Let me quickly qualify—simple in the context of when the Master reminds us that anything truly good is as difficult as it is rare. Many of the things this exquisite truth references are, indeed, quite simple. And yet.
This dessert is a good example.
As some of you know, Thanksgiving at our house is not really different than any other breakfast of the year—and breakfast is the day’s centerpiece, regardless of Thanksgiving, Christmas or April 15th. It’s our daily, momentary Thanksgiving. So the only thing out of the ordinary for us on Thursday was this modest dessert, basking in its own simplicity. And this year, somehow, it made itself fully recognized as the perfect dessert it is—for us, anyway. The perfect amount of sweetness with lots of subtle little kisses.
The Römertopf duck, resting on garlic and soused in Cinzano, was in the oven the night before, scheduled to begin administering its unassuming 215° slow-cook at 2 am in order to be ready to eat at a lazy 10 am. In the morning, Sue expressed her preference for purple hashbrowns seared in duck fat, while I chose sautéd Garnet yam bites I had recently steamed. Local Dino kale and some neon mustard greens from River Dog Farm in California’s cozy little Capay Valley got steamed and seasoned with umeboshi plum vinegar with sweet and tangy Garlic and Red Pepper Miso from South River. Not an unusual breakfast, except for the hour. Easy and simple.
Unusual, was Sue’s offer to make her refinement of Charlie Cascio’s Flourless Almond Torte. This recipe appears modestly on the last page of Charlie’s lovely Esalen Cookbook, a book which has provided numerous inspirations for dishes regularly gracing our table since before the grand opening of our office on Mesilla in 2007. The recipe has received a succession of loving tweaks since then.
Charlie explains (in case you can’t read the text in the photo) that he so loves this torte, originated by Robin Burnside, his predecessor as chef at Esalen Institute, that it became the choice for his own wedding cake. I haven’t met Charlie, but to me, this and everything else in his book, speaks volumes about the nature of his taste. The torte, in Sue’s current incarnation of it, is always subtle, sublime, yet never disappoints—at least as long as the rest of your meal is… balanced.
On the chance that someone might like to try this recipe for their own upcoming special occasion, I’d like to walk you through key elements required to experience what we did yesterday. And I mean that precisely. A guest who attended the aforementioned opening, tried the recipe herself later, straight from the book, and reported, “It just wasn’t the same.”
If you’re inspired to experience the dessert I’m raving about here, don’t cut any corners. Referring back to the Master’s admonition, you get what you put into it. Wait until you’ve tasted the real McCoy before venturing out on your own. That’s the way Sue did it, and the appropriate tweaks were revealed over time.
Serves 12? Sue and I are not dessert freaks, but this torte will probably last the two of us two and a half days. Adjust your volumes according to your needs. Point is, if we had had twelve guests, we’d have had a riot on our hands. And if we were doing that with forethought, we’d make three of these. If yours lasts for more than a couple of days, you should probably freeze it in a tight container.
Sue’s annotated ingredient list:
6 fresh eggs
(Proud organic eggs from free range, heritage breed chickens fed what chickens eat, including bugs, mice, and grasshoppers with lots of vegetables—grains, not so much.)
½ tsp cream of tartar
⅓ cup pure maple syrup
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract
3 cups almond meal
(Begin with about ¾ lb. of raw almonds, these are best ground into meal with a small electric coffee grinder—preferably one that’s not used for coffee. A few small batches go quickly. Most food processors can’t grind almonds finely enough for this recipe.)
1 tsp ground, dry ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground clove
(Buy whole cloves, and grind them to powder immediately before adding to the almond meal)
½ tsp ground cardamom
(Whole cardamom pods can be found in the bulk section of good organic food stores. The pale green pods contain several little fat, black, highly aromatic seeds—discard the shell, retain the seeds. If you get a pod with brown, dried out seeds, discard it and go for another one. If you get more than one with dead seeds, look for a higher quality grocery store. Grind them immediately before adding to the almond meal).
All ingredients are organic and fresh. To be honest there was an exception here. The organic, raw almonds weren’t exactly fresh. They’d been languishing for a few months tightly bagged in the refrigerator. But Sue has a way of dealing with that, and her solution would be required whether or not one begins with fresh almonds.
Ayurveda is fond of almonds, and considers them a highly desirable food—with qualifications revealed over millennia. Raw is good, sprouted is better, raw, sprouted, and skinless is best—consuming too many almonds with their gut-irritating skins still attached antagonizes Spleen Qi, and invites almond allergies.
Playing by those rules, what do we do? Well, it begins with soaking. Since it was cold and Tuesday, Sue was wanting the most expedient results, so she soaked them in warm water until they began to sprout and the skins loosened—expect about eight hours. When almonds begin to sprout, you’ll see a little (almond colored) bead at the tip of the sharp end. That’s all you need, is to have begun the biochemical shift from nut to vegetable. Not that they’ll now taste like a vegetable. They’ll still be almonds, but they now have a moistness, depth, and life not present before—as well as metabolic grace. Start removing the skins, putting the almonds in a glass or ceramic container to dry—no metal, please. If you have a fire going, just setting them in front of the fire would be perfect. Stir them when you think of it to let them know you remember them. No cooking, just thoroughly dry.
When they’re dry and you’re ready, it’s time to put it together.
√ When the almonds are finely ground and in a bowl, grind the cloves and cardamom, and thoroughly blend them, along with the ginger and cinnamon, into the almond meal with a whisk.
√ Separate the whites from the yolks of the eggs. Place whites with cream of tartar in another mixing bowl and beat until stiff, but not dry.
√ Gently fold the maple syrup into whipped egg whites—slowly, so you don’t break down the air you worked so hard to achieve.
√ Beat the egg yolks and slowly fold them into the mixture as gently as possible.
√ Add vanilla and almond extracts.
√ And finally, gently sprinkle in the heart of the show—the ground almond and spice mixture—as you fold to incorporate it.
A ten inch springform pan works best for this torte, but any cake pan will do. After several years, we finally broke down and bought a springform pan specifically for this recipe. Glad we didn’t wait any longer….
√ Lightly oil only the bottom of the pan (coconut oil is perfect), or line with parchment paper. The torte bakes best when it clings to the sides of the pan.
√ Gently pour the mixture into the pan.
√ Bake in an oven preheated to 350°F for about 30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the torte comes out clean. Remove pan from oven and gently slip a thin, flexible, artist’s palette knife around the sides of the pan before releasing the springform.
√ Serve with freshly whipped cream faintly flavored with a hint of maple syrup and vanilla. I put blueberries on mine.
Simple. At last.
Thanks, Charlie! Thanks, Sue!
Oh, yeah. Pairs perfectly with piping hot, fine Black Assam!
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