It would be no exaggeration at all to say that my quest to perfect these little cakes has been haunting me for weeks now. It started with an introduction, by way of the incomparable Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks. Swanson made a batch of these little almond beauties, and I was hooked at first sight. The delicate almond crumb. The swipe of vanilla bean-flecked frosting. I was all in.
But then, much to my horror, my dream of making my own batch of tiny little almond cakes was brought to an abrupt halt when I was faced with the heretofore unknown price of almond paste. Featured as the main ingredient in Swanson’s cakes, almond paste, I came to discover, sells at a market rate of about $1.50 per ounce. As the cake called for 14 ounces of almond paste (which, for those of you not interested in doing the math, would run me over $21), I, upon witnessing the price, slowly backed away from the paste and went home to cry sad little almond-cake-less tears.
But I could not be stopped. Look, as a person who has taken the time to create a mini cherpumple just for kicks, there was no way I was going to miss out on this almond cake just because of my unwillingness to pay as much for 14 ounces of almond paste as I pay for enough Thai food to feed three people (I love you, cheap Thai takeout). So, I made my own almond paste, the added benefit of which was the fortuitous ability to control (read: reduce) the amount of sugar included in the paste. Smooth sailing was to be found ahead, right?
No. My first attempt at the cake found me trying to bake the entire thing in a too-small fluted cake pan, a cute little number that is only 6 inches wide, but exceptionally deep, making for a cake that was beautifully browned along the edges, but unfortunately underdone in the very center. My next attempt included the use of the same pan, only with a slightly altered recipe that changed the egg ratio, the amount of cornstarch, and the baking time. The cake cooked all the way through this time, but about two minutes after I took it out of the oven it completely collapsed, folding in on itself like a deflated wading pool.
More tinkering ensued, things were added and taken away, and then, finally, success was achieved. Baked in tiny little pans (thanks again, Corinna!), the cakes, unburdened by an excess of batter, turned out perfectly. The key? Knowing your pans. Though you may want to pour all of this cake’s batter into one smallish-yet-tallish pan, don’t do it. Almond paste behaves very differently than flour when it bakes, and this cake contains no leavening agent to aid in its rise. A taller pan will only bring you grief in the form of an underdone or collapsed cake. My experience has shown that an 8-inch pan works beautifully if baking a single cake, or, if you are in the mood for making several cakes at once, these cakes turn out wonderfully when baked in tiny little molds. The final product here is just spectacular, with the unmistakable flavor of almond essence mingling with the freshness of lemon zest and just the tiniest touch of bourbon in the vanilla bean glaze. The crumb is light, the hue is nothing short of gorgeous, and, at long last, everything about it is just right.
Tiny Almond Lemon Cakes with Bourbon Vanilla Bean Glaze
10 ounces raw blanched almonds
4 ounces (about ¾ cup) confectioners’ sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon sea salt
scant ¼ cup cornstarch
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted then cooled
Bourbon Vanilla Bean Glaze
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons milk
seeds scraped from ½ a vanilla bean
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon bourbon (to taste)
optional: toasted almond slices
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly butter and flour an 8-inch pan, or several smaller pans.
In the bowl of a food processor, pulverize blanched almonds until pebbly. Add the confectioners’ sugar, and continue to process until mixture is very fine and just beginning to barely clump together. Process too much, and you’ve got almond butter (delicious, but not what you want here). Add the eggs and egg yolks, and process until smooth. Add the cornstarch and salt, pulse a few times, then pour in the butter. Blend one more time, before transferring to the prepared pan (or pans).
Bake in the center of the oven until deeply golden and set in the center, when a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. This will take what seems like an impossible amount of time. An 8-inch cake can take up to an hour, and the tiny little cakes seen above took almost 45 minutes. The color of the cakes will be deeply golden, and will appear just on the verge of being too dark.
Let the cake or cakes cool in their pan(s) for a bit (5 minutes for tiny cakes, 20 minutes for a larger cake), then turn out onto a wire rack to finish cooling completely.
To make glaze, combine all ingredients together in a small bowl, then whisk until smooth. When cakes have cooled completely, drizzle with glaze. If desired, sprinkle with toasted almond slices.
Makes about 3 cups of batter total, enough for one 8-inch cake, or six tiny cakes plus one super flat, tart-like 8-inch cake.