- In another mixing bowl, beat egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add a pinch each of salt and cream of tartar, increase the speed to high and beat to stiff peaks. (Lift the whisk and the whites will lift into a peak where the tip gently folds over but does not collapse.)
- Stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the cake batter, stirring until the whites are completely incorporated. Gently fold another 1/3 of whites into the batter, trying not to deflate egg whites any more than necessary. When there are only a few white streaks left, add last 1/3 of whites and continue to fold them in until completely incorporated. A few white streaks are OK, but you want the egg whites evenly distributed.
- Spoon cake batter into prepared pans and smooth surface. Bake 25 minutes or until cake springs back when touched lightly in center and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Remove from the oven and let sit in the pans for about 5 minutes. Carefully flip the cake pans onto a cooling rack and let the cake layers fall onto the rack. Remove parchment, flip layers back upright and cool completely. If the layers stick to the cooling rack, use a long spatula to loosen it before transferring to a cake plate.
- Make Raspberry Filling: Place the jam in a small saucepan and heat over low heat until melted. Add cassis and whisk until blended and smooth. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl.
- Raspberry-Chocolate-Cassis Glaze: Place the raspberry jam, chocolate chips, and cassis in a small saucepan. (You can use the same pan you made the filling in.) Over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, heat until the jam and chocolate are melted. Remove from the heat, whisk until completely smooth and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.
- Assemble the Cake: When the cake has cooled, place one layer top-side down on a cake plate. Spread the layer with the raspberry filling, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly all the way to the edges. Top with second cake layer. For a simple elegant dessert, you can stop here and serve with whipped cream and fresh raspberries.
- Pour glaze onto the center of the top layer. Use an offset spatula to push it toward the edges, leaving about 1/4-inch border at the edge. Sprinkle the top with sliced almonds. Let the cake stand for about 20 minutes before slicing. This will give it time to firm up before slicing and serving.
- To Serve: Slice and serve with a dollop of whipped cream and sprig of mint on each slice. Stud with some fresh raspberries if you have them. Serve immediately.
- This cake is best served on the day it is baked. Store leftovers, covered tightly, in the refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before slicing and serving.
- * If you are using a “fruit spread” which is looser than a jam, you do not need to heat it. Just stir the cassis in and use as is.
Create a New Tradition Today!
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I think I would have liked growing up in your house! Then again I probably would have found a way to get those caramels! The cake looks divine!
Loved the story and the recipe. Thanks for taking the time, especially at such a busy time of year, to share your memories. The cake looks delicious and I will definitely give it a try this month.
Beautiful memories, Jane. I too get all teary eyed on these festive occasions. I am, as I know you are, so glad to have so many wonderful memories, some not so wonderful too…Thank you so much for sharing such a memorable cake too…A Very Merry Christmas to You and Yours Jane…
I wish you a lovely holiday too Louise! Let the magic of the season envelope you in joy and happiness!
A beautiful cake and sweet tender memories Jane. Thank you for sharing. Merry .Christmas!
Thank you Robin ~ we finished the cake last night and though a little denser on the second day, it was still lovely. Merry Christmas my friend!!