Little Cakes

A charming custom here is to give gifts of little cakes on your birthday to friends and co-workers. In the last month we have had several birthdays and numerous little plates or boxes have been delivered to the door – from cupcake-size pumpkin cheesecakes with a salted caramel topping to more traditional Greek phyllo and shredded kadaifi sweets wrapped around chopped nuts and soaked in a cinnamon scented syrup.

Well, the time came for me to reciprocate. Never mind the quantity (years I’ve been celebrating birthdays) I wanted to concentrate on quality (my offerings of ‘little cakes’). And, so began the saga.

I remembered that after testing out Carol Field’s The Italian Baker back in the summer for The Cookbook Guru, I had intended to try her almond biscuit – Pastine da Thé. But, in the usual way of things, it slid through the cracks and never got tested. Then I saw a similar, but slightly easier recipe in one of my all-time favourite cookbooks, Pastry by Richard Bertinet. What could be simpler? However, hubris, according to the ancients, is often meted out by the gods to those who are overly confident – just to remind us mere humans of their place in the grand scheme of things. Naturally, events did not go as planned.

First, I could not find fine ground almonds, so I ended up grinding whole almonds after they had been blanched – fresher, I though. But, we only have a small moulinex grinder that ground the nuts beautifully, but no matter how many pulses of the grinder, the almonds only achieved a small, though still coarse grind. They did not resemble the fine ground nuts (almost an almond meal) I get in the UK. What did it matter, I thought. Well…it did matter, affecting the absorbency of the almond dough which consisted of the ground almonds, icing (confectioner’s) sugar, egg whites and honey. What I end up with was a sticky mass.

Not being set back too much, I proceeded to try to bake the biscuits, including the step of dotting a little of my fig jam in the centre. Naturally, they spread thin and the first batch nearly became one solid biscuit, the individual biscuit pieces bleeding into each other on the baking tray. Next batch was a bit better, but they were still spread thin and quite big. So, halving them came next and attempting to constrain their speading by putting them into my mini madeline tins. Better, but prying them out of the tins was a nightmare.

almond_biscuits

Delicious, but for home consumption only. Gifts have to be special and, most importantly, look the part.

A trip to the ζαχαροπλαστείο (the pâtisserie) was in order. Luckily, there are any number of these type of shops around about (approximately 1 in every square city block in our neighbourhood). They are wonderful sources for morning buns, croissants or sometimes the traditional sesame studded kouloúri; light lunchtime pastries stuffed with cheese (tyropitas), spinach (spanokopitas) or other varieties of savoury ingredients encased in puff pastry or flaky phyllo. But, the showcase items in these shops are sweets – anything from the traditional Greek treats to chocolates and French inspired pastries. It is a place where larger sweets such as tarts and cakes can be purchased for serving at dinner parties. Many places also add luscious gelato to the menu, thus becoming a full service gelataria and pâtisserie.

zakaroplastio

So, I nipped around the corner from our home to a place that we like very much – a small, but exceeding good ζαχαροπλαστείο. Making the selection for the boxes among the variety on offer was the most difficult part of the exercise. In the end, I went with many chocolate confections and a few little tarts, plus mini-eclairs.

birthday_pastries

It was all packaged in lovely boxes. Plus, as we were leaving, we were presented with napkin wrapped, fresh-out-of-the-oven, savoiardi (inelegantly called sponge fingers in British English). We munched on these warm sweet sponges on the way back home with our bounty. Later that day the ζαχαροπλαστείο used the savoiardi as a base for tiramisu – something I think that would make an admirable birthday cake.

birthday_pastry_box_feature

Now, if I can only master those almond biscuits. The taste alone warrants another try. First, however, I need to master grinding almonds.

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16 comments

  1. What a lovely custom. And the story of your trials made me feel better. I just now (1 a.m.) finished processing some goose confit and one bottle broke in my makeshift canner. Now I don’t feel quite so bad. I do hope you find a way to make those almond biscuits, and as for me, I am going to buy a proper canner.

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  2. Happy birthday Deb. An interesting experience with the biscuit recipe. I have never bought fine almond meal or flour, but always grind raw almonds, skin on in my food processor. I add a little granulated sugar (1 tablespoon to 250g nuts)to absorb any oil that runs from the nuts and it’s never failed me. I’d be reconsidering the volume of honey or size of egg white before I invested in kitchen machinery to make fine ground almond meal. Good luck…

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    • I had wondered if there was a trick to it. I think the idea of adding a bit of granulated sugar might do the trick. And, yes, the amount of egg white did cross my mind! It was only a small amount of honey and thick Greek honey at that. Also, keeping the skin on might be better. Will try it. Thanks!

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      • What fun, these little cakes! I’ve also ground almonds with a little sugar, and then the obvious trick is just to do it little by little and stir between each pulse so that there aren’t pockets of “almond butter” that form….

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  3. Hope you enjoyed your birthday, Debi. I think we all know the disappointment of opening the oven door to see that things have gone terribly awry. Unfortunately, I am no baker so I’ve gotten used to the disappointment. You sure did turn things around, though. That little pâtisserie was heaven-sent.

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  4. Happy Birthday KW. That patisserie looks great. I usually do buy my almond meal already ground, for a while I was getting some great stuff from a health food co-cop. A friend has a Thermomix and she grinds hers in that, works a treat. I have done it in my food processor with varying results. I have never tried adding sugar, so certainly will give that a go!

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  5. If you don’t have a food processor, the coffe grinder does a reasonable job ( in stages). Thank goodness for the local Patisserie- we have a few Greek ones near our city house and rely on them for little treats. I am sure your biscuits still tasted lovely.
    Happy Birthday my friend.

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  6. Debi, chiming in belatedly so say I think they key is keeping the almonds light and not crushing them too much – my mother has a rotary grater (a bit like a parmesan one) that her mother always used for grating, rather than chopping, nuts like almonds and walnuts that she used in the wonderful traditional Hungarian cakes… I’m not sure what modern appliance would be the same, though you might even find a similar one in a market in Athens perhaps?

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