A Burnt Almond Cake is a rustic-looking layer cake, filled with almond pastry cream, slathered in the BEST Swiss meringue buttercream frosting, then covered in candied almonds. It’s famous in San Jose and is a favorite for those of us from the California Bay Area.
There are two bakeries in San Jose, California that are well-known for the same burnt almond cake. Since my husband grew up in San Jose, his family’s loyalty is to Dick’s bakery, but there is a strong following for Peter’s Bakery, which is the other main contender for burnt almond cake supremacy in this sprawling Silicon Valley city.
I’m pretty certain that Dick’s burnt almond cake was served the first time I met my husband’s grandma at her house, which was pretty much just down the street and around the corner from Dick’s Bakery. I always loved Grandma Nash’s cooking and have shared some of my favorite recipes that she passed on like her English toffee, poppyseed dressing, and creamy apricot pork chops. And she loved this cake, so it’s no surprise that I would enjoy burnt almond cake as well.
But I’m convinced that both bakeries just use packaged commercial cake and pudding mixes to slap hundreds of these beloved desserts together each week for their customers. Which is still tasty and fine, but since I’m a Bay Area transplant and don’t hold a strong loyalty to either bakery’s version of this cake, I’m going to state pretty unequivocally that a homemade burnt almond cake is superior to either bakery’s version.
Which is great news for anyone NOT living in the California Bay Area because it means you can make one for yourself at home and enjoy a slice of this wonderful, burnt almond cake! It’s part of my lineup of California-inspired recipes in the American Eats series I have been doing on here where I feature some of the most iconic foods and flavors of each state in the USA, one state at a time.
Another key reason for including this cake in my California recipe collection is that it highlights another of California’s major crops – almonds! According to this L.A. Times article from 2014, California produces 82% of all the almonds IN THE WORLD, with 70% of California’s almonds being shipped overseas! Kind of amazing, right?
What is Burnt Almond Cake?
I’m not sure why it’s called burnt almond cake when really the almonds are just toasted. There is no actual burning involved. It’s the same situation with my favorite burnt almond fudge ice cream. I think it must just be an old-fashioned way of describing well-toasted almonds. In this case, they are sliced almonds that are toasted in the oven just until they start to turn brown and smell nutty, then candied with a quick caramel sauce.
The flavor of a burnt almond cake has a timeless quality, even if you have never tried it before. The cake itself is a tender white cake with a little almond extract replacing some of the vanilla for flavoring. It’s based off of my favorite white cake recipe that I use in my Day of the Dead cake as well. Two 8-inch round cakes are sliced in half horizontally to create the four layers, which is a departure from the classic San Jose versions but means more layers of wonderful almond pastry cream can be slathered between the soft white cake layers.
Then I used a Swiss meringue buttercream frosting to cover the outside of the cake before pressing the candied almonds all over to cover as much of the surface as possible. It gets a little messy, but there isn’t any real technique involved and there is the upside that nobody will notice imperfections in your frosting technique since almonds will give the cake a rustic look anyway. I think Swiss meringue buttercream is perfect for this cake because it is light and silky, and less thick and sweet than classic American buttercream.
While this burnt almond cake recipe has a few different components that might make it look intimidating, it’s really not that bad, especially since most everything can be made in advance.
How do you make San Jose Burnt Almond Cake?
One of my favorite things about making this burnt almond cake is that there are no fancy piping or decorating techniques involved. But there are a few steps involved.
First make the white almond cake layers. I modified the baking time of my favorite white cake recipe by increasing it up to 30-35 minutes to make two 8-inch round layers instead of 3. Then I leveled the tops (you can use the scraps for snacking or making cake pops) and sliced the layers horizontally to get 4 thinner cake layers. You could also just bake the cake in 3 separate pans for the original amount of time, which is 20-25 minutes, and skip the step of slicing the cake into thinner layers, but that means less space for the pastry cream. And trust me, the more pastry cream the better.
The almond pastry cream comes from my French fruit tart recipe and it’s so easy to make! It’s a classic French pastry cream, except flavored with a little almond extract and it’s silky smooth and keeps the cake nice and moist without making it soggy inside. The pastry cream will need to chill for 3 hours though, so give yourself enough time for that before attempting to assemble the cake.
