A version of this article first appeared in Style Blueprint and is reposted with permission.
(Our thanks to Leila Grossman for the amazing images!)
Tarta de Santiago: The Backstory
Twice now, my husband Hal and I have 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 Nashville chef, 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. Thus inspired, we resolved to learn 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.
The Recipe (via Epicurious):
- 1 3/4 cups blanched whole almonds
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- Grated zest of 1 orange
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 4 drops almond extract
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Grind the almonds in a food processor until they resemble coarse cornmeal.
With an electric or stand mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until mixture is creamy. Beat in the zests and almond extract, then mix in the ground almonds.
Beat the egg whites separately, in a large bowl, until stiff peaks form. Fold whites into the egg and almond mixture. (If you’ve never mastered the art of folding, read this first.)
Butter an 11-inch springform nonstick pan and dust it with flour. Pour in the batter, and bake for 40 minutes, or until it feels firm to the touch (and a toothpick comes out clean). Let cool on a wire rack before removing cake from pan.
Cut a St. James cross out of paper (or buy one of the cool stencils for sale in Santiago). Just before serving, place it in the middle of the cake, and dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar. Remove the paper before eating!