The first time I flipped open The California Heritage Cookbook, by the Junior League of Pasadena (Doubleday, 1976), it took me by surprise. Instead of the usual whimsy one tends to encounter in community cookbooks, I came across essays about California history, region by region. Chapters were divided among different parts of the state, with each opening to a glimpse into a specific time and place in California history.
For example, an essay on San Francisco begins:
“During the limbo hours of Sunday morning when it is too late for bed and too early for tennis, when bars and churches alike are closed, San Francisco revelers sometimes repair to Fisherman’s Wharf for Hangtown Fry. Viewed objectively, this gastronomic nightmare hardly beckons weary head or jaded stomach, and had it been called Fourteen-Karat Omelet or Eggs and Oysters Jake, it would probably have been faded into oblivion long ago…. The story goes that an old, dirty ‘49er came into town, plunked his gold nuggets on the bar, and ordered the most expensive meal in the place. The chef checked his kitchen and found some six-dollar-apiece oysters, which had been shipped in barrels from the East Coast, which he combined with the scarce delicacy of fresh eggs. The result was Hangtown Fry.”
In a city better known for farmers markets that take credit cards, upscale Italian and Vietnamese restaurants, and high-wire acts from chefs who hope to redefine—define, rather—northern California cuisine, it’s refreshing to take a look at the city’s inauspicious gastronomic start.
The book is also full of great recipes, from cauliflower browned in butter and tossed with almonds and seasoned breadcrumbs to venison with chile verde to vineyard coffeecake. Now that I’ve cracked it open, I know I’ll be revisiting this book.
This week’s retro recipe is another dessert. I brought it to the same birthday party as the strawberry tart; a chocolate counterweight to the lightness of the fruit. While the combination of chocolate and almonds is a proven match, what’s unique about this recipe is that it’s nearly flour-free. It called for 1/4 cup of melba toast crumbs, which I didn’t have. I did have a couple of almond biscotti. Once pulverized in a food processor, they did the job just fine as crumbs. Unfortunately, all I had was a 10-inch cake pan, so the cake turned out a bit thinner than if I had an 8-inch pan (which is what the recipe called for).
The real find, though, was the chocolate honey frosting. It was more delicious than buttercream, and so much easier to make. Once it cools, the frosting hardens on the cake, which is good if you’re transporting the dessert. I’m definitely going to make it again.
Before I go into the recipe, I can’t resist sharing another quote from The California Heritage Cookbook:
“Comfort, ease, and luxury are hallmarks of San Francisco. However the sky line or shore line may change, there will always be a special feeling to this city. There will always be music, art, and church bells. There will always be a memorable meal.”
Chocolate almond torte with chocolate honey frosting
Adapted from The California Heritage Cookbook (Doubleday, 1976)
Makes 1 cake
1 cup almonds
2 large biscotti or 4 small biscotti
4 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) butter, softened
3 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
Chocolate Honey Frosting
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup butter, softened
4 teaspoons honey
1. To make the cake: Butter an 8-inch round cake pan (or a 10-inch pan if you don’t mind a thinner cake) and line the base of the pan with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. In a food processor, grind the almonds finely and set aside. In the same food processor, grind the biscotti and measure out 1/4 cup. (If you have extra biscotti crumbs, you can save them for dusting the top of the cake.)
3. In a double boiler or microwave, melt the chocolate and set aside to cool.
4. In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar. Add the yolks one at a time, mixing well in between each addition. Mix in the almonds, 1/4 cup biscotti crumbs, chocolate, vanilla, and salt.
5. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the cake batter gradually, then pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cake for about 15 minutes, then invert the cake onto a serving plate and peel away the parchment paper.
6. To make the frosting: In a heat-proof mixing bowl suspended over a pot of simmering water (ensuring that the bottom of the bowl isn’t touching the water, melt the chocolates, butter, and honey. Transfer the bowl to an ice bath and whisk vigorously by hand or with a handheld electric mixer until the frosting just barely starts to set up and is spreadable (it will harden if left in the ice too long). Quickly spread the frosting over the cake; it will start to set up as it cools.