Strawberry and Vanilla Tea Cakes
by Danielle Charles
I love to bake cakes. I have always loved to bake cakes. Some things never change.
As a girl, there was nothing that made me happier than an invitation to help my Mom in the kitchen, especially if she was baking. I loved turning the crank on the sifter and watching the flour fall through like snow. I loved stirring the batter with the long wooden spoon whose handle was worn smooth as a stone. I loved licking the bowls and the spoons after she had scraped the batter into the pan (I especially loved this). I still love all of these things.
I also remember the very first cake I made myself. I will never forget it.
I had been waiting for a long time for the chance to make it. I had watched my Mom carefully, I had measured her flour, I had cracked her eggs. In my mind, I was ready. It was time to make my own cake. Time to make a cake that would be amazing, spectacular, like no other cake ever made (perhaps in this instance alone, my expectations proved right). I envisioned the look on my parents face when they discovered me pulling it from the oven. The expression they would have when they took their first bite, the way they would beam at me and exchange proud and happy glances at one another as they pressed the last of the crumbs to their fingers. You really made this yourself? they would ask me, disbelieving. Delicious, spectacular, this really is so good they would say, cutting themselves another piece. I can’t believe we never knew you were so talented!
Then one day, my chance came.
Now you keep an eye on your sister my Mom told my puberty stricken 13 year-old of a brother (I being 8), as she jostled through her purse for the keys. Her and my Dad were going to a dinner. We won’t be back until late, she added. He rolled his eyes at her back as she closed the door behind her. Before the garage door had even finished rumbling closed, he was in his room, music turned up, door locked behind him. At last. Now was my chance.
I walked into the empty, quiet kitchen. I ran my fingers over the counter tops, over the knobs of the stove. My breath caught in my throat, my whole body tingled with excitement. Here it goes. I turned the knob to 375, like I had done for my Mother. I took down the flour, the baking powder, the sugar – as I had seen my Mom do. I pulled out the eggs, the milk, the butter. I had no need for a recipe you see, because I had watched her do it, that was enough. Besides, I felt somehow that I had the baker’s instinct – that somehow, magically, it would all come together with perfection, guided by some celestial cake baking muse that would whisper her secrets into my ear as I measured, whisked and stirred.
I was mixing away when they walked in, my Mother having forgotten the wine for the dinner party. I was so engrossed in my revelry, in my spiritual communion with the cake Gods, that I didn’t even notice them standing there. I’m not sure how long it was, in fact, that they stood there gaping, too stunned or horrified to speak. Try to imagine what they saw. I had turned the kitchen into what looked like the aftermath of a natural disaster. Flour was strewn across every conceivable surface, cracked egg shells littered the floor. Pools of milk puddled across the counter-tops, seeped through the cracks between the counter and the wall. Sticky finger prints walked across the cabinets, the door of the stove, the handle of the fridge, like an invasion of some unwanted pest. Finally, my Mother cleared her throat and asked me, in a very strained and unnatural voice, what exactly is it that you’re doing? I dropped the wooden spoon on the floor along with a splattering of batter and an explosion of flour. Baking a cake? I said, phrasing it more like a question, in case that wasn’t the answer she was hoping for.
She took her coat off, my Dad put the keys back on the wall.
Somehow or other, they managed to put things back in order. How did you know how to turn the oven on? She said. I saw you do it. I might have imagined it, but I think she smiled slightly then. She helped me to transform my strange and lumpy concoction into something that nearly resembled cake batter, and then we put it in the cake tin and set the timer.
As she set the timer and it began to tick away, I was full of a mixture of excitement and fear that set my stomach full of butterflies. I pulled up a chair and watched my cake through the little glass window, as engrossed as if it had been The Little Mermaid (my favorite movie at the time) I were watching through it. Finally, after what felt like the longest stretch of time I had ever known, I saw the edges start to pull away, the top beginning to fissure and crack like the surface of the moon. I think it’s done! I jumped up and down until my Mother told me not to or the cake might fall (Fall?) and I skipped around her like an excited puppy as she pulled it out and set it on the cooling rack.
My Dad came over and gave it a good sniff. It was a sort of lopsided thing, little islands of baking soda dotting the surface and a few wayward chunks of butter poking out the top. It was like more like a topography map than a cake. Look’s delicious, he said. You know, I’m just in the mood for some cake. I beamed. I was never so happy, so proud, in my entire life. I cut a gigantic piece – it had barely risen at all, this cake, and was so dense and heavy that it actually plunked as it hit the plate. I think he winced a little then. He took it over to the kitchen table, sat down and eyed it for a moment with some suspicion and possibly fear, like a person contemplating the view from a high dive. Finally, he took a bite. He chewed for a moment, I looking up at him with bated breath, my face a picture of worry, eager expectancy and pride. Absolutely delicious. I exhaled. He chewed some more. No, I mean it when I say, that I never have had a cake like this before.
And just as my love for cake baking has never changed, neither has the love, the patience and the encouragement my parents have always given me, no matter how crazy and messy my whims have been. No matter what I have pursued, they have always believed in me, always respected my judgement in what I have wanted out of life. So this recipe is for them, for my Dad especially, who is my most faithful reader and my biggest fan. Thank you Dad, for always tasting the first bite of my cakes, and for telling me they are wonderful even if they are not. It means more to me than you can ever know.
Strawberry and Vanilla Tea Cakes
This is a gluten-free version of a French style tea cake called a Financier – a cake made with the combination of brown butter and almond meal. You can use regular melted butter if you like, but it only takes a little longer to brown it and the taste is so worth it. Substitute wheat flour if you like, but I like the flavor and the thought of the extra nutrition added by the amaranth. Sweet rice flour is a starchy flour that creates a really nice crumb in gluten-free baking. This was inspired by a recipe in La Tartine Gourmande by Beatrice Peltre.
Makes 8 cakes.
- 1/2 cup almond meal
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 vanilla bean, split open and seeds scraped out
- 1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/3 cup sweet rice flour
- 1/4 cup amaranth flour
- 1/2 cup unrefined cane sugar
- pinch of salt
- 4 egg whites, beaten until foamy
- 4 large strawberries, halved lengthwise (from stem to tip)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a muffin pan with 8 paper liners or silicone muffin molds.
In a small pot, melt the butter over medium heat until it turns light brown in color and takes on a nutty, rich smell. Turn off the heat and add the vanilla bean and seeds. Let rest for 10-15 minutes and then remove the vanilla pod.
In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Beat in the foamy egg whites until smooth and then add the butter and the vanilla extract and mix until just incorporated into the batter.
Divide the batter among the muffin cases and place a strawberry half, cut side down, on the top of each one. Place in the oven and bake for around 20 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before enjoying with tea.