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Friday, January 28, 2011

Oh What a Cake!

Our friend Tina moved to Paris in the 1990s to pursue her journalism career, married a handsome Frenchman a few years later, and now has two adorable children. Along the way, she became a first-rate cook. At a recent dinner, she offered guests a first course of thick slices of the family foie gras (prepared annually by her French mother-in-law) accompanied by pear chutney and baguette slices. Next, the hostess arrived at the table with sautéed duck breasts napped in a rich red wine sauce, surrounded by tender haricots verts and golden potatoes. Salad and cheeses followed, but dessert was the evening’s pièce de résistance.

The talented cook served a financier cake. The French adore financiers, those mouthwatering little cakes made with brown butter, sugar, flour, and almonds. These confections are said to have originated in Paris’ financial district, and take their name from the brokers (financiers) who bought them. Tina’s version of this classic was distinctive because it was baked in a single pan rather than in small traditional molds. As everyone swooned over the warm buttery gâteau, she explained that the dessert was so easy to assemble that her 3-year old had helped mix the batter.

When I asked for the recipe, I learned that Tina had gotten it from another American expat in Paris, who had in turn learned how to prepare this confection from a French friend. Tina, having become a true French cook, couldn’t share the recipe without offering some variations. Use the cake as a base, she suggested, and add lemon, chocolate, or green tea (an ingredient the French employ imaginatively) for new flavors. For now, I plan to stick with the delicious Parisian original!

Tina’s Financier Cake
10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter at room temperature
            plus extra for the pan (See note.)
1 cup sliced or slivered almonds
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon fleur de sel or regular salt
4 large egg whites at room temperature, lightly beaten
11/4 teaspoons vanilla
Confectioner’s sugar, optional

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  Butter and flour an 8-inch cake pan. Line the bottom with a piece of parchment cut to fit the pan.  Butter and flour the paper.

Place the butter in a small, heavy saucepan set over medium heat. Whisk often until butter has melted and comes to a boil.  Cook at a gentle boil until butter turns a rich nutty brown, about 4 minutes. Watch carefully as the butter can go from brown to dark quickly. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Process the almonds in a food processor, pulsing the machine, until they are finely ground. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and add the sugar, flour, and fleur de sel. Whisk to combine. Whisk in the egg whites and the vanilla. Gradually whisk in the butter until well incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake until golden, and a tester comes out clean when inserted into the center, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool 5 minutes, and then unmold. Serve, either warm or at room temperature. Dust lightly with confectioner’s sugar if desired.  Serves 6.

Note: In Tina’s recipe the butter is softened to room temperature and simply whisked into the dry ingredients along with the egg whites and vanilla. However, the butter for financiers is typically melted and cooked until it becomes golden brown or what the French call beurre noisette. I followed this classic technique as it deepens the flavor of the cake.

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