- 300g almonds
- 200g caster sugar
- 5 eggs
- A dusting of powdered sugar at the end
Tarta de Santiago*, or St James’s Cake, is ubiquitous in Santiago de Compostela, but it’s not really a Galician dish, it probably has centuries-old Jewish origins. It has three ingredients: almonds, sugar, and eggs. At heart, you combine the three ingredients, bung it in the oven for half an hour, and presto, you’re done. It’s pretty forgiving, this isn’t one of those bakes where you need to measure everything out carefully.
You start with the almonds, I would highly recommend using whole almonds rather than ground almonds. If you’re going to make a cake where almonds are the main ingredient, you want it to taste a little bit nutty, you don’t want the almonds pretending to be flour any more than you want maple syrup to pretend to be simple sugar syrup.
WHICH ALMONDS? This is a matter of taste. I like to put a handful of marcona almonds into the mix, their oiliness gives the cake a little sticky bite, but I’m not convinced by the recipes which say to use only or even mainly marcona almonds. I’d say maybe 20% or 25% is good. I like the almond mixture to be mostly whole skin-on raw almonds, because the skin gives the cake a lovely crunchy texture. So maybe 50% skin-on raw almonds? If you don’t like your cake too textured, then by all means reduce that down to zero. And then the rest would be some kind of bleached or white almonds, those can be sliced, they don’t need to be whole. Don’t use salted almonds, this recipe does NOT need any added salt. Or if you just want to keep things simple, 100% of any one kind of almond also works fine. I’d probably use the skin-on whole almonds if I went that way.
WHICH SUGAR? Caster sugar is ideal, and then you need a bit of powdered sugar to dust the cake at the end.
WHICH EGGS? As fresh as possible.
ANYTHING ELSE? Many recipes call for some lemon zest, or orange zest, or cinnamon, or even (weirdly) added almond essence. I’m a purist, and put in none of those, but if you feel like throwing other bits and pieces in, go right ahead.
WHICH RATIOS? Again, you have much more freedom here than you do in most bakes, and ultimately it comes down to how sweet you like your cakes. Many recipes start with a ratio of 1:1 almonds to sugar, which gives you a cake which is too sweet, to my taste. I use a 3:2 ratio, by weight, and then one medium-sized egg for every 100g of dry ingredients.
This recipe will fit into a 10" springform cake pan, but you can use whatever you have lying around, really, and adjust the quantities accordingly. Basically what you want is to be able to pour your mixture into the pan to a depth of maybe 1.5", although again you have freedom there, anything over 1" is fine. I’ve seen photos of this cake getting HIGH, like 3 or 4 inches, and that’s fine, if inauthentic, and I suspect they’re separating their eggs and whipping the egg whites, which makes the cake fluffier. Torte de Santiago is NOT meant to be a fluffy cake, though, so I don’t do that.
First: Set your oven to 350 degrees.
Then: Get your cake pan sorted. This cake isn’t very sticky, but it’s sticky enough, so you’re going to want to line the bottom with baking paper. For the sides, you can make do with rubbing the springform pan with butter. If you’re zealously dairy-free, or just want everything to come out perfect, you can line the sides of the pan with baking parchment too. (Pro tip: with a springform pan, you can just place a piece of baking paper on the bottom, and then place the circular bit on top of it and close it up. The edges of the paper will get pushed down below the pan, doing no harm to anybody, don’t worry, they’re not going to catch fire in the oven. Which means that you don’t need to cut out the paper to the shape of the pan.)
Now we can get cooking. Take 300g of almonds. Weigh them out, put them in the blender, and blend, don’t be shy. You’re not pulsing these things, you’re reducing them to flour. So keep them going for a little while, don’t worry about overdoing it. Unless you have some insane blender, it’s going to be hard for you to blend the almonds too fine. When it looks like a nice rough flour, you’re good.
Leave the almonds in the blender, and add 200g of sugar. Blend that in, so it’s evenly distributed.
Then add 5 eggs. There are basically three ways of doing this. The first is to empty the dry ingredients into a bowl, crack the eggs into a second bowl, whisk up the eggs a bit, and then fold them into the dry ingredients until you get a nice smooth paste. That’s going to give you the densest cake, with the least air. The other end of the spectrum is to separate your eggs, add the egg yolks first, beat up your egg whites, and then carefully fold the egg whites into the mixture. As I say, that’s too fluffy for me, and honestly it’s just too much work.
So I take the easy route up the middle, and just throw the eggs into the blender along with the almond-sugar mixture. (I normally crack them into a bowl and give them a quick whisk with a fork first, just because I worry about eggshells, but honestly even if there was a tiny bit of eggshell in there, it wouldn’t really matter.) Give it another good blend, until there’s nothing dry in the mixture any more and it’s all become a smooth paste. All that blending is going to make the eggs slightly fluffier than the first option, but that’s ok. And this is easier, and involves less washing up.
Then you pour your paste from the blender (or the bowl, if you’re doing it that way) into your cake pan. It’s liquid enough that it will naturally settle into a disc with a flat surface, you don’t need to smooth it down or anything like that. Put it in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Less than 30 minutes is dangerous, more than 30 minutes is OK, some recipes say 40 minutes which is also fine. The risk here is undercooking (stickiness) more than overcooking (it’s hard to burn this cake).
Remove the baked cake from the oven, and leave it to cool, ideally on some kind of raised surface.
Once the cake has cooled down, you dust the top of it with powdered sugar. Put icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar) into a fine sieve, and shake shake over the top of the cake. If you want to be beautiful and authentic, you make a stencil first, of a St James’s Cross, and sieve over that. When you remove the stencil, you end up with a pretty cross on the top of the cake. Or you can make a stencil of any other shape or letter or whatever you like.
Then you unspring the springform, if you’re using a springform, that’s the only tricky bit of this cake, you want to make sure that the edges of the cake aren’t sticking to the sides of the pan. Which obviously they won’t if you have parchment paper there, but if you don’t you might want to just make sure it’s loose by running a knife around the outside. Or, you know, just remove your cake from whatever you cooked it in by whatever means would seem to make sense.
And there you have it! A lovely simple tarta de Santiago. It’s not the world’s most glamorous cake, but it tastes amazing. It’s dense, you can do relatively small slices. And it’s delicious for breakfast!
*Many thanks to mictter, in the comments, for correcting my Spanish spelling