Passover is upon us and as we clean out the house and kitchen, get rid of all wheat and grain products, as we lock our flour, yeast and baking powder away with so many of our other baking products, we ponder what sweet treats and desserts we can serve our family over the eight days of the holiday. Special meals, the Passover Seder, followed by a week of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snack times have us combing through blogs and old Sisterhood Cookbooks for new recipes and ideas of how to keep the family happy. Am I right?
Cooking and eating during Passover is a meticulous, studied affair, and many of us go out of our way to prepare special foods. The rules concerning what is to be eaten and, more importantly, what cannot be eaten by Jews for the duration of the 8-day festival is extremely strict. Jews are forbidden to eat chometz, any food containing barley, wheat, rye, oats, and spelt. For many Jews, corn, millet, rice, beans and lentils are off limits, too. Food cannot be leavened, so no yeast, baking powder or baking soda, which makes baking -- and keeping the family happily supplied with cake -- tricky. Especially those of us who are home bakers or who do not have a kosher bakery or shop nearby.
But after many years, I do have a repertoire of some great recipes, including a Chocolate Chestnut Fondant (omitting the flour), Strawberry Mascarpone Cheesecake, Chocolate Almond Torte and Chocolate Espresso Pecan Torte. This year, I wanted something light, more delicate; I was determined to create a cake that one-ups the old-fashioned, traditional Passover sponge cake, that inimitable standby, that emblematic myth of the holiday. Usually store bought. Usually dry. Usually flavorless.
I developed a Passover-friendly and gluten free sponge cake, and have created both a lemon and a chocolate espresso version of this light, delicate yet satisfying almond cake. Baking the sponge in a narrower, taller pan (7 ¼ inch-diameter x 4 inch-high) made for a dizzyingly tall and very impressive cake. Be extra careful when unmolding as the top of the cake is crispy and flaky; 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.
COCOA ESPRESSO ALMOND PASSOVER SPONGE CAKE (gluten free)
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.
4 large eggs, separated
1 cup (200 g) sugar
1/4 cup (65 ml) prepared strong coffee
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup (45 g) ground almonds
1/2 cup (90 g) potato flour *
1/4 cup (25 g) unsweetened cocoa powder *
Pinch salt + few drops lemon juice for whites
Handful slivered blanched almonds to decorate, optional
* I use what is called fecule de pomme de terre, potato flour but has the consistency more of a light cornstarch than flour. Try finding potato flour but if you cannot find it then try potato starch. When measuring both the potato flour and the cocoa powder, lightly scoop and spoon each into a measuring cup then scrape off the excess with the flat side of a knife blade. Do not pack into the cup.
(For the Lemon version: omit the prepared coffee and the cocoa powder. Instead, add finely grated zest and juice from ½ lemon, beating both into the thickened yolk/sugar mixture with the vanilla.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Have ready a springform pan -- I used a 7 1/4 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.