In the early 90’s, when I was very small, there was a grocery store in Memphis off Poplar and East Perkins called “Seessels”. They had this special policy in the bakery where every kid who was brought shopping with their parents got to pick a free cookie to eat from the pastry case. Usually the available options were along the lines of the shortbread dipped in chocolate with sprinkles or basic sugar cookies. I used to LOVE going to Seessels with my mother for exactly this reason. I would sit in the cart as my mother did her shopping, eagerly awaiting our stop at the bakery section. Once there, I would get my free kids cookie, and my mother would look at the case of cookies and almost always buy a few of her (and my father’s) favorite. The bakers at Seessels called them “Almond Macaroons”. They were large and flat like sugar cookies, but were composed of mainly ground almonds, sugar, presumably egg whites, a bit of flour, and almond extract. They were not crispy and gooey like the French sandwich-cookie macaroons that are currently very popular. They were white and soft, chewy, and above all intensely rich with the scent and flavor of almonds. Once we got to the car with our groceries, my mom would usually bust out an almond macaroon cookie and share it with me in the parking lot, while she put me in my car-seat and loaded up the groceries.
When I was in the third grade a family moved in next door that had three kids around my age and we immediately became friends. Their mom would sometimes let us play-cook in her kitchen, and when we did, I would always immediately go to the pantry to get her almond extract. I never missed an opportunity to pour almond extract into whatever mixture of (generally gross) stuff we had going on in that kitchen. I just couldn’t get enough of that smell. It smelled just like those almond macaroons from Seessels. I loved that smell, and I still do.
For about three months during my sophomore year in college I lived a block away from this perfect little bakery on San Francisco St. on the North East Side of Olympia, aptly named the San Francisco Street Bakery. They have this garden with benches and tables out back with huge lavender and rosemary bushes all around. It is just about the most perfect small outdoor dining area I have ever seen. I used to go there on a weekly basis to drink coffee and stuff myself with pastries while reading 300 year old novels. Inside there is a coffee station to the right and an immaculate pastry case spanning the entire front house. Behind the case of pastries is a literal wall of fresh bread and bagels. Behind those, if I am remembering right, there were a few chalkboard signs denoting the available cream cheese spreads for the bagels, along with pricing for the breads, sandwiches, coffees, and whatever else. They had an AMAZING basil pesto bagel, but this is not the blog post for a pesto-bagel tangent. That will come soon enough. The reason I bring up this bakery is simple. I found, at this bakery, my all-time favorite* dessert, the “fyrstekake”. The first time I tried a slice I fell in love. The filling was almost the exact same flavor of those childhood macaroons, but much more sophisticated.
The traditional frystekake is essentially an almond tart that has a subtle taste of cardamom in the crust. The crust is flaky and sweet in an almost sugar-cookie-shortbread kind of way. The top has a woven lattice crust that sort of sinks into the almond filling, and when it bakes it takes on the most perfect golden brown color. I once bought an entire fyrstekake from the bakery to take home on my 4 day drive to Memphis to share with my family during Summer break. It is a damn good tart. It was worth that 4 day drive. They loved it. When I did some research on the dessert, to try to make it at home for Thanksgiving last year, I found out that it is Norwegian in origin and the name translates to “prince cake” or “crown cake”. I am still not quite sure how to pronounce it, but it turned out to be absolutely fantastic. I found a recipe sourced from a cookbook called Norwegian Cakes and Cookies by Sverre Sætre. I decided to give it a try as one of our Thanksgiving desserts, and I am so glad that I did.
If you haven’t picked up on it by now I am a little obsessed with almonds, and almond flavoring, and almond desserts. A few weeks ago I had an excess of Summer stone fruit and figs and some csa blueberries lying around, and enough blanched almonds in my pantry, so I decided to create a sort of mashup of a baked frangipane fruit tart and the aforementioned fyrstekake, but in individual tart tins. I used small 3″ diameter tart tins (with removable bottoms) so that the tarts would be the perfect size to go into Chad’s lunches that week.
To make this tart I started with the crust, which has to be made and chilled well in advance. This crust has the addition of an egg, so it is a little easier to work with than my flaky all-butter pie crust recipe. After the dough was well chilled I rolled it out, cut out circles a bit larger than my tart tins, layered and pressed the rounds into the pan, and then trimmed the edges.
I love this recipe, because it does not require you to pre-bake the tart shells. The filling and the crust bake simultaneously, saving you time and the stress of blind baking. Next I layered the bottom of the tart shells with fig jam (though almost any jam would work nicely).
I put the shells filled with the jam into the freezer to keep them firm and cold while I prepped the almond filling. It is a combination of almonds, sugar, egg, butter, and whipping cream. I usually add powdered vanilla bean or a scraped vanilla bean pod if I have some on hand. I also sometimes add almond extract to the mix if I want to amp up the almond flavor. You could take the flavor additives in many directions to pair with the jam, the fruit topping, or the crust, respectively.
My intention with these tarts was to slice up and use some of the bounty of fresh fruit I had, while also playing around with different fruit-decorating techniques. I had plums, nectarines, figs, and blueberries on hand and I used some of each.
This was my attempt at making a nectarine rosette. It worked out pretty well.
Pictured above is the first round of decorated tarts, ready for the oven. They bake for almost 40 minutes, even though they are so small. I always set a timer but I mostly gauge the bake by the coloring of the almond cream. If it is puffed up and golden on the edges it is done.
