O, thrift. How you led me astray. I'd had such good intentions since the New Year - pinching pennies here, being resourceful there. Making one casserole stretch into four days of square meals, finding breakfast in the series of half-finished oat bags (rolled, steel-cut, what have you) in my cupboards, baking bread instead of buying it.
Being thrifty is glorious, I tell you. Just glorious.
But look out. Because just when you start feeling smug about your resourceful ways, something will come along and smack you in the head. In my case? A brick of hardened, year-old almond paste. That stuff is not to be trifled with. But in my cocky assurance, I trifled. I might have even gambled. This is my story.
More than a year ago, my mother sent over a little care package from Italy, stuffed with all sorts of lovely things. A note in her delightfully loopy handwriting, a pair of fishnet stockings (she single-handedly increases the stock of some hosiery companies, I'm convinced), a paper bag filled with a few pounds of sun-dried tomatoes from Puglia, and a flat brick of almond paste, wrapped in simple blue-and-white paper. The thick paste yielded appealingly under gentle pressure from my thumb, but it was the middle of summer and baking was far from my mind. (I could have made latte di mandorla, but my mother always liked that stuff more than I did.)
I slipped the almond paste into my kitchen cupboards and soon it was wedged behind a few boxes of rice, some vinegar, half a sack of beans, a can of tuna. You know how it goes. But I didn't entirely forget about the paste. I just didn't have any use for it yet, and I figured it would wait patiently, like a box of brown sugar, until I needed it.
To this, I will only say HA.
A few nights ago, when I was pulling out ingredients to make a tea cake from the pages of Tartine, which was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times before Christmas, my hands alighted upon that brick of almond paste. But after a quick poke here and there, I realized that my luscious paste was no longer the yielding mass it had once been. That stuff was petrified. Solid. A murder weapon, if you will.
And here's where my smug thriftiness led me astray. Well, it might have also been my hard-headed idiocy. You decide. Because, you see, dear readers, I'm a woman rich in almond paste. Yes! I had another log of that glorious stuff lying right next to the petrified block. And that other log of almond paste? Soft! Malleable! Creamy, almost! Labeled marzipan, which might have meant adjusting sugar levels in the cake. But still! It was right there. And yet. I couldn't possibly use the fresher log when I had a perfectly good older brick to use up first, could I? (Yes. YES, I could. Damn it.)
Definitely no. Not in 2007 with my brand-new money-saving resolutions! (The fact that both logs were gifts was inexplicably a non-issue.) I had a perfectly good, older block of almond paste to use up first and that was the end of the discussion. Besides, if softening brown sugar was so easy, how difficult could almond paste be? (This is a rhetorical question and should not be answered, as I have already learned my lesson and amply so. Sob.)
I unwrapped that hardened block, paper crinkling appealingly, and put it in a ceramic bowl. (The clanging sound it made was not promising, though I wasn't exactly listening to the signs it was giving me, was I? Don't answer that either.) I sprinkled the brick with a drop of water and put it in the microwave for one minute. And another. It grew warm and then hot. I broke the paste in half (malleability! of some kind! this must have meant success) and then again in smaller pieces. I tried microwaving those, too, but that's when the process stalled. The almond paste bits got harder and hotter and harder still.
At this point, would you have just thrown out that bowl of almond paste bits, reached for the fresh, soft log and gotten on with your life? Yeah. Are you thinking that maybe I didn't? Yeah. Hard-headed idiocy, my friends, is what this is all about. "Waste not, want not!", chanted my inner voice and so I pounded those hardened bits with my hand-held mixer until some were pulverized and others, well, just got smaller. By the time I broke out in a sweat and found myself cursing at the mixer for not crushing hard enough, I realized I'd passed the point of no return. I simply couldn't turn back. Now it was a matter of pride.
So, in a few minutes, I whipped up the batter, though the extreme exertion of the mixer-crushing must have done a number on my brain, or else I just gave up, because instead of stirring together the eggs and vanilla and beating the sugar into the "paste", I stirred together the eggs and the sugar and beat the butter into the paste, which mean that the batter took on a distinctly curdled look by the time the mixing was finished and I found myself grinning maniacally at the thought of the disaster cake that would await me at the end of this ordeal. I poured the curdled batter with its rock-hard lumps of almond paste into the prepared pan, put it in the oven and went to mop my brow and stare blankly at a wall.
An hour later, I pulled out a golden and fragrant cake that looked a bit greasy around the edges, but smelled divine. After it cooled a bit, I gently knocked the cake out of its pan, brushed it liberally with citrus glaze, cooled it further, then wrapped the golden brick well before letting it sit in the fridge overnight. The next day, I sliced into the chilled loaf and found a little miracle. Despite everything, that cake turned out all right. More than all right. Even though there were little pebbles of almond paste scattered throughout the cake and the crumb wasn't as perfect as it could have been, it was totally delicious. Fragrant with citrus, dense and rich, moist and sugary (here's one wee criticism that had nothing to do with my idiocy: too much sugar in the glaze). I can only imagine how good it could have been if I'd actually followed the directions and not my hard-headed thriftiness.
So there you have it: a seriously indestructible tea cake that I plan to serve my girlfriends for dessert tonight and proof that while I may sometimes seem like a cooking Amazon (Novocained and still at the stove), I am often nothing of the sort.
Almond-Lemon Tea Cake
Serves 8 to 10
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (plus some for preparing the pan)
3/4 cup pastry or cake flour, sifted (plus some for preparing the pan)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup almond paste, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons orange juice
3/4 cup sugar
1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter and flour a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, knocking out the excess flour.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt twice. In a small bowl, combine the eggs and vanilla and whisk together just to combine.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the almond paste on low speed until it breaks up. This can take up to a minute, depending on how soft and warm it is. Slowly add the sugar in a steady stream, beating until incorporated. If you add the sugar too quickly, the paste won't break up as well.
4. Cut the butter into 1-tablespoon pieces. Continue on low speed while adding the butter, a tablespoon at a time, for about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Then turn on the mixer to medium speed and beat until the mixture is light in color and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. With the mixer still on medium speed, add the eggs in a very slow, steady stream and mix until incorporated. Stop the mixer and again scrape down the sides of the bowl. Turn on the mixer again to medium speed and mix for 30 seconds more.
5. Add the citrus zests and mix in with a wooden spoon. Add the flour mixture in two batches, stirring after each addition until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl one last time, then spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with an offset spatula.
6. Bake until the top springs back when lightly touched and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 60 to 65 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 to 7 minutes while you make the glaze.
7. To make the glaze, stir together the lemon and orange juices and the sugar in a small bowl. Place the wire rack holding the cake over a sheet of waxed paper or aluminum foil to catch any drips of glaze, and gently invert the cake onto the rack. If the cake does not want to release, run the tip of a small knife around the edge to loosen it. Brush the entire warm cake with the glaze, then let the cake cool completely on the rack. The cake breaks apart easily when warm, so don't attempt to move it.
8. When the cake is cool, transfer it to a serving plate, using two crisscrossed icing spatulas or the base of a two-part tart pan to lift it. Serve at room temperature. The cake will keep, well-wrapped, for 1 week in the refrigerator.