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Scoring a Napoleonic Victory in the Kitchen

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One of my favorite cakes for the holiday season is the French almond cake, pain de Ge^nes or Genoese bread. This classic cake was created in honor of a battle won by Napoleon’s army in Genoa in northern Italy. It’s not surprising that the pa^tissier who made up the cake chose almonds for this commemorative cake. Parisian chefs like to use these nuts in desserts they associate with Mediterranean regions.

In this country, we usually think of almonds in fillings for Danish and other sweet pastries or studded in yeast-leavened cakes like stollen. But when almonds are ground into a powder so that they form part of the body of the cake itself, they lend their delicious taste to every bite.

This almond cake is a great choice for parties and entertaining, as it is easy to make and keeps well. The cake has a pleasing texture, rich yet light and tender, and a pure almond flavor that comes from the nuts and not from almond extract. It is delightful in a refined sort of way--not the kind of lavish sweet that is full of gooey frosting but rather a cake that you enjoy for its own flavor.

French pastry chefs bake pain de Ge^nes in a round or fluted cake pan. In Paris, you’ll often find it in the windows of pa^tisseries , a low, plain-looking, round cake adorned only with a circle of parchment paper that says pain de Ge^nes or the name of the pastry shop. It is elegant in its simplicity.

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You can begin by blanching the almonds--putting them in boiling water, and boiling them for 10 seconds, then draining them and squeezing each one so the white nut pops out of its brown skin.

But pa^tissiers often use already blanched almonds and grind them in the food processor. For an even quicker recipe, they sometimes substitute almond powder or almond paste.

At home, I usually buy blanched almonds, but I grind them myself because whole almonds stay fresh much longer than almond powder. I store them in the freezer, where they keep for up to six months.

To grind the almonds, simply put them in the food processor with the sugar and whirl them for a minute or two. From this point on, pain de Ge^nes is a one-bowl cake. As a secondary flavor, the cake is gently accented with vanilla, kirsch, Grand Marnier or rum.

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Because the cake contains a generous amount of almonds, it needs only a moderate amount of flour and butter. It tastes so good that it needs no embellishment, though for festive occasions you might like to accompany it with whipped cream and fruit, raspberry sauce or vanilla custard sauce.

GENOA ALMOND CAKE

5 tablespoons unsalted butter plus extra for cake pan

3/4 cup whole blanched almonds

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1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

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3 large eggs

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier, kirsch or rum or 1 teaspoon vanilla

Melt 5 tablespoons butter in small saucepan over low heat and let cool.

Grind almonds with sugar in food processor to fine powder. Sift cornstarch with flour and baking powder.

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Beat 1 egg with almond mixture at low speed of mixer until blended, then at high speed 2 minutes or until mixture is thick and smooth. Add remaining 2 eggs, one at a time, and beat at high speed about 3 minutes after each addition. Beat in Grand Marnier. Sprinkle cornstarch mixture over almond mixture and fold in gently. Add butter in fine stream and fold in gently. Transfer batter immediately to buttered 8-inch round cake pan that has been lined with buttered wax paper or foil along bottom.

Bake at 375 degrees 28 to 30 minutes or until cake pulls away from pan and wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean. Carefully turn cake out onto wire rack. Gently remove waxed paper. Turn cake over again so smooth side is down. Let cool. Wrap cake and keep at room temperature or in refrigerator up to 4 days. (Cake also can be frozen.)

Makes 8 servings.


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