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Lightening Up Apple and Almond Cake

Since Nigella Lawson’s Feast came out a few years ago, her “Damp Apple and Almond Cake” has been praised by food bloggers, morning tv show hosts, and just about everyone else who’s tried making it.

Most of her dessert recipes are not for the health-conscious. In the past 10 years, most of her food has become if anything a lot heavier and gooeyer and richer, migrating from Thai and Vietnamese summer salads with sharp clean flavors to avocado AND bleu cheese AND sour cream WITH taco chips, or chocolate bar AND non-natural peanut butter AND whipping cream AND caramel as an ice cream sauce. Or chicken pot pie WITH a lot of bacon in it and no vegetables AND a store-bought puff pastry top (a whole sheet goes for a mere two servings). I can’t think how far she’ll take things next.

But the  “Damp Apple and Almond Cake”–despite the less appetizing connotation of “damp” in American speech (I think “moist” would probably be the equivalent word over here, or at least I hope so. It would at least conjure up fewer images of seeping rot under the stairwell)……….. okay, where was I with all the parentheses? Oh yeah.

What people have to say about this recipe is that it works as written, and it’s really good. No mean thing these days.

So okay. I have almond meal, I have apples, I have a fresh lemon, and I have some decent vanilla for a change (the Kroger stuff I bought for my daughter’s birthday cake back in mid-summer was shamefully weak). And I have eggs. That’s basically what you need to make this cake.

But it’s blazingly, disgustingly hot, 100+ Fahrenheit, yet again in Pasadena. And–AND–I look at the original recipe (serves 10-12) and realize that while the almond meal is a good move–much, much lower carb than flour–the recipe requires 8 eggs. Eight. E-I-G-H-T. Which puts it in the European spongecake class of baking. My grandmother made a similar thing, only with flour and chocolate chips, and probably 12 eggs, for a huge wheel of a cake.

And the directions call for simmering the apples down to a thick applesauce, then cooling and blending in the food processor with a huge, heavy amount of almond meal and a fairly high amount of sugar and all the eggs, and it’s a “dense” cake. No wonder.

Three and a quarter cups of almond meal. Dense. And almond meal tends to require a little less sugar than flour-based cakes to register sweetness–maybe that could be cut down too?

Those eggs–do you need all the yolks? Do you need all eight eggs for that matter? And while you’re at it, why not take advantage of what eggs do best, since it’s a European-style cake with no other leavening. Separate them and whip the whites to fold into the batter.

So here was what I came up with on a hot September pre-Rosh Hashanah afternoon.

Lightened-Up Apple Almond Cake

  • 3 fairly big Granny Smith apples, peeled and sliced or chopped (~23-25g carb each or ~75)
  • 2 c. almond meal (see Trader Joe’s for a decent-priced 1-lb bag at about $4) (20 g carb/cup or 40)
  • 2 T. flour or matzah cake meal (~10 g carb)
  • 1 c. sugar (200 g carb)
  • 3 yolks
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • juice of a lemon
  • 1-2 oz. orange juice (optional) (~3-5 g carb)
  • grated rind of half a lemon
  • grating of nutmeg
  1. Put the apple slices or chunks on a microwaveable dinner plate and microwave on HIGH 3 minutes.
  2. Blend the almond meal and sugar in a food processor until very fine (whiz several seconds, good enough)
  3. Add the yolks, apples, flour or matzah meal, lemon juice and rind, vanilla, orange juice and nutmeg and blend well.
  4. Whip the egg whites separately in another bowl large enough to pour in the batter from the food processor. When the whites are stiff (can be done easily enough by hand in only a minute or so with a big balloon whisk, just tip up the bowl and hold it at a slight angle in your other hand, or else use your method of choice), start pouring the batter into them a little at a time and folding with the whisk. I know this is backward from the usual method but it works out ok and saves a third bowl…
  5. Pour into a deep-sided microwaveable casserole or a deep dish pyrex pie plate (chancy, may spill over a bit).
  6. Set a microwaveable soupbowl upside down in the middle of the microwave turntable. Center the casserole or pie plate on top, and microwave uncovered 7 minutes on 70% (for an 1150ishW oven). Stop if it seems to be overflowing and wait a minute before continuing. When it stops rising and settles back in the plate, you might cover with a dinner plate and microwave another minute or so on HIGH until you’re convinced it’s cooked all the way down to the bottom.

Cool and slice–the total carb count is about 325 for the recipe, so 1/16th should be about 20 grams, 1/10th, if you can eat that much, is 33 grams, etc. It’s light, soft, substantial and rich-tasting, and 1/16th slice was pretty good tonight for all the testers at my table. And it only took 4 eggs and a cup and a quarter less almond meal. And about half the sugar of Nigella’s recipe but all the apples.

Lightened-up microwave version of Nigella Lawson's "Damp Apple and Almond Cake"

Not a looker in the microwaved version here, which doesn't brown the top, and I didn't decorate with slivered almonds or lemon slices, but the flavor's so intense and tangy that the 1/16th wedges here were perfect for a quick light dessert.

Verdict—Really, really good, and when I do it again maybe I’ll have cool enough weather to try out the oven so it’ll brown as well (about 25 minutes). I would probably go for a deep-sided casserole or even a soufflé dish. Then I could top it with slivered almonds as in Lawson’s version, and perhaps capture a little more of the rise from the egg whites without it collapsing down afterward.

In a regular oven it’s best to oil the pan and dust it with a little almond meal, but I didn’t have to for the microwave–probably for the same reasons it doesn’t brown on top, it also doesn’t cause a lot of sticking on the bottom.

Another change I might make next time would be to add just a couple of drops of almond extract–not enough to overpower the lemon and apples, just enough to play up the almond meal. This time around when I reached for the little bottle I discovered it was bone dry–hence the nutmeg, which actually worked out quite well.

But all in all, and despite the fact that it LOOKS like a typical Passover choke cake, it really isn’t. It’s very moist and even this way the flavor was wonderful and satisfying. So b’te’avon (bon appétit in Hebrew) and kudos to Nigella Lawson, and maybe this will encourage you (and her) to lighten up a little.

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