FARGO — I’ve never admitted this before, but as a little girl, I thought all prayers ended with the word “almond.”
I didn’t question why all the churchgoers of the world were paying such special homage to a tree nut. It wasn’t as if we said a “Pistachio Creed” or casually worked the hazelnut into “The Act of Contrition.”
It wasn’t until I could read that I realized the proper word was "amen." It’s good, too, because a bad case of pneumonia made me miss my first Communion. That meant I had to go through my ceremony solo. Imagine the public embarrassment if I had stood before a crowded church and closed out the “Our Father” with the words: “but deliver us from evil, almond!”
Of course, I no longer incorporate the almond into prayers, although I remain quite grateful for it. I will always pass up a chocolate sweet for the subtly warm, mildly toasty, vaguely cherry-tinged flavor of almonds.
Some of this obsession comes from my mother, who made us angel food cakes with almond glaze for almost every birthday. And some, I’m afraid, may stem from my college years, where — in a decidedly less prayerful ceremony — my older sister taught me how to make amaretto slammers.
For the uninitiated, amaretto — Italian for “a little bitter” — is a sweet liqueur. Depending on the brand, it’s made from apricot kernels, bitter almonds, peach stones or almonds. These ingredients are all natural sources of benzaldehyde, which sounds like anti-itch salve but actually is the compound that gives the drink its almondlike flavor.
Although I no longer drink, I still look for the comforting flavors of almond or amaretto wherever I can find them. Recently, upon discovering I had one of Mom's old Bundt pans, which hadn’t seen active duty since Gerald Ford’s presidency, I decided to make an almond cake. After checking out one of my favorite cookbooks, “The Cake Mix Doctor” by Anne Byrn, I found a recipe for Amaretto Cake. Her version is baked in an angel-food pan, but a Bundt works. (When in doubt, Bundt!)
I searched for a way to get the amaretto taste without the alcoholic slam. Fortunately, several companies offer nonalcoholic flavorings, like this amaretto flavor from Olive Nation.
Another option is a nonalcoholic spirit called Lyre’s Amaretti. Its makers describe it as “totally almond on the palate and tangy with spice.” At $35.99 for a 700-ml bottle, it's pricey, but would probably be an even closer substitute to amaretto for baking.
Here is the recipe, in original and alcohol-free versions. (You also can swap out the almond glaze with an almond cream cheese icing, if you’re feeling devilish.) Either way, this cake is incredibly moist and almondy and goes great with a cup of nice, strong coffee.
Hallelujah, brothers and sisters!
Can I get a great, big ALMOND?
- 1 package (18.25 ounces) plain yellow cake mix
- 1 package (5.1 ounces) vanilla instant pudding mix
- ¾ cup amaretto (OR same amount nonalcoholic Amaretti spirits OR 2 tablespoons amaretto extract + enough water to fill ¾-cup measuring cup)
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon pure almond extract, to taste
- 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
- 3 ½ tablespoons amaretto OR 3 1/2 tablespoons nonalcoholic Amaretti OR 1 tablespoon amaretto extract + water to equal 3 ½ tablespoons liquid, total
- ⅓ cup slivered, almonds, toasted
Place rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a Bundt pan with solid shortening, then dust with flour. Shake out excess.
Place cake mix, pudding mix, ¾ cup amaretto (or Amaretti or amaretto extract diluted with water to fill ¾-cup measuring cup), milk, oil, eggs and almond extract in large mixing bowl. Blend with electric mixer on low for 1 minute. Scrape bowl with spatula and beat for 2 minutes more on medium speed. Pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake until golden-brown and cake springs back lightly when pressed with a finger, 45 to 51 minutes. Place on wire rack to cool 20 minutes. Run a knife around edge of cake pan and invert onto serving platter.
Mix powdered sugar and 3 ½ tablespoons amaretto (or water spiked with nonalcoholic extract) and mix until well-combined. Spoon glaze over top of slightly warm cake, allowing it to drizzle down sides. Top with toasted almonds.