The city where I grew up, San Jose, doesn’t have a nationally known signature dish. It’s more suburban sprawl than cutting-edge culinary destination. However, there are certain foods that I will always associate with San Jose. During high school I practically lived on falafels from Falafel Drive-In, and to this day I swear their spicy falafels and banana shakes are the best I’ve ever tasted.
In the sweet realm, I can’t talk about San Jose without talking about burnt almond cake, and the big cake rivalry between Dick’s Bakery and Peter’s Bakery. (Cake rivalry, you ask? I may exaggerate—but just a little. Check the yelp reviews.)
See, there are two old-school bakeries that both claim to have the best burnt almond cake in the city. People tend to divide into two camps—you’re either on Dick’s side, or Peter’s side. There’s no equivocating, and there’s no neutral territory. For myself, I’m a Peter’s Bakery girl. This small hole-in-the-wall bakery was near my house, and I actually had my wedding cake made there, so of course I stay loyal, and would defend the superiority of Peter’s burnt almond cake over Dick’s any day of the week.
I haven’t tasted or thought about burnt almond cake in years, but I recently read something that referenced a different almond cake recipe, and suddenly I couldn’t stop thinking about the cake that reminds me so much of my childhood. I had to make one myself.
If you’re not familiar with burnt almond cake, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. (And also why anyone sane would put the word “burnt” in a cake title in the first place.) Put simply, it’s a fluffy white cake filled with almond pastry cream, frosted with buttercream, and coated with a thick layer of caramelized almonds. My version has almond flavor in every single component, so if you’re an almond fan who’s tired of vanilla or chocolate (or passion fruit!) having all the fun, allow me to introduce you to your new love.
Just to be clear, this is my version of a burnt almond cake, not a recreation of the bakery ones. (I feel like I need this disclaimer so that crazed Dick’s and Peter’s fans don’t track me down chanting “Not the same! Not the same!”) For one thing, it’s been ages since I’ve tasted the real thing, and I don’t remember the details well enough to be confident of getting things right. For another—buckle up for real talk—I’d bet anything that they’re actually using cake mixes and prepackaged custard fillings in their cakes. You just can’t do that kind of volume at those price points by making everything from scratch. So, of course, this cake is going to be a bit different than the one from Peter’s or Dick’s.
That doesn’t mean that it’s not AWESOME, though. The almond-flavored white cake is moistened by both an almond simple syrup and the creamy almond pastry cream layers. The buttercream is one of those wacky flour-based ones (newly obsessed with them) that has the light texture and flavor of whipped cream but the stability of buttercream. And the homemade caramelized almonds are the crowing touch, adding a great crunch, a bit of chew, and a whole lot of flavor from the deep, darkly caramelized toasted nuts.
No, it’s not the cake of my childhood—but at the risk of boasting, I think it’s even better. And the fact that I can make it in my own kitchen any time I want? That’s the best part of all.
Recipe notes: It is possible to make this cake in one day, but since there are multiple components and some involve substantial chilling times, I think it’s easier to break the preparation and assembly up into two days. For instance, you could make the cake, pastry cream, simple syrup, and buttercream on one day, and then make the caramelized almonds and assemble the cake the next day.
Regarding ingredients, I used 1% milk in all of these recipes with good results, but 2% or whole milk would also work well. I don’t recommend using fat-free milk. I like to use superfine sugar in the frosting, to eliminate any grittiness. It’s easy to make superfine sugar at home if you don’t want to buy it. Or, you can use regular granulated sugar. I’ve found that granulated sugar makes the frosting gritty at first, but after several hours, the sugar grains seem to dissolve and the texture becomes smooth.
Burnt Almond Cake
yield: one 9-inch layer cake
Cake recipe adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s The Cake Bible
For the Almond Cake:
4 extra-large egg whites
1 cup milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp almond extract
3 cups (10.5 oz) cake flour
1 1/2 cups (10.5 oz) granulated sugar
1 tbsp + 1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
6 oz butter, at room temperature
For the Simple Syrup:
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp amaretto, or 1 tsp almond extract
For the Almond Pastry Cream:
1 tsp unflavored powdered gelatin
1 tbsp cold water
1 whole egg
3 tbsp cornstarch
2 cups milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tbsp powdered sugar
For the Almond Buttercream:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
12 oz butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (I used superfine so it dissolved quickly)
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp salt
For the Caramelized Almonds:
1 1/2 cups (6 oz) sliced almonds
2 tbsp water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp butter
To Make the Almond Cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line two 9” cake pans with parchment, and spray them with nonstick cooking spray.
In a small bowl whisk together the egg whites, 1/4 cup milk, and vanilla and almond extracts. Set aside for now.
In the bowl of a large stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix on low speed for 30 seconds to mix and sift the ingredients. Add the softened butter and the remaining 3/4 cup milk to the bowl, and mix on low speed until the flour is moistened. Raise the speed to medium and beat for 90 seconds.
