The fusion of almonds and citrus is an enchanting amalgam. As winter makes way for spring, this almond cake tells a woeful tale charged with rich history. Packed with bright, nutty flavor, the eggs leaven the almond meal, while the zest of citrus seals it with a kiss. This simple and delicious golden cake is gilded with the sharp notes of spring for which we desperately long in winter’s wake.
After the Spanish Inquisition, it appeared that once again fate had opened wide its gullet and swallowed the Jews whole. But alas, an almond cake began to emerge in the Galician city of Coruna where Jews from Andalusia in southern Spain had settled after fleeing from the Berber Almohads’ attempts to convert them in the 12th and 13th centuries. They planted grapevines, made wine and, it turns out, continued to bake this cake in disguise after surviving the Inquisition’s attempt to eradicate them.
Because there is no yeast in it–its heft coming from almonds, its rise from egg yolks and its flavor enhanced by the magical zest of citrus–it is believed that it was originally a Jewish Passover cake whose recipe was carried forth by the conversos (Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity, usually under pressure) after the Spanish Inquisition. The cake takes its name from St. James, whose relics are believed to be buried in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
Last night I embraced the wonderfully complicated history of survival with this delicious almond-infused dessert and added the stamp of a St. James cross in the manner of the Galician Jews, who persisted with tradition in the only way they could, by lightly dusting over their faith with confectioners’ sugar.
This recipe was adapted from Claudia Roden’s The Food of Spain.
- 3 cups ground almonds
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 1 1/4 cups superfine sugar
- Grated zest of 1 orange
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 4 drops almond extract
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Make sure the almonds are finely ground in a food processor.
With an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a smooth, pale cream. Beat in the zests and almond extract. Add the ground almonds, and mix very well.
With clean beaters, beat the egg whites in a large bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold them into the egg and almond mixture (the mixture is thick, so you will need to turn it over quite a bit into the egg whites).
Grease an 11-inch springform pan, preferably nonstick, with butter. Pour in the cake batter, and bake in a preheated 350 F oven for 40 minutes or until it feels firm to the touch. Let cool before turning out.
Just before serving, dust the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar. Or, if you like, cut a St. James cross out of paper. Place it in the middle of the cake, and dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar, then remove the paper.