jazz cake

by sanae


My last year of high school in France, a girl brought a quatre quart in which she had forgotten the flour. A quatre quart is a simple recipe of only four ingredients, and without the flour, hers was a crystalized lump of sugar, butter and eggs. We dug into the golden mound with plastic spoons, more out of curiosity than appetite.

I’m weary of improvising when it comes to baking, afraid I’ll disturb the delicate balance between ingredients that provide texture and lightness. I use a scale religiously and it has taken years to feel comfortable adapting famed recipes, to play with seasonal fruits, darkness of chocolate and sweeteners, and ratio of butter and sugar. If I improvise, it is often in the safest ways, with one hand still flicking through a cookbook.

One morning in March I woke up very early to bake a rhubarb cake for a potluck. I’ve always loved rhubarb. I don’t like it raw, but stewed on its own with honey or cooked in a cake or pie, the celery-like stalk softens into silky threads that provide just the right touch of tartness to counter sweetness. I love rhubarb’s sour bite, the strange, earthy smell it releases when cooked, how despite being ubiquitous today, it’s still mysterious and odd enough of a fruit (or sweet vegetable) to be quite prized and special. Baking rhubarb cake was a slow process as I needed to pulse almonds, beat butter and sugar until white and puffed with air, chop rhubarb, arrange long stalks over the surface, and cook the cake in a hot oven for over an hour. I alternated between my kitchen and lesson planning. As the cake cooled on my stovetop, I scrolled through my emails and realized the potluck was the following week. I had miscalculated. The cake stared back at me, menacingly, telling me to not leave it alone.

I brought the cake to school and fed it to my colleagues. For one of my friends, it was his first taste of rhubarb. He made me promise I’d make this cake for our end of the semester party, and in exchange he would bring his famous cherry cobbler. A week later, I woke up very early again and baked the same cake for the potluck. I made it a third time for the party.

The cake is delicious, with a moist almond meal crumb, a caramelized bottom and beautiful burnished strips of rhubarb. I thought I had found perfection, and yet, after making it three times within a month, I began to feel impatient. And so I launched into weeks of slowly adapting the rhubarb cake, until it became an entirely new creature.


First, I made a gluten-free version with only almond meal and apples instead of rhubarb. The result was a pudding with a powerful almond flavor. I served it at dinner in my brother’s home, and although I thought it was too rich and sugary, everyone else carved into the cake with a large silver spoon for seconds and thirds. Next, I tried a combination of walnut and almond flour, and found the walnuts tempered the intensity of the almonds. I reduced the sugar and omitted fruit. The cake came out chewy and dense, like a brownie. It needed more air and even less sugar. I noticed that an extra egg and a slight increase of almond flour gave the cake volume. It was elevated in every way.

Finally, I settled on a version that combines what I so loved about the original cake – a moist and nutty interior – with my personal preference – remarkably less sweet and only nut flours. As it is, this recipe is a good starting point for any kind of experimentation with fruits and toppings. Press strawberries into its surface, cover with thin scallops of apple, or dust with brown sugar. I like to keep apples in my kitchen to decorate spontaneous cakes. Once cooked and cooled, lather the cake with a mascarpone sweetened with honey and scatter berries dotted with mint leaves. Or serve with rhubarb stew. Like a jazz melody, this cake invites you to improvise.

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Walnut almond cake

This cake has so few ingredients. Each one needs to be of top-notch quality. Use butter with a high fat content. You can bake with a salted butter, the cake will simply be saltier, which I believe can never hurt a dessert.


1 cup walnuts
1.5 cup almond meal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, softened
¾ cup sugar + more for the pan and to sprinkle on top
3 eggs


Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a food processor, pulse walnuts, almond meal, baking powder and salt until you have a fine and sandy texture. If you want more texture, leave a few chunks of walnuts. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Be patient, this may take five or so minutes. Add the eggs and beat. Gently incorporate the dry ingredients.

Butter a cake tin and sprinkle with sugar. This will give the cake a caramelized crust. Pour the batter into the tin and smooth the top. Sprinkle with some more sugar and place in the oven. Bake the cake for 45-50 minutes, or until golden on top and a knife comes out clean.

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