Don't you wish you could just reach in and grab one of these? I stayed up late ogling them the first time I made them. And when I brought them into work the next day, my coworkers actually made "ooh" and "ahh" noises as they crowded around the dish, taking turns plucking a little cake or two up by the stems.
I love cherries and almonds together. There is something about the combination of scents that makes me all swoony and sends my head spinning. And the taste, well...would you hate me if I called it ambrosial?
The strange thing is that it took me a while to recognize exactly what it was that was sending me into such a tizzy. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of encountering the sniffing box. Or rather, "sniffing boxes," since I'm pretty sure that's not what they are actually called. I learned about this special box back when I lived in Florence and had to take a beginning sommelier class as part of my culinary program.
To be completely honest, that class was a bit of a joke. It was scheduled on Thursday mornings at 9 AM, which in theory might seem fantastic, but in reality is a terrible time for a wine class because it absolutely guarantees two things: The first is that your first glass of wine for the day will be poured and consumed around 9:15 AM. The second is that you will be useless for the complete rest of the day. By the second month, I was already loathing that morning wine class, which was made all the more unfortunate by the fact that Wednesday nights were THE going out night in Florence. And there is nothing worse than having to spend three hours sniffing and sipping wine when you've been out all the previous night sniffing and sipping tequila.
But I digress, because the real point here was the sniffing box, which was filled with little jars of unlabeled smells meant to help us "cultivate our scent palate" and "develop our nose". They actually used these absurd phrases. Each little jar, about the size of a baby carrot, was filled with a single smell. There was vanilla, banana, black cherry, grass, oak, even a little jar called "rain." Gross smells too, but we won't talk about those. The funny thing is that even though most of us think we know what things smell like, in actuality we don't. At least not until we're presented with a special box full of isolated scents. Even something as simple as a banana, for example, doesn't smell like just a banana. It smells like the peel and the earth, and sometimes even hints of your grocery store produce section. And this is the case for just about everything. At least, according to the "sniffing box."
My nose, un-cultivated as it may have been, gravitated towards one little jar in particular. It was bitter almond, though I didn't know until I'd asked, and when I sniffed it, I instantly felt that swoony feeling come over me. It was the first time I'd actually recognized the scent that I'd always loved in hand lotions and Italian Rainbow cakes and the amaretto liquor my dad sometimes ordered after dinner. I remember mentioning something this revelation to our teacher, a magenta-haired former-flight attendant (if you can believe that), but her blank smile and nod of her head assured me that she neither cared nor got it
Fortunately, I did, and I think I've spent the proceeding six years baking that glorious scent. If you also get it, I suggest you make these little cakes. Ground toasted almonds are blended with soft white sugar, egg whites, and butter that's been browned to a pecan-like toastiness. A delicate sour cherry is tucked into the center and the whole thing bakes until slightly golden. They're good warm, but--like so many things--actually taste better the next morning after they've had a bit of time to get to know each other, I suppose. And the scent, well that's understood.
I have to confess that there is a bit of a trick to making these. The first time I made them I used a paring knife to delicately remove the pit without pulling out the stem. It took a bit of patience and stained the tips of my fingers a lovely shade of lipstick pink, but is really the best way to go. I proved this the next time when I attempted to repeat the process with a cherry pitter, gingerly angling it so as to push the pit through without pulling out the stem. It's not really possible that way; the pitter is much too violent and 3 out of 5 times, the stem will be thrust through along with the stone. (Of course, if you have a better way that does not involve maraschino cherries, please tell me in the comments...)
You can use any kind of cherry you'd like for these, but I think sour cherries work best because the tartness plays down the marzipan-like sweetness of the almond cake. If you're short on cherries, perfectly in-season raspberries will also work quite nicely.
Now, about that recipe...
Sour Cherry Financier
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup powdered or caster sugar
1/2 cup almond meal
5 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large egg whites, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
24 sour cherries, pitted from the bottom so the stem remains attached(process described above)
1. Preheat your oven to 375ºF. Grease a 24ct mini muffin pan with butter. Set aside
2. Spread the almond meal in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until slightly golden. Let cool.
3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until the solids separate and turn lightly toasted. The butter will take on a fragrant, nutty aroma, and a golden, honey color.
4. Use a fine strainer lined with cheesecloth or (in a pinch) paper towel, to strain out the solids. Reserve the clear golden butter, and let cool to room temperature.
5. In the base of your electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the sugar, flour, salt, and almond meal until well combined. Add the egg whites, 1/3 at a time, until fully incorporated. Add the almond extract and the browned butter and beat until smooth and kind of gluey but silky.
6. Use a tablespoon to measure out a tablespoon of batter per muffin tin. Gently place one pitted cherry in the center with the stem poking straight up.
7. Bake at 375ºF for 12-15 minutes each, or until slightly crisp and golden brown on the edges. Cool in the pan for ten minutes before gently pulling them out (don't hold them by the stems while they're still hot) and letting them cool on a wire rack.