I pipe a border of Swiss meringue buttercream around the outer edge of each cake layer when assembling the cake to hold in the pastry cream as additional layers get stacked on top. This is easily done just by scooping some of the buttercream into a ziptight bag and snipping off one end to create a fairly wide tip then piping a circle. It doesn’t need to look pretty since no one will ever see, but it will help act as a barrier so your pastry cream doesn’t squish out under the weight of the top layers.
I use a full batch of pastry cream to fill this four-layer cake, then cover the outside with the fluffiest, almond flavored Swiss meringue buttercream. Unlike American buttercream, which can get a little crusty when left out, Swiss meringue buttercream stays soft so there isn’t a huge rush to get the candied almonds pressed into the top and sides of the cake. But do make sure they have cooled completely since warm candied almonds would melt the butter in the buttercream.
How do you make Swiss Meringue Buttercream?
Swiss meringue buttercream is made by whisking egg whites and granulated sugar (not powdered sugar) in a double boiler until the sugar dissolves and the egg whites are hot. Then it gets whipped up into a beautiful glossy meringue until the mixture has completely cooled. This is the longest part of the process and it’s super helpful to have a stand mixer here because this can be anywhere from 10-20 minutes of beating with the whisk attachment until the meringue is no longer warm to the touch.
Cubed room temperature butter is then gradually added to the meringue, and beaten in to create the fluffiest, most wonderful frosting that can be flavored in lots of different ways. In this case, I used almond extract for even more almond flavor in this burnt almond cake.
If your swiss meringue buttercream seems too runny after adding in all the butter, chances are the meringue was still too warm. No worries – just pop the bowl in the refrigerator for 10-20 minutes to chill the frosting and firm things up just a bit, then pull it out and whip it up again. If you would like an even more in depth tutorial on how to make Swiss meringue buttercream, I really like this one from Sugar Hero.
If you plan to make this part in advance, keep the finished Swiss meringue buttercream in an airtight container in refrigerator for up to one week or in the freezer for up to 2 months. Let come to room temperature and rewhip in the mixer with the paddle attachment before using it to frost the cake.
Tips for Burnt Almond Cake
- Since there are four components to this cake, I recommend making the cake layers and pastry cream in advance. The cake layers can be cooled completely, then wrapped in two layers of plastic wrap and frozen for up to two weeks before you are ready to assemble the cake. The pastry cream can be refrigerated for up to a week.
- The Swiss meringue buttercream can be made a day in advance and left to sit out overnight. It can also be made farther in advance, then refrigerated for up to one week or even frozen for up to 2 months, then allowed to come up to room temperature before whipping it again to get it back to a smooth, spreadable consistency. But I personally find it easiest to make this part of the recipe closer to when I want to assemble the burnt almond cake.
- Assemble the cake over a large baking sheet to catch the candied almonds that will fall off when you are pressing them into the sides of the cake. I like to just cup some in my hand, then press them into the frosted sides of the cake, going back and filling in gaps with more candied almonds to finish the look.
- The cake is best the day it is assembled as the candied almonds tend to get a little sticky on Day 2. It’s still completely delicious one days 2 and 3 (if it lasts that long), but the change in the texture of the almonds is something to be aware of.
More Showstopper Cakes You’ll Love
- Vintage Cherry Chip Layer Cake
- Aunt Becky’s Black Forest Cake
- Devil’s Food Cake with Chocolate Buttercream
- Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting
- Best Red Velvet Cake
- French Fruit Tart (okay, not a cake, but definitely a showstopper dessert)
Vanilla Almond Cake
- 4 egg whites, room temperature
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
- 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour*
- 7 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 12 tablespoons butter, cubed, room temperature
Almond Pastry Cream
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup sugar, divided
- Pinch of salt
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 5 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons butter, cubed
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
- 5 egg whites, room temperature
- 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 cups butter, room temperature, cubed
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) sliced almonds
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon butter
Vanilla Almond Cake
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lin the bottoms of two 8-inch round baking pans with parchment paper and spray with nonstick cooking spray. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg whites (save the yolks for the pastry cream!), egg, buttermilk, and vanilla, then set aside.
- In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter one piece at a time, while the mixer is running on low speed, waiting 10 seconds between each addition.
- Once all the butter is added, pour in the buttermilk and egg mixture in 3 batches, mixing on medium-low speed between each addition for about 1 minute and scraping the sides of the bowl. The batter should be light and fluffy. Once all of the liquid has been added, scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl well and mix for another 20 to 30 seconds.
