I wondered whether to leave the title as just Chocolate & Almond Cake but with a recipe by Elizabeth David it is Mrs David’s name that has the biggest impact. Her books continue to sell and any self respecting cook will have a copy of at least one, if not all, of them. She is a cookery writer that British homes have truly taken to their hearts. When first published her recipes took the post-war home cook (who was used to a limited and sparse cuisine) away to warmer climates and a different world. Elizabeth David wrote in detail what she found on her travels through Europe, describing the foods she saw and ate, and sharing her whole culinary experience. Today her books still give inspiration and ideas to her readers. Her recipes are written in a simplistic form giving the reader food for thought (I make no excuse for puns). The recipes are written for those who already know the basics of cookery but allowing room for the cook’s own personality in the making of her recipes.
When I started to write up this recipe I browsed a well known online bookshop for French Provincial Cooking (1960) – from where this recipe has been taken. I was shocked and saddened to see a reviewer write that they didn’t care for the book as they didn’t like the recipe layout nor the fact that there were no pictures. This was how cookery books of their time were written.
My mother’s recipe collection had many words and very few pictures, tidied away into fat folders and in no particular order. Finding a recipe amongst the chaos was like a game of Pelmanism, remembering the sequence of recipes and memorizing where you last saw it in the pile was the name of the game. The folders contained cuttings from newspaper columns, pages torn from doctors surgery magazines (much to my horror) and many many hand written recipes from friends. The hand written ones are the most fragile, war torn from years of use with traces of sticky fingers with smudged ink and missing words where the steam from the kitchen has penetrated the paper. Many of them are written in Greek or Italian, with some of the handwriting hardly legible. The ones that leap out at me and I love are those that are written on the back of a restaurant receipt, no doubt where my mother charmed the chef into giving her the recipe.
Elizabeth David’s instructions can at times be sparse leaving the cook to make her own decisions but in this recipe the instructions are clear – bitter dark chocolate and almond meal. It wasn’t until I didn’t have any ground almonds and was left to use whole skinned almonds that a different view of the recipe started to form.
I did some digging around and, even though this cake appears in French Provincial Cooking, there was a very similar cake that had become popular in Capri and the coast of Amalfi around the 1950s called Caprese Torta. I know that Elizabeth David’s mentor Norman Douglas lived in Capri and that she visited him often. I can’t help but wonder if the idea of this cake came from Mrs David enjoying the very popular Caprese Torta with Norman Douglas? Which, thinking about it, would make sense in that whole skinned and roasted almonds is what Elizabeth David means as almond meal. I found that using whole nuts gives the cake a different texture than when using ground almonds. The biggest thrill is that is also gives a completely different taste, with a superior nutty flavour as the almonds are ground to a coarse sandy texture which give off little hits of the roasted almond flavour with each mouthful of cake.
As I sat at the kitchen table and started the process of skinning the almonds I started to think back to my mother’s cooking. We would often receive neatly packaged parcels from Greece and Italy printed with foreign writing and tightly wrapped. As we broke their seal with a knife the nuts would spill out all over the kitchen table. Any precious nuts hitting the floor and rolling under cupboards would be collected up and added to the heap. My job would be to steep them in boiling water and skin them one by one. Later I was promoted to the roasting section, where I would stand over a large frying pan watching the almonds toast. It only takes a second for them to go from golden blonde to burnt black. I can still remember the cries of my mother when I had allowed this to happen. Those almonds were a rare commodity. The knack I learnt was to keep the pan moving all the time it is on the flame, and even off the flame the pan is still hot enough to burn them.
I have used ground almonds for years as an easy option. I knew that something was missing but didn’t really think enough about it. It wasn’t until I started making this cake the old way with whole almonds that I realised what I was missing – the true smell and taste of almonds. Opening the oven door during roasting the most heavenly aroma hit me, transporting me straight back to my first kitchen job. Something shop-bought ground almonds has never done!
To skin and roast the almonds
Place almonds in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Leave until the nuts are able to be handled without burning your fingers. The almonds should just pop out when the skin is given a little pressure. Place them on a plate lined with kitchen paper to dry. As the water chills, the skins become a little harder to remove. Drain and replenish with boiling water again then wait until they are able to be handled and this should encourage the skins to release their nut.
Place on a baking tray and pop into an oven for 10 minutes – remove and shake the tray giving the almonds a chance to colour all over. Pop back into the oven and repeat until the almonds have taken on a honey blonde colour.
Allow to cool. Place into a food processor and chop until the almonds represent the consistency of coarse sand.
Elizabeth David’s Chocolate & Almond Cake
115g / 4oz bitter dark chocolate
85g / 3 oz caster sugar
85g / 3 oz butter
85g / 3 oz almond meal (ground almonds or whole almonds skinned and chopped, see above)
3 eggs separated (both egg yolks and egg whites beaten separately)
1 tbs rum or brandy
1 tbs black coffee (espresso)
Gas mark 1/140C – Yes it is a very low oven temperature.
Break the chocolate up into a bowl and add the rum and coffee and melt either by microwave or in a double boiler. Add the butter, stirring it into the chocolate mixture until it has melted. Add the sugar, almonds and mix till combined. Set aside. When it is cool add the beaten egg yolks.
In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff. These are then folded gently into the chocolate mixture. Pour the mixture into a well buttered 20cm removable base cake tin. Bake for around 45 minutes or when the cake has a crust
Leave to cool, then carefully remove as it is a very fragile cake. Sprinkle with icing sugar or leave plain. This cake lends itself to being served with a little whipped cream or my preference clotted cream.