For the Crust:
270g (2 1/4 c) Pastry Flour
90g (3/4 c) Powdered Sugar
A (fat) Pinch of Salt
199g (14 tbsp) Cold European Butter
1 Large Egg
1-3 Tbsp Ice Water (if needed)
1/4 tsp Ground Vanilla Bean or 1/4 tsp Ground Cardamom
If you have a cuisinart (Used here as a colloquial term (in the South) for a food processor, in the same way we call sodas “cokes” and tissues “kleenex”) you can use it for this process. If you want to do it by hand you have two options: two butter knives, if you want to do it the really old fashioned way, or with a pastry cutter (sometimes called a pastry blender) which is basically like 4 butter knives in a row, on a handle.
First sift together the flour, powdered sugar, and salt (or pulse together if using a cuisinart). Whisk egg in a small bowl and set aside. Cut the cold butter into small cubes by unwrapping the sticks, using the paper wrappers as a work surface, and cutting the sticks in half lengthwise twice, making 4 smaller sticks of butter out of each. Cut those sticks into evenly sized cubes. Throw each pile of cubes on the wrappers into the freezer for a few minutes to counteract the warmth from your hands. When the butter is once again very cold, cut it into the flour mixture with the knives, pastry cutter, or by slowly pulsing in the cuisinart. There should still be visible chunks of butter, and the end result will look crumbly, with pea sized chunks of butter being the largest sized chunks. Once the butter is sufficiently incorporated, mix in the egg with a silicone spatula or a wooden spoon. Just barely mix it it in, and if it is still looking dry, add 1 tbsp at a time of water from a cup full of ice water. If you are pulsing this in the cuisinart, the egg should combine the dough just fine without the addition of the water. Once the dough forms a mass that pulls away from the sides, you can stop pulsing. The dough will still be crumbly, if you are doing it by hand. You just want to press it into a ball as best you can. I usually dump the crumbly mess onto a large sheet of plastic wrap, and sort of use the sheet of plastic to smash it into a large disk. Refrigerate the dough disk for at least 2 hours, but overnight is the most ideal. This recipe makes enough dough for 12 3″ tarts, or 1 9″ large tart pan, plus extra for a lattice topping if you are making the traditional frystekake.
For the Almond Cream Filling:
200g (1 3/4 c) Slivered Blanched Almonds
150g (2/3 c) Granulated White Sugar
36g (1/3 c) Powdered Confectioners’ Sugar
14.2g (1 Tbsp) European Butter
1 Large Egg + 1 Egg Yolk
2 oz (1/4 c) Heavy Whipping Cream
1/4 tsp Almond Extract
A (fat) Pinch of Salt
Optional: 1/8 tsp Ground Vanilla Bean
Using a blender (or a cuisinart) combine all of the ingredients and blend until smooth and thick. As long as you use thin slivered almonds, even a cheap blender should be able to handle this job. This filling will keep in a sealed 1 Quart container in the fridge for several days, so if you want to make it ahead of time you can. You can scale this filling recipe up or down, but this makes almost 4 cups of filling which is just enough to fill a 9 or 10″ tart or pie crust.
Roll out dough as thin as you can while still being able to pick it up and turn it while rolling, so it doesn’t stick: about 1/8th” thick. I would recommend using extra powdered confectioners’ sugar to dust your work space and rolling pin. Cut the dough into circles just a bit larger than your tart tins, and press inside of the tins to fit completely. Refrigerate or throw the shells in the freezer for a few minutes to let the dough harden back up, then you can use a knife to trim the edges so they are flush with the rim of the tin.
Spread 1-2 tsp of jam over the center of the base of the crust, leaving a little rim of bottom crust around the edge. This keeps the jam from seeping up and out of the almond filling. The jam is not necessary, but I like to pair jam with different flavored fruits for the topping. So far I have made this recipe with blueberry, strawberry, plum, and fig jams and they all turned out fantastic. I made a red white and blue tart for the 4th of July with this recipe, using blueberry jam for the blue, and strawberries and cherries on top for the red.
Using a small spoon or a pastry spatula, carefully dollop and spread the filling to cover the jam and fill the bottom of the crust. If you are adding fruit, leave at least 1/8″ to 1/4″ head space for the fruit to displace. Lay the sliced fruit on top of the almond filling, pushing gently to get it to stay put.
If at any point the crust gets too warm and soft and becomes droopy or unworkable, put the tarts back into the fridge or freezer to let them firm up. The colder the crust is when it goes into the oven, the less it will shrink.
Bake the tarts in a 350°F oven on the middle rack for anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes, depending on the size of your tart tins and the thickness of your almond cream. I usually set a timer, but I mainly judge the done-ness by the color of the edges of the almond cream. When it is puffy and golden, it is perfectly done.
I wrap these individually in wax paper once they have cooled completely, and then put them into a zip-lock bag. They should keep in the fridge for about a week, though I doubt they will last that long. You could try freezing them but the fruit may not look so great once you thaw them back out. I guarantee they will still taste amazing, though. In all seriousness, this might be my favorite almond flavored dessert I’ve eaten yet.
All Photos by Simon Hua, 2016
* My all time favorite dessert, aside from my Grandma Alice’s Pecan Pie, that is.