Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tarta de Santiago - My Gluten-Free Easter, Passover and Book Club Cake

Like many book club hosts, I fuss about the food.  As life would have it, this past Tuesday's meeting was no exception.  We are morning bookworms.  Well, truth be told the last of the special ladies left somewhere around 3 pm.  Our only rule for hosting is that there needs to be good strong coffee, decaf for a select few and a pot of hot water for our one teabag carrying, baby pinky pointer.  I, like the rest, do more.  It's a labour of love for sure.

In these times of great indulgence, I try to keep the main choices satisfying but not too heavy.  The fruit salad is a staple starter.  I thought an egg protein dish sans crust could keep our brains firing with thoughtful dialogue.  As our appetites waned, a light cake can be the great finisher.

Wanting a hint of Easter, I found a flourless Almond Cake, subtitled as Tarta de Santiago and adorned with a stenciled cross.  I knew nothing of its pedigree or history.  It turns out the Tarta de Santiago has deep roots in the food culture of Northern Spain.  My ignorance.  It was the picture that drew me in and I liked the cake's simple decoration.  It was Holy Week after all.  In hindsight my quick choice was quite shallow as it may be more of a Passover cake. As luck would have it, I made a fine pick.

It wasn't until after the meeting that I found the time to read more about the Tarta de Santiago and the many, many recipe choices out on the Internet.  Many of them in other languages.  I was pleased to find that from a culinary perspective, the recipe I chose for my inspiration was the one I would have chosen anyway had I put in all those hours beforehand pouring over recipes in order to make the perfect choice.

Why did I like this recipe best?
  • It is a light cake in texture, where others are very dense.  This is partly due to separating the eggs and incorporating the sugar and flavourings with the yokes first.  Then the ground almonds are added and most importantly, the stiffened egg whites are folded in gently. I chose to fold in the whites in 4 batches.
  • This recipe has less sugar than others.  I also cut back on what was recommended.  With flavourings like zests of orange and lemon, plus almond extract, these scents carry their own nectar.
  • It uses no butter.
  • It is gluten-free, as this version uses no flour. (When greasing the pan, I dust with powdered sugar.)
  • It has a beautiful form.  Since it is a sponge cake, the top stays flat and the side are straight.
  • It is approximately 155 calories a slice.  Which by cake standards is nothing short of an Easter miracle.
As for it's history and naming, here are some interesting notes.
  • The cake's origins are Galician.
  • It was named for Spain's patron saint, Saint James. Hence Santiago. (I had my wits about me enough to use the Cross of Saint James, like most everyone else, for the stenciled pattern on the top of the cake.)
  • During the Middle Ages, the pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia was considered the most important pilgrimage for Christians.
  • Claudia Roden, author of The Food of Spain, believes that the tarta evolved from a Passover cake brought to Galicia by Jews fleeing Andalusia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. 
  • This cake is very popular and sold all over Santiago de Compostela.  Even more so on Saint James Day on July 25.
  • In 2006, Spain filed an application to register the name Tarta de Santiago on the protection of geographical indications and designations of origin for agricultural products and foodstuffs.  In 2010 it was approved.

Tarta de Santiago (Almond Cake or Saint James' Cake)
Adapted from Claudia Roden, author of  The Food of Spain
Sourced from
Serves as many as 16 slices

250 grams ground almonds
6  large eggs, separated
150 grams superfine sugar
35 grams powdered sugar
5 ml lemon zest
5 ml orange zest
5 ml pure almond extract
Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350ºF.  Grease a 24-cm springform pan lightly with butter, then dust with powdered sugar.

Beat egg yolks, gradually adding the two sugars until a very pale yellow, almost white in colour.  It will be very stiff.  Make sure to scrape down the sides regularly. Beat in the zests and extract. Stir in the ground almonds. (I prefer to use whole blanched almonds and grind them myself in the food processor. I would not use Marcona Almonds. Do not use roasted almonds.  They need to be raw and preferably skinned.)

With very clean beaters, whip the egg whites until stiff.  Fold about 1/4 of the egg whites into the almond mixture. Make sure it is well mixed. Continue with the next 1/4 of egg whites.  You will find it much easier to fold in gently with each 1/4. Try to fold as gently as possible.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes.  The cake should come away from the pan a bit.  The cake will be a golden brown.  It will spring back to the touch.

Cool on a cake rake before removing the springform ring.  Just before serving, dust the cake with powdered sugar, using a stencil of the Cross of Saint James for decorating.  Remove cake from cake bottom, using a sharp dinner knife or long offset spatula to loosen.  Place gently on a bake stand. Use kitchen tweezers to remove the stencil.

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