Seasonal Flavors: Camino Cake

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St. James Cake. Photo: Denise Zito.

The iconic walk in the United States is the Appalachian Trail (AT). Undertaken as a physical challenge, as recreation or meditative retreat, each year since its completion in 1937, thousands walk from Georgia to Maine, or just enjoy part of the trail. See the March 2017 issue of the Crozet Gazette for the story of a young man of my acquaintance who walked the AT in a most extraordinary fashion. He then returned and bought my old Honda—thanks, Adam.                                                              

In Europe, the walk of walks is the Camino de Santiago, The Way of St. James. Established sometime in the Middle Ages, pilgrims would undertake a spiritual journey across Europe, ending near the Spanish coast at Santiago de Compostela, there to venerate the saint whose bones were said to be interred within the cathedral bearing his name. There are many routes through all the European countries and most funnel to the last 800 km across northern Spain. The route has been in continuous use, except during the Black Plague (!), and has been popularized anew in the 1980s. Martin Sheen starred in the movie “The Way,” introducing the pilgrimage to Americans. I highly recommend this film if you’re interested in learning more about the Camino.

As my Dutch friends say, “The Appalachian Trail is nice, but there are no cafes.” What makes walking The Camino so completely charming is that while most of the trail takes you through the countryside, over fields, along vineyards and farms, or deep woods, every few hours the Way meanders through a town where you can stop for fresh squeezed orange juice, an excellent coffee, a Fanta soda, some sparkling water, or a beer. Little snacks are available as are full lunches. Most towns also feature youth hostels and small hotels which provide inexpensive accommodation and, in most cases, a communal pilgrim meal. Twelve dollars buys you three courses and a bottle of wine or water—take your pick! You’ve walked all day—eat! And thus can a woman walk 80 miles in a week, carrying a heavy backpack, and not lose an ounce. Sigh.

I’ve walked most of the Camino, in stages over the years. It’s a most amazing way to meet people, reflect on life, practice one’s Spanish, admire extraordinary scenery, and have hilarious adventures. And the food! Ah, the Spanish food is just wonderful. Probably the only thing I’ve not been crazy about was the pulpo (octopus).

As you get closer to Santiago de Compostela, the St. James cake appears on the pilgrim meal menu. When we walked the last hundred kilometers, we ate it every night. It’s an almond cake, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and while it is a pretty standard recipe, we had variations: some moist, some dry. It became a nightly ritual to evaluate the cake.

We still make torta de Santiago each July 25, the feast of St. James, to honor the Apostle in whose memory we have had such extraordinary experiences.

The cake is topped with a cutout of St. James’ cross, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and then the cutout is removed, leaving the imprint on the cake. I purchased a metal cross while in Spain, but it’s easy to make one of cardboard. Check the Internet.

The recipe that follows has been adjusted and perfected by my husband John, the great devotee of all things dessert.

Torta de St. James

  • 2 2/3 cups almond flour
  • ¾ cup white flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 ¼ cup sugar
  • ½ cup butter
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 4 drops almond extract
  • 1 cup of sliced and toasted almonds for decoration
  • 1 cup of powdered sugar for decoration

Preheat over to 350°F

Butter and lightly flour a 10-inch springform pan or tart pan.

Beat butter and sugar till creamy, then beat in the egg yolks. Add lemon zest and almond extract and beat till well mixed.

In a separate bowl, mix the flours and the baking powder, then add to the sugar/butter mixture.

With clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold them into the egg/butter/flour mixture.

Pour into the prepared cake pan. Bake for approximately 45-50 minutes. Cake is done if an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Cool the cake, then cover with the toasted slivered almonds. Place a St. James cutout cross on the cake, then sift powdered sugar over the top. Carefully remove the cross.

Serves 8.

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