Our sweetest songs are those of saddest thought. – Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Complete Poems
This is an odd time of the year for me. Passover – and I imagine Easter for those who celebrate it – is a time of celebration, redemption and rebirth. But it is also a time of memory, both the good and the bad, of slavery and of freedom, of adversity and The Promised Land. It is also the time of year when winter gives way, no matter how reluctantly, to spring, try as it might to hold on. Chilly, rainy days, gray and misty, are broken by bright rays of sunlight, days warming and encouraging. I still spend mornings as close to the fire in the dining room as I can, or warming my hands at the toaster as slices of brioche are grilled, but we fling the windows of each hotel room open and bask in the warmth, the scents and sounds of springtime for just a few minutes when we can. The garden is abloom, bursting with shades of green and the yellows, pinks, whites, magentas of the first flowers; the terrace has finally been set up for garden breakfasts or a glass of Chinon white or red in the glow of the late afternoon sun.
This time of year also sees my husband celebrating a birthday in the waning days of March. A joyous celebration that is made bittersweet by my brother’s birthday following just two weeks later. This year, April 9 would have been Michael’s 58th birthday, 58, the same age as Jean-Pierre, and one birthday reminds me of the other yet only one will be feted. I’ll spend a few minutes outside this year on April 9, I’ll close my eyes, listen to the twittering of the birds, breath in the scent of the magnolia blooms and the hyacinth, let the sun warm my face and I’ll think of Michael, think of what he would have said, laughingly, about my new adventure. I wish he could visit. I’ve been finding white feathers here and there around the hotel in the oddest, most unlikely of places and a friend of mine once told me that a white feather placed where we find it could be a sign from someone loved and departed. I like to think that it is.
I was so pleased with my Lemon Almond Sponge Cake when I first made it, light and fluffy with a delicate lemon and almond flavor that made the perfect breakfast or snack as is, and the perfect dessert when topped with a Warm Lemon Sauce, that I thought I would try and adapt it to chocolate.
Michael’s birthday often fell during Passover and our discussions turned around finding a recipe for a birthday cake without flour, without leavening, a cake that would be delicious, festive and special enough for a birthday, and kosher of Passover. This Cocoa Espresso Almond Sponge Cake would have been perfect. And for his birthday we would have served it drizzled with a chocolate ganache glaze and topped with whipped cream. Or piles of berries.
Whether you celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover or not, this cake is a splendid addition to your baking repertoire and your table. Made without flour, it is a wonderful, tasty gluten-free treat as well. Impressive and elegant yet so light and ethereal it is simply just the easiest thing in the world to eat.
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 1 cup (200 g) sugar
- ¼ cup (65 ml) prepared strong coffee
- ¼ tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup (45 g) ground almonds
- ½ cup (85 g) potato flour *please see note
- ¼ cup (25 g) unsweetened cocoa powder * please see note
- Pinch salt + few drops lemon juice for whites
- Handful slivered blanched almonds to decorate, optional
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Have ready a springform pan – I used a 7 ¼ inch-diameter x 4 inch-high springform but a regular 8-inch pan (with high sides) is fine, too, simply adjust baking time.
- Separate the eggs; place the yolks in a large mixing bowl and the whites in a medium bowl, preferably plastic or metal. Add a pinch salt and a few drops lemon juice to the whites and set aside.
- Using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks for a couple of minutes until thick and pale. Add the sugar and continue beating until thick and creamy. Beat in the prepared coffee and the vanilla extract until well blended and thick. Quickly beat in the ground almonds.
- Using very clean beaters, beat the egg whites on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase the speed to high; beat the whites until thick, glossy and peaks hold. Do not overbeat until the whites are dry. Using a spatula, gently but firmly fold the stiff whites into the lemon almond cake batter in 3 additions. Sift the cocoa powder onto the potato flour and stir together; fold in the potato flour/cocoa mixture with the third addition of the whites in order to avoid overworking the batter. Fold in the whites just until all the lumps of white have disappeared.
- Gently pour the batter into the springform pan. Dust with a couple of tablespoons slivered almonds. Bake in the preheated oven 30 – 45 minutes, depending on your oven and pan size. The cake is done when puffed, set and golden. Gently press on the top of the cake and it should feel set, much like an angel or sponge cake. A tester inserted in the center should come out dry.
- Remove the pan from the oven onto a cooling rack and allow to cool to before unmolding, but carefully run a long, thin blade around the sides to loosen the cake while still warm. Be extra careful when unmolding as the top of the cake is crispy and flakey; it is best to use a springform pan so you can just lift off the sides then loosen and slide it from the bottom onto a serving platter. I did partially cool the cake upside down (which I often do for sponges as it helps keep them from sinking), placing a cool rack upside down on the top of the pan and slowly flipping it upside down.