Cherry Almond Cake

It took me a while, but I figured something out: making cake is easy. Once I got over that whole pastry-is-an-exact-science-and-there-is-no-wiggle-room-or-disaster-will-ensue thing, I found that I've gotten a lot more creative and comfortable with the whole idea of making baked desserts. I learned a few key things: 1) the temperature of your ingredients is critical, 2) most cakes are just combos of eggs, butter, sugar and leveaners, you can be slightly off about all those things and stuff will probably come out ok, and 3) keep an eye on things, because no two ovens or batters are the same.

There's one caveat to this whole ease business... baking started to get A LOT easier for me once I had the right gear. My favorite piece of gear is the stand mixer. The stand mixer makes me feel like I'm cheating at baking. But even without a pricey stand mixer (thank you older brother for the gift!) cake isn't hard. If you have a hand mixer, or lots of upper body strength and a whisk, you'll be just fine.

On Sunday I got in a cake making mood. That day, cherries were the stars of the Hollywood Farmers' Market and I couldn't resist them. I grew up with a cherry tree in my back yard, and as early as six years old I could be found climbing said tree and picking and eating sun-warmed cherries directly off unstable branches.

I brought home the cherries, and thought about classic cherry pairings. Almonds immediately came to my mind. I figured I could make a pretty basic cake, replace some of the flour with ground almonds, add some almond extract, and throw some cherries in there. I knew the cherries might sink to the bottom of the cake, but I didn't care. I wanted to keep this easy. If you want to add a step, you can make the batter without cherries, add it to the baking dish, dust your cherries in flour, and lightly place them on top of the batter. They will sink less that way, but I honestly couldn't be bothered.

If you can't get fresh cherries, frozen cherries are pretty awesome. I really like this brand, and I snack on them all winter. They'll work in this recipe, so you don't even have to sacrifice your perfectly good-as-is fresh cherries.

Long story short: this cake is crazy good.

Cherry Almond Cake
Serves 12 (or 1)

1/2 cup butter (1 stick), room temperature (very important)
1 cup organic cane sugar (regular white sugar works too)
2 eggs, room temperature (very important)
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup finely ground almonds (or almond meal or almond flour)
1 cup milk (2% or whole)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (add a full teaspoon if you like extra almond flavor)
2 cups cherries, halved and pitted
1/3 cup raw sliced almonds
raw sugar for sprinkling on top

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C

Grease a 9 x 11 baking dish, and line it with parchment paper. Grease the parchment paper. Set aside.

In a stand mixture with a paddle attachment on medium speed, cream the butter and sugar together. Beat the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. If you use regular white sugar this will take 3-4 minutes. If you are using organic cane sugar it takes about 5-6 minutes. You can also use a hand mixer to beat the butter and sugar. Add the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat them well for another minute or two.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk the ground almonds into the flour mixture. I ground my almonds in a coffee grinder, you could also use a food processor, or you could just use almond meal or almond flour.

Turn the stand mixer to low, and add a third of the dry ingredients to the egg mixture. Add a third of the milk. Alternate the dry ingredients and the milk until everything is fully incorporated. Be careful not to over-mix your batter at this stage. Gently fold in the almond extract, vanilla extract, and the cherries.

Pour the batter into the baking dish, and top it with the sliced raw almonds and raw sugar.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown and a cake-tester or toothpick comes out clean.

Let it cool in the pan. Serve for breakfast, lunch, or dinner... it works for all three.

Kale, Date & Almond Salad

The other night I ate at Rustic Canyon for the first time.  I'm a big fan of Huckleberry, which is owned by the same folks. My expectations were high and overall the meal was quite lovely. The place was packed and the ambience was lively. The cocktail I had was perfect and the beer and wine selections looked great.  Everything we ate tasted good, but there were two dishes that stood out more than the others.

Service was outstanding for the first half of the meal.  For the second half of the meal, our waitress seemed to forget about us entirely. We were more or less ignored once our first round of drinks had been replenished; this made ordering dessert a little difficult. Service isn't something that matters to everyone, but it does matter to me. I'm particularly sensitive to service when the price tag of the meal is high. Regardless of what I'm paying, if a place has pretty good food and excellent service I'll almost definitely return to that establishment.  If a place has great food and terrible service I'm unlikely to go back.  Maybe it was an off-night because they were so busy (there happened to be celebrities there that night), or maybe that's just how it is. Rustic Canyon was yummy, but I'm not sure I'll go out of my way to return.

Back to the food... the gnocchi with oxtail, strawberry sofrito, pine nut, and fennel pollen was the stand-out dish, and the kale salad was a close second. I really like kale, but it's not something I tend to order at restaurants. On the menu the salad was described as having 'honey' dates, walnut, Parmesan and lemon.  It sounded good and different, and it tasted even better than I imagined. The kale was bright and slightly bitter, the dates were velvety and sweet, the lemon vinaigrette was creamy and vibrant.

I came home wanting to eat it again.  Here is a take on the great salad I had that night.

Kale, Date & Almond Salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
Serves 2-3

4 cups kale (lacinato/tuscan kale would be best, but I used the regular variety), thinly sliced into ribbons
1/4 cup almonds, toasted and chopped (hazelnuts, pecans, or walnuts would also be good)
5 dates, pitted and halved
salt and pepper
juice of one lemon, Meyer if in season
drop of honey
3 tablespoons olive oil, or more depending on taste
crumbled goat cheese (optional)
shaved parmesan (optional)

Add the kale, toasted nuts, and pitted dates to a bowl. Lightly season the salad with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl or jar, add freshly squeezed lemon juice, a drop of honey, and a little more salt and pepper.  Whisk the olive oil into the lemon juice mixture until creamy and emulsified.  Taste your dressing and adjust accordingly.

Toss the salad with the dressing until the leaves are well coated.  Let the salad sit for at least 15 minutes before serving so that the kale properly absorbs the dressing and softens.

Top with crumbled goat cheese, or shaved parmesan if you're in the mood for that.