Try as I might to steel myself, I am a total sucker for celebrity gossip. It started early, with those candylike copies of People that my mother and I would sneak home from the grocery store. It was only every now and then, but it must have been too much, because today I am nearly helpless before each new display of Us Weekly. I’m the one holding up your checkout line while I eyeball Angelina’s belly or the slow train wreck that is Britney Spears. When I have an appointment with the doctor or dentist, I almost always go early, just so I can have a few moments alone with the office copy of Star. I once found an abandoned Life&Style Weekly in an airplane seat and nearly snarled at my neighbor, teeth bared, as I jumped to snatch it. The sex, the scandal, the honor betrayed: it’s sick, I know, but sometimes, I tell myself that it’s just like Shakespeare, without the messy encumbrance of rhyme and meter.
Plus, there’s the fact that celebrities eat, and that paparazzi photos sometimes include a stray coffee cup, cookie, hot dog, or half-eaten salad. This fact alone vindicates my voyeurism: it’s research, really, into another form of food journalism. So-and-So was seen at Sarabeth’s, where, according to the manager, she “really put away the strawberry-rhubarb jam.” Or, So-and-So keeps macrobiotic, but is rumored to have a weakness for Mike and Ike and Diet Coke. At So-and-So’s birthday party, waiters clad only in bronze paint passed Moroccan-spiced lamb lollypops with harissa foam, and revelers wore bracelets strung with couscous. It’s the mundane, but set in Malibu or Manhattan, and with more garden parties. Seattle doesn’t often generate that caliber of celebrity news, so a girl’s got to get it elsewhere, like Us Weekly.
Unless, of course, the president of China should happen to stop in for a visit at Microsoft, and our own homegrown, sweater-clad, sort-of celebrity, Mr. Bill Gates, decides to invite him over for an evening of hobnobbing and cake, creating quite a stir on the local scene. Politics and software preferences aside, people love a good, flashy motorcade, especially when it leads to a dinner party. Even The Seattle Times got in on the gossip—and got a recipe too.
It isn’t often that celebrity news—local or otherwise—inspires me into the kitchen, but when I read that dessert at the Gates residence was a brown butter – almond cake topped with rhubarb, I printed the recipe, fired up the oven, and reached for the mixing bowl. Soon, there was a pan of butter on the stove, burbling its way to brown, and not too long after came nearly a dozen little cakes, squatting atop the counter. Dotted with shards of rhubarb and sporting a homey, tousled top, they smelled unmistakably nutty and not too sweet—earthy and toasty, with a faint caramel edge. Inside, the crumb was classic torte: tight, tender, and very, very rich. Painted with a thin, shiny glaze of apricot jam, they would be worthy of any So-and-So, or even a Page Six mention—if, of course, Seattle had that sort of thing.
Brown Butter – Almond Cakelets with Rhubarb
Adapted from The Seattle Times and Pastry Chef David Jue
I know, I know. The amount of butter called for here sounds absolutely ungodly, and it is. If it’s any consolation, it shrinks as it browns, so it at least looks less scary, even if it’s just as fatty. Remember: all that sweetly browned fat contributes a lot of flavor to these little cakes. It’s worth it—every now and then, at least.
¾ lb. (3 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup almond flour (also sold as “almond meal”)
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 2/3 cups powdered sugar
5 large egg whites
1/3 lb. rhubarb, finely chopped
Apricot jam, for glazing (optional)
Loosely whipped cream or ice cream, for serving (optional)
Put the butter in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, and stir until it turns a dark amber color, similar to maple syrup, about 10-15 minutes. Remove the butter from the heat, and strain it through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into a small bowl to remove the foamy butter solids and any dark sediment. The butter should smell deeply caramelly. Set it aside to cool, but do not allow it to harden.
When the butter is cool, weigh it. You should have 6 ounces for this recipe, and 3 sticks, when browned, yields just a bit too much. Set a small bowl atop a scale, zero the scale, and pour exactly 6 ounces of browned butter into the bowl. This is what you will use for the recipe; any remaining butter can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for other uses.
In a large bowl, sift together the almond flour, all-purpose flour, and powdered sugar. Add the egg whites, and stir with a rubber spatula to combine. It will look a little odd and slimy. Add the brown butter, and fold until smooth. The batter will at first look strange and oily, but keep folding and stirring gently, and it will come together. Refrigerate, covered, for at least one hour and up to a day.
When you are ready to bake the cakes, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly butter or spray 10 (½-cup) muffin cups.
Scoop the batter by ¼-cupfuls into the prepared muffin cups. The batter should be thick and dense: you may want to spoon it into the measuring cup, and then scrape the contents into the muffin cup. Sprinkle about 1 ½ Tbs minced rhubarb on top, and lightly press the rhubarb into the batter. Bake the cakes for 25-30 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned and the tops look dry. Allow them to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges to release them, and remove them to a rack to cool completely.
If you want to glaze the cakes, warm two or three spoonfuls of apricot jam and a drizzle of water in a small saucepan over low heat. When the jam is loose and melted, brush and dab it lightly over each cake. Serve plain, or, if you like, with loosely whipped cream or a small scoop of slightly softened ice cream.
Yield: 10 cakelets