How it is
I think I might have told you about my father’s friend Michael. Sometime in the early ‘90s, Burg was on his way out of the grocery store, and being something of a car buff, he stopped to check out a Citroën in the parking lot. While he stood there with his grocery bags, the owner of the car came along – or maybe the owner was in the car; these details are long gone – and he turned out to be a man named Michael. They struck up a conversation, and something must have clicked, because for years after that, they were best friends. Michael was a native New Yorker, a former cab driver-slash-writer turned small business owner, intense and inquisitive and superhumanly well read. He and my dad would meet up on the weekends to a walk around the neighborhood and talk, and then one of them would make lunch, and they would talk some more. Burg must have told him that I liked to write, because the first time we met, Michael asked to see my poems – that’s what I was into then – and he told me about Adrienne Rich and her Diving into the Wreck, which wound up being the first book of poetry that felt like it spoke directly to me, 14-year-old me, just-starting-to-figure-stuff-out me.
I just realized that the way I’m talking makes it sound as though Michael is dead. I’m happy to report that he’s not. But I guess because Burg is, I tend to write about everything around him in the past tense. I should work on that.
In any case, Michael was – and is – a very good cook, and he and his wife Becky would have us over sometimes for dinner. In retrospect, I’m sort of surprised that they included me, seeing as I was a teenage punk at that point, but they did. And in some ways, I remember their cooking more vividly than my own parents’. Michael once put a whole chicken in a roasting pan, scattered a drained can of hominy around it, dumped a can of Coca Cola on top, and parked it in the oven until the juices were dark and caramelly, and though I have an uneasy relationship with superlatives, I have no problem declaring it the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. Michael now claims not to remember how he made it – or even that he made it – and despite a number of tries, I’ve never been able to produce anything remotely like it. He could also make a platter of hard-boiled eggs with wedges of tomato and sweet onion – a sort of composed salad, dressed only with olive oil and salt – taste exceptional, like no egg, tomato, or onion since. The same goes for his boiled yucca. Boiled yucca! And Becky, for her part, made a perfect almond cake: a damp-crumbed, camel-colored loaf that, though she insisted it was easy and absolutely no big deal, I still think about all the time.
When I was in college, they moved away. They had never seemed at home in Oklahoma, and they live in France now. And of course, here I am in Seattle. I don’t see them often, but the last time I did, Brandon was with me. The four of us went to dinner at a restaurant that turned out to be terrible, but getting there, we took a nice walk. It was a long walk, and we wound up in pairs, Michael with Brandon and Becky with me. The guys were a few strides ahead, and I could tell that they were deep in conversation, and at one point, I saw Michael lean in and loop his arm through Brandon’s, grinning, cackling conspiratorially, the way he always did when he was talking to Burg. And not long after, it occurred to me that meeting Michael might be the closest Brandon ever gets to meeting my father, and vice versa.
We’ve had a lot of out-of-town visitors in the past few weeks. First came Brandon’s parents, then a friend from New York, and then, last weekend, my mom. I haven’t been doing a lot of memorable cooking – not unless you count the soup I made last Thursday, which was memorable in the sense that it was virtually indistinguishable from pond water. But one night, I wanted to make us a nice dinner, and I had a new dessert recipe that I wanted to try, a type of souffle flavored with almond paste. I went to the store to pick up the ingredients, and when I got home and started unpacking the grocery bags, I noticed that the back of the almond paste box had a recipe for an almond cake. I once asked Becky where she got her cake recipe, and though I don’t really remember what she told me, as I stood there last week with the box of Odense brand almond paste in my hand, I suddenly felt very, very sure that it came from the back of that box. So I scrapped the souffle plans and switched to cake, and that night, with Brandon’s dad and our friend Sam, we tried it. It was okay. The almond flavor tasted muted somehow, lacking in salt. I sent the leftovers home with Sam, and as further evidence of how only-okay the cake was, I should tell you that the last half of it showed up at Delancey four days later, when Sam tried to pawn it off on the cooks.
But you haven’t read this far to hear about an only-okay cake, and actually, a lot of you probably haven’t even read this far, so if you have, this is the part where I thank you. And tell you to go preheat the oven and get out a springform pan, because by now, you probably need reinforcements.
The cake you should make is not the recipe on the back of the Odense almond paste box, but rather the recipe that follows, the one I should have made in the first place. It comes from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte, and I am certainly not the first person, nor the last, to sing its praises. It is a lot better than okay. I first heard about the recipe years ago, maybe when Adam made it, but I remembered it only after putting the Odense cake in the oven. The truth is, it bears a resemblance to the Odense recipe – the basic ingredients (butter, flour, baking soda, and almond paste) are used in the exact same quantities – but Hesser’s recipe uses a proper amount of salt, and some sour cream, and almond extract. What you get is a big, sturdy cake with enormous flavor and fragrance. I don’t know what’s going on in there, but the texture is incredible: so tender and tightly woven that it slices with no crumbs, but also pleasingly chewy. Its only flaw is that it caves in the middle as it cools, but that’s just how it is. It’s still fine to look at. Of course, it’s not exactly like Becky’s cake; hers baked in a loaf pan, for one thing, and I don’t remember it caving. But making it made me think of her, and of Michael, and it made me get out Diving into the Wreck (which doesn’t speak to me now the way it did when I was 14, but that’s probably for the best), and it made me want to write this down for you, which also means writing it down for me.
P.S. Annnnnd now that I wrote all this, I went back in my archives and found that I did indeed write about Michael and Becky years ago, more than six years ago, with a different almond cake recipe that I had since completely forgotten about. Going to go curl up and die now. Goodnight. (But I do think today’s almond cake is better, and it uses more standard ingredients, which is nice.)
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte, and from her mother-in-law, Elizabeth
It would be tough to improve upon this cake, but next time, I might cut the almond extract back to ½ teaspoon, rather than 1 teaspoon. I love almond extract, but sometimes it leaves an aftertaste.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter (or spray with cooking spray) the sides and bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. The line the sides and bottom with parchment paper, and butter (or spray) the paper. In a small bowl, mix together sour cream and baking soda. In another bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the almond paste a few pieces at a time, and beat on medium speed for 8 minutes. (Yes, this seems like a long time, but do it. The mixture will get gorgeously fluffy.) Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, and mix until incorporated. (If it looks curdled, don’t worry.) Beat in the almond extract and the sour cream mixture. Reduce mixer speed to low, and gradually add the flour mixture, beating just until combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold the batter a couple of times to make sure there’s no unincorporated flour lurking around.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and spread it evenly with the rubber spatula. Bake for about 1 hour: the cake is done when you press the top and it returns to its shape, and also when it shrinks from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a cooling rack, and cool the cake in its pan.
When ready to serve, sift powdered sugar over the top, if you like.
Yield: about 10 servings