Recipe: Peach Cake with Almond and Anise
I’m not sure when this all started, exactly, but for several years now I’ve been making simple Italian-inspired, I guess you would say farmhouse, breakfast cakes for Fred, my husband, as often as I can manage. Usually they’ve got fruit in them; sometimes I’ll add ricotta or yogurt, and often olive oil instead of butter, and never too much sugar. He loves all of them, and they’re really easy to make (generally speaking I only bake when I can get away with imprecise measuring, and these are very forgiving cakes).
I came up with the general idea for these sturdy, relatively healthy cakes from ciambella, a kind of Italian sponge cake that small hotels in Italy offer for breakfast. Often it’s a ring cake, but in Puglia, where I’ve had it most often, it’s more solid, often with sugar on top or drizzled with a thin, sticky icing. It is Puglian agroturismo fare, a down-on-the-farm touch for the tourists, and a hell of a lot more appealing than the usual cornetti, the shrink-wrapped spiral horns filled with tooth-zinging almond paste you so often get at big city hotels.
I like to bake, but I get easily agitated, occasionally hostile, and even prone to heart palpitations when I have to actually measure something. These ciambelle, once you get the idea, you can really play around with, adding different boozes, spices, jams, nuts, and chunks of fruit. That is is my kind of freewheeling baking experience. I’ve made them using an olive oil base (very light and beautiful and delicious with pears or apples). I’ve used yogurt and olive oil (a big success). Butter always works, giving you a denser texture, more like a pound cake. You can grind nuts and add them to the flour, as I did with this peach cake, or you can stir in jam, for a gooier, wetter cake.
Still life with peaches, from the ruins of Herculaneum.
I notice now, at this moment in my husband’s life, that he appreciates these cakes more than ever. Fred has a few pressures on him lately, some of them job-related, but if he knows there’s one of these cakes waiting for him in the morning, it really, truly lifts his spirit. Isn’t life simple? I have the power to lighten his morning burden, and I don’t even have to use measuring spoons.
Don’t worry. I do give you amounts here, but I tell you, you can wing it a bit with no bad results, and you might even come up with something better. But this is pretty good.
Peach Cake with Almond and Anise
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted and then ground to a powder
½ a whole star anise, ground to a powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
A generous pinch of salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup sugar, plus an extra tablespoon for the top
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract (Madagascar is wonderful)
1 tablespoon Sambuca or anisette
3 ripe peaches, cut into thin wedges, leaving the skin on
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Butter a 9- or 10-inch springform pan.
In a small bowl, mix together the flour, three quarters of the ground almonds, half the ground star anise, the baking powder, and a generous pinch of salt.
In a bigger bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter with the ¾ cup sugar until it’s fluffy. Add the eggs, and beat them in. Add the vanilla and Sambuca or anisette, and beat them in. Add the flour mixture all at once, and, using a low speed, beat until just blended.
Pour the batter into the pan. It will be a bit thick, so you might want to smooth it out with a spatula. Press the peach slices into the batter in a circular fashion.
Now mix together the tablespoon of sugar, the remaining ground almonds, and the rest of the star anise. Scatter the mix over the top of the cake. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is browned and the cake feels firm. Let it cool in the pan for about 15 minutes before removing it. Serve warm or cool.