Not sure if you’re on board with this philosophy, but I think there is no such thing as a chance encounter. What seems haphazard is indeed the universe at work. Such was the case when my husband and I ran into Hal Humphreys and Kim Green at one of our Nashville favorite bars, Le Sel.
Our common threads run deep as Kim is one of Nashville’s most talented writers and Hal works for my brother-in-law. But where our paths truly cross is our propensity to throw a bunch of interesting people in a room and see what happens. So when I got the invitation to join Kim to meet a posse of women who happen to be writers, I was all in. The company was divine, for sure, but the Tarta de Santiago Kim served was sublime.
In my opinion, it is a near-perfect dessert: easy to make (let’s just say Hal has perfected it), elegant and a delicious medley of flavors. But the WOW is in the story of the Tarta de Santiago’s origins. No doubt, it is the dessert du jour at the Green/Humphreys gatherings, and it’s easy to see why.
When I asked Kim for a couple of sentences to explain her affinity for this exquisite cake, two sentences became several paragraphs, and once you read them, you’ll understand that it would be impossible to squeeze this compelling backstory into two lines.
Kim shares: “Twice now, we’ve hiked across northern Spain, from the Pyrenees to the northwestern coast of Galicia. For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have followed this route, among others, to visit the remains of St. James at Santiago de Compostela’s storied cathedral. Our motivations were less spiritual, more carnal: We walked for the scenery and camaraderie, the wine and splendid dinners, both simple and sumptuous.
“As the kilometers rolled by at the pace of footfalls, we noticed the landscape and language shift; and with new towns and regions came new varietals and new local cuisines — from the lightly sparkling Txakolina wine and salt cod in Basque Navarre, to Galicia’s crisp Albariños and matchless shellfish. One pilgrim favorite that began showing up on menus a few days before the finish line was the famous Tarta de Santiago, an almond cake decorated with powdered sugar and an outline of a St. James cross. Some bars and restaurants served an uninspiring, bone-dry pre-packaged version, ubiquitous in Santiago’s many tourist shops. But whenever we spotted “tarta de Santiago — casera” (homemade) on a menu, we snapped it up.
“Back in Nashville, we were craving the tastes of the Camino. So we cooked up a scheme with Josh Habiger to co-host a Spanish feast — a multi-course extravaganza that included all of our favorites: garlicky Basque ajoarriero, grilled razor clams and tender pulpo a la gallega — boiled octopus, served with olive oil and paprika. A Galician friend moaned as she put a bite of octopus into her mouth. ‘Just like home,’ she smiled.
“For dessert, we turned to local pastry goddess Lisa Donovan for help. The result was spectacular: a beautiful and delicious almond cake that demolished even the memory of those dessicated boxed pastries sold to unsuspecting pilgrims in Galicia. So we resolved to make our own tarta — with a little advice from Lisa and the help of an easy recipe from Epicurious. This version has stopped conversations at more than one dinner party. You cannot mess it up, and it never fails to impress.”
So this Thanksgiving, we’re thankful that Kim and Hal shared this unbelievable recipe with us, and we’re passing it along to you. Serve this at your holiday meal — or anytime, really — and you’ll have an interesting tale to share of its origins.
- ½ pound (1¾ cups) blanched whole almonds
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 1¼ cups superfine sugar
- Grated zest of 1 orange
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 4 drops almond extract
- Confectioners' sugar for dusting
- Finely grind the almonds in a food processor.
- With an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a smooth pale cream. Beat in the zests and almond extract. Add the ground almonds and mix very well.
- With clean beaters, beat the egg whites in a large bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold them into the egg and almond mixture (the mixture is thick, so that you will need to turn it over quite a bit into the egg whites).
- Grease an 11-inch springform pan, preferably nonstick, with butter and dust it with flour. Pour in the cake batter, and bake into a preheated 350°F for 40 minutes, or until it feels firm to the touch. Let cool before turning out.
- Just before serving, dust the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar. Or, if you like, cut a St. James cross out of paper. Place it in the middle of the cake, and dust the cake with confectioners' sugar, then remove the paper.
- Add 1 teaspoon cinnamon to the egg yolk and almond mixture.
- Majorca has a similar almond cake called gató d'Ametla, which is flavored with the grated zest of 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and sometimes a few drops of vanilla extract.
- In Navarre, the cake is covered with apricot jam.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday and enjoy your slice of Tarta de Santiago!
Thank you to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for the gorgeous photos.