Almonds and cherries make a classic flavor combination, perhaps because the trees on which they grow are related to each other. Both are of the genus Prunus, also known as stone fruits. Whereas cherries are the fleshy fruit of Prunus cerasus (sour cherry) or Prunus avium (sweet cherry), almonds are actually the kernel in the “stone” of a hard, green, peach-like fruit from the tree Prunus dulcis.
Mary Berry’s classic cherry cake uses ground almonds because they add texture, retain moisture and help to suspend the cherries in the batter. Her recipe calls for glacé cherries, the type that are popular in many British fruitcakes. Glacé or candied cherries are made by replacing the liquid in fresh cherries with a sugar syrup, which serves both to sweeten them and to preserve them. In fact, the process of candying was devised, originally, as a method for preserving fruit. The ancient Romans, for example, preserved fruits simply by storing them in honey.
The town of Apt in Provence, France, is known for its bright red glacé cherries, as they have been made there since the 1300s. In the late 1800s, a man named Matthew Wood began importing the cherries to Britain to sell in his shops. Thus began a long love affair of Britons with candied fruit.
That affair was imperiled after World War II, however, when many foods were still being rationed in the U.K. and only essentials were allowed to be imported. According to local lore, the cherry producers of Apt, knowing how fond Winston Churchill was of fruitcake, sent a representative to warn the prime minister that if the prohibition continued, they would be forced out of business. If that happened, the cherry growers would have to cut down all their trees in order to grow something else, and Churchill would have to make do without candied cherries in his fruitcake. Apparently, that was enough for him to quietly give the word that allowed cherries to be imported again.
The trickiest part of this technical challenge, as the bakers in the Great White Tent discovered, is to get the cherries evenly distributed in the batter and to keep them from sinking to the bottom while the cake is baking. The key, Mary explains in the Masterclass episode of this bake, is to quarter the cherries, then rinse the sticky syrup off, dry them well and coat them in flour before folding them in.
Another challenge, I found, was to prevent the cake from becoming too dry and crumbly. I thought my problem was that my pan was slightly larger than the 9-inch tin the recipe calls for, so I may have overbaked it slightly. (This happened to at least two of the Bake Off contestants as well, so I figure I’m in good company.) However, when I happened to look on the PBS website where this recipe is posted, I found comments from several people who tried the recipe and ended up with dry results. One commenter thought that using almond flour instead of ground almonds would cause the cake to be drier. Others said that adding an extra egg resulted in a moister end product. (I have since discovered that “large” eggs in the U.K. are equivalent to “extra-large” eggs in the U.S. I have not noticed this affecting my bakes in the past, but I will be more conscious of this difference in the future.)
So my takeaway is to use extra-large eggs instead of large eggs and, if I’m using the same pan next time, to check for doneness at 20-25 minutes. Otherwise, this was a very good cake with classic flavors and not overly sweet. A perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea!
Here’s a link to Mary’s recipe, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers below.
Mary Berry’s Cherry Cake
(Adapted for American bakers)
For the cake:
For the decoration:
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch bundt pan or savarin mold with butter. (I use Nancy Birtwhistle’s lining paste, found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PL5ydEOCSgE.)
- Cut the cherries into quarters. (Don’t forget to save five whole ones for decorating the cake later.) Put them in a strainer and rinse them under running water. Drain well and dry thoroughly on paper towels. Toss the rinsed and dried cherries in 2 tablespoons of the flour.
- Put the rest of the flour, baking powder, butter, sugar, lemon zest, ground almonds and eggs into a large mixer bowl and beat well for two minutes or until thoroughly mixed. Lightly fold in the quartered cherries. Transfer mixture to the prepared pan, leveling it with a spatula or back of a spoon.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 25-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (Cake should be well-risen and golden brown.) Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a wire rack.
- For the icing, add lemon juice to the powdered sugar a little at a time, stirring after each addition until it is the consistency of a thick paste. (You may not need all the lemon juice.) When the cake is completely cooled, drizzle icing over it, spreading it with the back of a spoon so it drips down the sides of the cake. Sprinkle toasted almonds over the top and garnish with reserved cherries.