- Divide the batter evenly between the pans, then bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the middle of the cakes comes out clean with just a few crumbs attached. Cool for 10 minutes before inverting the cakes onto cooling racks and removing the parchment paper from the bottoms. Flip the cakes back over and cool completely on the wire racks.
- Level the tops of the cakes, then slice in half horizontally and wrap each cake layer with plastic wrap and chilling in the freezer for at least an hour before frosting.
Almond Pastry Cream
- In a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat, combine the milk, cream, and half of the sugar, stirring occasionally until the liquid comes to a simmer. Meanwhile, whisk together the remaining sugar, salt, cornstarch, and egg yolks in a medium bowl until light and creamy.
- Once the milk mixture is hot, slowly whisk 1 cup of the hot liquid into the egg mixture to temper the yolks. Pour the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan with the hot milk mixture and reduce the heat to medium, continuing to cook while whisking constantly for about 30-60 seconds, until thickened and a few bubbles burst on the surface.
- Remove the pastry cream from the heat and whisk in the butter, vanilla, and almond extract, then transfer to a bowl and cover with a piece of plastic wrap placed directly onto the surface of the pastry cream so a skin doesn't form. Refrigerate until chilled and firm, about 3 hours.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
- Combine the egg whites and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer set over a pan of simmering water. Be careful not to let the bowl touch the water. Whisk until sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are hot (between 140-160 degrees F is enough to kill any bacteria in the egg whites and dissolve the sugar).
- Transfer the bowl on the stand mixer and whip the sugar and egg whites on high using the whisk attachment until thick and glossy, forming stiff peak and the bowl feels room temperature to the touch, which can take anywhere from 10-20 minutes. The stiff peaks will form fairly quickly, but just let the mixer keep working to help bring the temperature of the meringue down. This can be done with a hand mixer, but it's much easier with a stand version.
- Once the bowl is no longer warm to the touch, decrease the speed to medium-low and add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Once all of the butter has been beaten in to the meringue, mix in the vanilla and almond extracts and salt.
- If the frosting looks curdled or clumpy, increase the mixer speed to medium-high and beat until smooth. Or if the frosting is too runny and thin, stick it in the fridge for 10 minutes to help it set up a bit, then whip it again. This is a problem I've encountered because I didn't let my meringue cool down enough before adding the butter, but the fridge fix worked great.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cover a baking sheet with foil and spray it with nonstick cooking spray. Pour the nuts onto the baking sheet in an even layer and toast them in the oven while you prepare the caramel. Be careful to watch them so they don't actually burn. They should just start to turn a light, toasty brown and smell nutty.
- Combine the water, sugar, lemon juice, and salt in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring just until the sugar dissolves. Insert a candy thermometer and let the mixture boil without stirring until it reaches 310 degrees F, then remove from the heat and stir in the butter and toasted almonds immediately.
- Pour the caramelized nuts back onto the foil-lined baking sheet and use a spatula to spread them into as thin a layer as possible, trying not to have too many overlapping nuts. Cool completely, then break apart, chopping large chunks if necessary.
Assembling the Burnt Almond Cake
- Place the bottom layer of cake on a cake stand and pipe a ring of the Swiss meringue buttercream around the edge to create a barrier for holding in the pastry cream. Scoop 1/3 of the pastry cream onto the cake and spread it out to fill in the space inside the ring of buttercream. Repeat with the remaining cake and pastry cream to create a 4-layer cake with 3 layers of pastry cream.
- Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining Swiss meringue buttercream. Press the almonds into the sides of the cake, letting excess almonds fall back onto the baking sheet below so they can be reused on top. Fill in gaps as needed with the almonds that fell off until the sides and top of the cake are covered.
You can make the cake, pastry cream, and buttercream in advance, then make the caramelized almonds and assemble the cake the day you want to serve it.
If you are making the cake more than 2-3 days in advance, double wrap them in plastic wrap, then wrap in foil and seal in a freezer-safe ziptight bag.
This cake can be stored on the counter for a few days, or in the refrigerator. If stored in the fridge, bring to room temperature before serving.
Recipe inspired by Sugar Hero.
Want to see the other states I’ve visited in my American Eats Series? Check them out below!
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