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Cheap Eats:
Chocolate Almond Torte
&
Pineapple Cake

Cheap Eats is five years old! Hence, today, I address the quintessential celebration food: cake. As with most things culinary, cake has an interesting history.

Because baking and brewing are closely related—you need a reliable source of grain and an understanding of fermentation for consistent success—there probably weren't a lot of really interesting parties before the Egyptians figured out how to intentionally use leavening agents. (As opposed to the previous "leave it outside and see what happens" approach to both dough and beverages.) This took place in about 2600 BC In addition to getting a handle on fermentation, the Egyptians also invented the first ovens.

Hmmm. How much can I tell you? (I promised Dan I'd keep this short, because of all the stuff going into ChiMe this month.) Well, the Romans turned baking into an art form, and the first baking guilds arose. The Middle Ages saw bakers and baked products become increasingly important. (How important? The word "lord" is derived from the Old English hlaford, which means "keeper of the bread.")

In reality, cake is just really fancy bread. Honey and/or fruit was being added to bread just about as soon as bread was invented. However, cake as we know it is a relatively recent invention. If you dropped in on the our first President, you'd find that Martha Washington's famous Great Cake was, in weight and consistency, pretty much a fruitcake. Light pastry came later; refined flour, refined sugar, and better technology made baking improvements accelerate after about 1865.

I first prepared these cakes for a dinner party a few years back. I lavished time on the torte, then remembered that one guest was allergic to chocolate. In a last-minute panic, I invented the pineapple cake, which, for the sake of speed and ease, relies heavily on packaged mixes. However, I found that the "emergency cake" disappeared just as quickly as the torte. So even if you have little time, you can still enjoy a dandy party cake.

Happy Anniversary to me.


Chocolate Almond Torte

Crust:

8 ounces vanilla wafers, crushed

6 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted

2 Tbs. cocoa powder

2 tsp. sugar

2 Tbs. finely chopped almonds

Filling:

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

½ tsp. vanilla extract

½ cup sugar

3 large eggs, separated

1 cup unsweetened cocoa

1 cup coarsely chopped, blanched almonds

pinch of salt

½ cup whipping cream, whipped

Additional whipping cream and whole almonds for garnish, if desired.

Heat oven to 375°F. Butter sides only of a 9-inch springform pan. Mix crust ingredients thoroughly and line sides and bottom of pan with mixture. Bake until crisp, about 7 to 8 minutes. Cool completely on wire rack (still in pan).

Melt chocolate in top of a double boiler set over hot but not boiling water. Set aside to cool. Cream butter with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and beat until blended. Beat in all but 2 Tbs. of the sugar until well blended. Beat in egg yolks one at a time, then beat 4 to 5 minutes longer, until mixture is creamy. Beat in the cocoa, ¼ cup at a time. Add cooled chocolate and beat just until blended. Fold in chopped almonds.

Add salt to the egg whites in a small bowl and beat until they just begin to hold soft peaks. Add the remaining 2 Tbs. of sugar, and continue beating until the whites hold their shape when beaters are raised.

Gently fold the whites into the chocolate mixture. Fold in the whipped cream. Scrape into the crumb crust, and smooth the top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least five hours. Remove sides of pan.

Let torte sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes before serving. Garnish with whipped cream and whole almonds, if desired. (If you don't have pastry decorating equipment, you can just use one of those cans of whipped cream to make pretty patterns on the cake. A ring of "puffs" around the outside, each topped with a blanched almond, looks nice.)


Pineapple Cake

1 package golden cake mix

1 can crushed pineapple in juice

1 8 oz. package of cream cheese

1 Tbs. sugar

1 package topping mix (whipped-cream type) (see note)

and whatever milk, eggs, oil, etc. is called for in the mixes you choose

1 tsp. coconut extract (optional)

Drain the pineapple thoroughly, reserving the juice. Use pineapple juice in place of water in the cake mix recipe. (There should be more than enough juice—save the balance for next step.) Divide the batter between two 9-inch cake pans. Bake according to package directions, then cool.

Mix a Tbs. of pineapple juice and 2 Tbs. of crushed pineapple with the cream cheese. Spread this mixture on top of the lower layer, reserving a couple of Tbs. for later. Place the second layer on top of the cream cheese-covered layer. Spread the reserved cream cheese in an extremely thin layer on top of the cake. (This is not being added for flavor, but rather is just an "insulator" to support the crushed pineapple.)

Prepare the whipped topping or whipping cream. If you like coconut, add extract (taste and adjust as desired). Mix 1 Tbs. (or to taste) sugar into the remaining crushed pineapple. Spread the whipped topping an the sides of the cake, overlapping the top ever so slightly to create a "wall" to contain the pineapple. Finally, spread the crushed pineapple on top of the cake.


Note:

I used topping mix because the cake was going to be on a buffet, and real whipped cream might deflate and run down the sides of the cake. If you're serving this immediately, you can use real whipped cream—though whipped topping will be slightly cheaper, and, if you use the coconut extract, will be virtually impossible to detect.

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