Anyone who knows me knows how much I love almond (and also hazelnut, for that matter.) Whenever I go out for coffee, I always ask for an iced (soy) almond latte, or hazelnut if they don’t have almond. Almond is, without a doubt, one of my top 10 favorite flavors (also: cardamom, blackberry, lemon.) During the holidays, I like to treat myself to fancy marzipan candies.
And I don’t share. (That’s totally a lie. I share almost everything.)
And then there’s lemon, another one of my Top 10 Favorite Foods. I published another lemon cake a couple months ago, a layered sponge cake with honey and lemon. I’m actually, surprisingly, not a big cake person usually. It used to be that the only cake I liked was lemon cake (like birthday cake but lemon-flavored). As much as I love sweets, my sweet tooth isn’t always the sweetest: sometimes I need bitter or sour, and lemon always provides the perfect amount of tartness. No matter how much sugar you add to something lemon-flavored, that bit of brightness will always balance it out, in my opinion.
Orange, however, is a different story.
This cake is one that I’ve been wanting to master and publish for probably a year now. I wanted something light and almond-y, something kind of snack-y that would go well in the morning with coffee, or after dinner…with coffee…or really any time of day…with coffee. The thing about this cake that makes it both difficult and easy to learn at the same time is that it’s a common Italian cake: there are hundreds and thousands of recipes online, from Italian and Italian-American sources (not all great sources), but at the same time, they’re all family recipes, which tend not to translate well when transmitted to other families. But one of the great baking mottos is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”: find a recipe that works for you or that you can adapt and then stick with that.
We all know what it’s like to learn to cook from our families. I’ve only just started moving away from strict recipes and measurements, but when I tried making my mom’s special pot roast for my dad’s birthday last year, I was indescribably frustrated by her “recipe” that had no measurements (“Oh, I don’t know. I just add stuff and hope the pot doesn’t boil over. You just cook it until it’s done cooking.”)
As with the sponge cake, I tried pulling from a few different recipes and adapting the flavors as I went. I had a lot more success initially than I did with the lemon-honey cake: almond is far easier to incorporate than honey. The question then was, what exactly was I looking for?
What I ended up with was perfect: a single-layer cake, with enough moisture from the ricotta cheese without actually tasting like cheese (one batch did taste like cheese) and just the right amount of the ricotta texture, plus some richness from the butter and almond meal, nuttiness from the almond extract, almond meal, and toasted sliced almonds, and tartness from the lemon. Light, but rich, sweet, but tart, nutty, and even kind of refreshing. I experimented with adding in chopped almonds but I actually prefer that the cake itself not have anything inside (the sliced almonds on top are heaven, though.) I couldn’t decide if I needed something more for a topping, so I played with glaze (meh), powdered sugar (not bad), whipped cream (eh), and fruit compote (a nice, bright counterpoint to the sweetness and nuttiness of the cake.) I settled on the sliced almonds and macerated berries.
The cake itself is best cold and it lasts for a while in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic.
lemon almond ricotta cake
adapted from Bon Appetit, raspberry ricotta cake
makes one 9″ cake or two 6″ cakes
Note: Using 3 whole eggs made the cake slightly wetter than I wanted, but splitting eggs evenly is difficult. I normally prefer, if I need to split an egg, to separate the white and the yolk (it’s just simpler.) One whole egg is 1.8 oz on average, and 2 parts white to 1 part yolk. Two yolks, then, is about 1.2 oz. Another reason I prefer to separate the eggs and use the yolks instead of the white is that the whites can be aged or frozen for a really long time, and used in a ton of other recipes. Yolks don’t last as long. Plus, yolks are richer than whites. Finally, because this recipe fills two 6″ cake pans, and I use an even number of whole eggs and egg yolks, it’s easier to make a half recipe (I always use half recipes for testing.) If you haven’t figured this out already, you’ll see in my recipes that I’m obsessed with evenly-measured ingredients that can easily be divided in half.
~1/2 c sliced almonds, for topping
4 oz all-purpose flour
2 oz almond flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
7 oz granulated sugar
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
12 oz ricotta cheese
zest and juice of 2 large lemons (not baby lemons)
1/2 tsp almond extract
4 oz unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Serving suggestion: macerated seasonal fruits*, plus your favorite coffee or wine
Macerating basically means softening fruit with sugar and acid. It’s a common first step in making jams and compotes, but it can even be as simple as dusting fresh fruit with sugar right before serving. The sugar, which is hydrophilic, draws out some of the water from the fruit, making the fruit softer and then dissolves into the water to form a fruit syrup. If you let the fruit macerate for at least a few hours (like at least 3 hours), you’ll have plenty of syrup and very soft fruit. You could simmer or boil the mixture for a few minutes to thicken it into a compote, or serve as is.
For an extra kick, add a splash of your favorite liqueur (Amaretto might be too much to serve with this cake, but limoncello-macerated strawberries is a great combination.)
Macerating is something you can start ahead of time. In fact, so is the cake: make the cake and combine the fruit mixture the day before so you don’t have to do any work the day you’re serving everything.
Make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C. Grease a 9″ or two 6″ cake pans and line the bottom with a parchment circle (How To Make a Parchment Circle.)
Using a skillet on the stove or a clean baking sheet and the oven, lightly toast the almond slices for about 2 – 5 minutes, until they brown a bit, tossing them occasionally to prevent burning. You don’t need any oil for this. Pour the toasted almond slices into a bowl and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, almond flour, baking powder, and salt.
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, and egg yolks vigorously until the mixture starts to turn a little paler and fluffier. You’re not really making a sponge, but you do want a bit of air in the batter.
Add the ricotta, lemon zest, lemon juice, and almond extract and whisk until smooth and fully combined.
Fold the dry ingredients into the wet batter, and once the batter is fully combined, whisk in the melted and cooled butter. I find it easier to incorporate melted butter at the end to prevent the butter from chilling or breaking.
Scrape the batter evenly into the cake pans, scatter the tops with the toasted almond slices, and bake for about 50 – 60 minutes (regardless of the width.)
The cake will be a little bit wetter than you’re used to with other cakes, muffins, or cupcakes, but it will still feel springy and foamy. For this cake, the best indicators of doneness will be the edges and the color: the edges of the cake should pull away completely from the sides of the cake pans (there shouldn’t be any of the top outer edge of the cake still touching the pan), and the surface of the cake will be golden brown.
Remove the cake(s) from the oven and let cool in the pans for about 5 minutes. Gently run a flat knife or offset spatula around the sides of the cake to make sure it’s loosened from the sides of the pan. Place a flat, wide plate over the top of the pan and invert the cake pan so that cake falls out onto the plate, then place a cooling rack on top of the cake and invert the cake back onto the cooling rack, so the almond-topped surface is right-side up. Repeat with the other cake (if you made two small ones.)
Make sure you peel off the parchment round before cutting and eating the cakes.
La bella mandorla!