Chez Panisse Almond Torte (High Altitude)
As much as I love to bake, I have only a handful of dessert recipes that I rely on time and time again. I’m usually more interested in trying new recipes or experimenting with elaborate concoctions that, while fun to play with, aren’t always the most practical to whip out for an unexpected visitor or last-minute craving.
So I was much intrigued and hopeful when I ran across this classic, simple Chez Panisse Almond Torte recipe featured on Alexandra’s Kitchen. Made with pantry staples and fresh items you almost always have on hand, it was the perfect recipe – images of tender, buttery, almond-scented cake, hot out of the oven at a moment’s notice enthralled me, and I ran to the kitchen to whip up this easy masterpiece.
And it was a huge disaster.
A sad, misshapen crater of disappointment, the cake was an unmitigated failure. Sinking limply in the center, unpleasantly dry and dense with a lacing of bitter baking powder, the torte was a textbook victim of my archenemy, high altitude.
I’ve done far worse than kill you, almond torte. I’ve hurt you.
I soaked the cake with bitter tears of rage.
And so began my journey to optimize this “simple” cake for high altitude.
Originally from Chez Panisse Desserts, a seminal cookbook of sweet delights from Chez Panisse Pastry Chef Lindsey Shere, the recipe consists of a handful of simple ingredients – eggs, butter, almond paste (not marzipan!), sugar, extracts, baking powder, and flour. The only problem – five out of these seven can cause shenanigans in a high altitude setting.
As discussed in my High-Altitude Italian Cream Cake with Salted Cream Cheese Frosting post, the basic concept of high altitude baking failure is that less air pressure means your baked good will puff and rise before solidifying the structure needed to support itself. Adding insult to injury, lower boiling temperature means liquids evaporate quicker – making your masterpiece dry, in addition to being a sorry-looking mess.
It helps to examine two camps of ingredients when adjusting a baking recipe for high altitude: ingredients that strengthen the structure, and ingredients that soften or tenderize the structure. Strengtheners include flour (especially high-protein flours) and egg whites – the whites ONLY because they are basically straight protein (they also give the added bonus of extra moisture – helpful when combating dryness). Tenderizers include sugar and fats like butter, shortening, egg yolks or oil – these work to make the structure weaker/softer. It is a fine balance, but you basically want to up the strengtheners and reduce the tenderizers ever so slightly to hit just the right balance.
For this cake, I reduced the sugar and butter slightly and took away one fatty egg yolk (keeping the white for moisture. To further strengthen the structure, I reduced the baking powder, bumped up the amount of flour slightly and jiggered with the baking temps.
Baking powder and temperature are wildcards – ways to trick your baked good into doing what you want. Baking powder speeds up the lift reaction during baking – you don’t need as much of this at high altitude, as you can rely on the air pressure to do some of that work for you. If you change nothing else in a recipe, this is the one to try first and foremost – the higher in altitude you go, the more you reduce. In Denver, I usually reduce the leavening by somewhere between 75 and 50%, and this cake was no exception.
Similarly, it helps to manipulate your baking temperature – baking at a slightly higher temperature, or even starting the oven at a higher temperature and then lowering it immediately, helps the structure of your baked good to set more quickly. Just be cautious when playing with temperature – your recipe will likely be finished sooner than expected if given an extra blast of heat.
But don’t panic if I’m blinding you with science – I did all this hard work for you.
Purely for the sake of experimentation, I’ve baked somewhere near a half-dozen of these lovelies over the past several months – tweaking this and that, trying to do the least amount of harm to the original recipe. The initial few were better, but not perfect.
Like that time I made one to bring to dinner. The torte was cratered just enough to be embarrassing, but not enough to be thrown away. I shaved that puppy evenly across the top, stuffed the scraps into the center depression, flipped it upside down and sprinkled it generously with powdered sugar. Voila. This might be the most important tip you’ll ever read, Denver – how to rescue a deflated-but-still-edible cake without your friends seeing the original travesty…
This is the Khan cake from above – shaved, stuffed, flipped, sugared, and elegantly presented on a paper plate. FTFY.
But with each cake, a step nearer victory. Finally – and just in time for Easter – I present to you the altitude-adjusted Chez Panisse Almond Torte! (If you are NOT at high altitude, this version at Alexandra’s Kitchen works like a dream from the very first try. So unfair!)
It is everything I ever wanted it to be – tender and moist, fragrant with the honeyed scent of sweet almonds, and blessedly simple to make. Keep a tube of almond paste in your pantry at all times – AT ALL TIMES, I SAY – and you will be one bowl and an hour’s bake away from dessert perfection. Though I used a bundt pan this time around (because bundt is a delight to say, spell and eat), it will work equally well in a traditional cake pan or springform pan.
ADD A HANDFUL OF RASPBERRIES, BLUEBERRIES OR CRANBERRIES TO THE BATTER FOR SOME FRUITY FLAIR!
Because I should never be left alone in a room with cake, I like to halve the recipe and bake a smaller version in a 6-inch cake pan from Ikea or using a 6-inch ring mold on top of a lined baking sheet. This is the perfect size for everyone in a group of 4-6 to have one slice with no leftovers.
But the leftovers make for a great breakfast with coffee. Just saying!
With just a dusting of powdered sugar and a few Jordan almonds to garnish, you have an easy dessert to complement your Easter feast!
- 1 cup sugar
- 7 oz almond paste
- 14 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
- 1 tsp vanilla paste/extract
- 1/8 tsp almond extract
- 5 eggs + 1 egg white
- 1 1/4 c. flour + 1 Tbsp
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Powdered sugar (optional)
- 1/4 c. raspberries, blueberries or cranberries (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350.
- Generously butter and flour a bundt or cake pan. I like to put 1 Tbsp softened butter on a paper towel and rub it all around the pan into every nook and cranny – then pour in 1/4 cup flour and rotate the pan, tapping, until butter is evenly coated with flour. If it doesn’t naturally adhere to the inner part of the bundt pan, take handfuls of flour and sprinkle directly on it over and over til coated. It’s a pain, but this cake sticks very easily otherwise!
- Beat softened butter, almond paste and sugar together until well-combined and fluffy, appx 2-3 minutes.
- Add extracts, then add eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary.
- Add flour, baking powder and salt. Mix just until combined.
- Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing evenly with spatula. If adding fruit, push the berries in one at a time evenly around the pan 1-3 inches deep, smoothing batter over the tops. Try not to let any of the berries touch the metal of the pan, because they may stick and make it hard to get the cake out of the pan!
- Bake for 5 minutes, then drop the temperature to 325 degress. Bake for 45 – 55 minutes, or until the cake springs lightly back when touched.