Stop the mixer and scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the egg white mixture in 3 parts, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl once more. Divide the batter evenly between the pans.
Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes, until the tops spring back lightly when pressed. Let the cakes cool for 15 minutes, then gently invert them out of the pans, invert them again until they’re right-side up, and let them cool completely on a wire rack.
To Make the Simple Syrup:
Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir them together until the sugar dissolves, and heat the sugar syrup until it just starts to boil. Remove it from the heat and let it cool to room temperature. Stir in the amaretto or almond extract.
To Make the Almond Pastry Cream:
Combine the gelatin and cold water in a small bowl and set aside for 5 minutes to let the gelatin absorb the water. Once absorbed, microwave the bowl for 10-15 seconds, until the gelatin is liquid. Set aside for now.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the yolks, egg, cornstarch, and 1/4 cup of sugar. In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and salt. Heat the milk over a medium burner until it just starts to boil. Start whisking the egg mixture, and while you’re whisking, drizzle a little hot milk into the eggs. Continue to whisk and drizzle until you’ve added about half of the milk. Switch to whisking the milk, then pour the eggs into the milk mixture while whisking.
Return the pan to the burner and heat the cream, whisking constantly. Use a rubber spatula to periodically scrape the bottom of the pan so it doesn’t scorch. Cook until the pastry cream thickens and starts a very gently bubbling, then cook for about 2 minutes longer. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the liquid gelatin, vanilla extract, almond extract, and butter.
Pour the cream through a wire mesh strainer into a bowl. It will be somewhat thick, so use a spatula to help work it through, straining out any clumps of egg that have developed. Press a layer of cling wrap directly on top of the pastry cream, and refrigerate until cold and firm, at least 2 hours. (To speed the cooling process, the cream can be spread onto a baking sheet and put in the freezer for 15-20 minutes, but don’t forget it in the freezer!)
Right before you’re ready to use the pastry cream in the cake, whip the heavy cream and powdered sugar together until it forms firm peaks. Gently fold together the pastry cream and whipped cream together.
To Make the Almond Buttercream:
In a bowl, whisk together the flour and milk. Pour it through a fine wire mesh strainer into a medium saucepan, straining out any flour clumps. Heat the flour mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens. It will go from being a thin liquid to being a very thick paste. It should have the consistency of a very thick pudding when you’re done. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the flour mixture cool completely. To speed this process, I like the fill my sink with an inch or two of cold water, and submerge the bottom of the pan in the water, making sure to not get any in the pan. Stir occasionally while the mixture cools.
Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a large stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat the butter and sugar together on medium-high speed until very light and fluffy and no longer gritty, about 5-7 minutes.
Once the flour mixture is no longer warm at all, and the butter/sugar is light and fluffy, add the flour to the mixing bowl, along with the vanilla extract, almond extract, and salt. Whip together for 2-3 minutes until well-combined, light, and fluffy. If it seems to separate continue to beat it until it comes back together.
To Make the Caramelized Almonds:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Cover a baking sheet with foil and spray it with nonstick spray. Place the nuts on the baking sheet and toast them in the oven while you prepare the caramel.
Combine the water, sugar, lemon juice, and salt in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir until the water dissolves and the mixture comes to a boil. Insert a candy thermometer and boil the sugar until it starts to turn a golden brown and reads between 310-325 on the thermometer.
Remove the pan from the heat, and add the hot nuts from the oven. Stir until the nuts are coated with caramel. Add the butter and stir, then pour the nuts out onto the foil-lined baking sheet. Use a spatula to spread them into a thin layer without many nuts overlapping.
Let the nuts cool completely, then break them apart. If they’re in large chunks, chop them coarsely.
Using a large serrated knife, cut each cake layer in half. Place one layer on a cake cardboard (or your serving plate) and use a pastry brush to brush it generously with the simple syrup.
Scoop some buttercream into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip. Pipe a ring of buttercream all along the edge of the cake round to act as a barrier and hold in the filling. Scoop 1/3 of the pastry cream onto the cake, and spread it in an even layer until it covers the cake and reaches the buttercream ring. Top the cake round with a second round, and repeat the process of brushing it with simple syrup, piping a ring of buttercream, and spreading the pastry cream in the center.
Repeat with the remaining layers, until you have a 4-layer cake with 3 layers of buttercream. Spread buttercream along the sides and top of the cake. It doesn’t have to be super-smooth since most of the surface will be covered with almonds.
Press caramelized almonds into the sides of the cake. This is easiest if you use a cardboard cake round—hold the cake in one hand, over the baking sheet full of almonds, and use the other to press almonds into the sides, letting the excess fall back onto the sheet.
Fit a pastry bag with a large star tip and pipe rosettes along the top of the cake. Decorate them with more caramelized almonds, if desired. The almonds will start to get sticky after about a day, so for optimal texture enjoy it on the day it’s made, but the flavor is still wonderful several days after.
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