Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Midsummer Day's Dream . . . Cream Cheese Nectarine Cake with Crumbly Streusel

Nectarines . . . really fine, really sweet nectarines. Not something one can necessarily count on finding here in Michigan. Usually, though, that doesn't matter. Why? Because typically, in mid-July, we're wallowing in a surplus of glorious local cherries, baking them into this and stirring them into that, not giving those pretty nectarines from out of state a second thought. But late winter weather played holy havoc with Michigan's cherry orchards this year, leaving us with the most pathetic harvest in decades. Trees that would normally be bending under the weight of crimson fruit look instead as if they've been ever so lightly dotted with red.  Just a cherry here, a cherry there. Sorry, folks--forget about "pickin' your own" and keep your fingers crossed for next year.

No home-grown cherries? For born and bred Michiganders that scenario is virtually unheard of. So, nothing left to do but rev up the contingency plans. Time to focus on nectarines instead, nectarines that hail inevitably from elsewhere. A sobering thought, no doubt. Miraculously, though, they're incredibly sweet and more than up to snuff. I've been shocked by their quality, thus I've been munching them the last few days with an unbridled sense of righteous privilege, like a koala in a eucalyptus tree. Don't try to stop me.

About this recipe . . . 

I adapted this from The Grand Central Baking Book, by Piper Davis and Ellen Jackson (I love this book, by the way, and recommend it). I started with their recipe for a cream cheese apple cake, but made some significant tweaks.

First, I reduced the overall size of the recipe by about one third, from one that would produce a large 12" bundt cake down to a reasonably sized 9" round cake made in springform pan. I used a relatively small amount of chopped ripe nectarines, unpeeled, in the batter versus a sizable portion of peeled apples. I added in a modest amount of almond flour/meal (if you can't find it in your usual grocery store, check at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, or health food stores), which lends a subtle richness to the texture without adding any overt almond flavor. I upped the amount of vanilla, in fact using vanilla bean paste instead of extract, and I also fiddled with the proportion of cinnamon. 

The addition of a streusel topping worked out well, too; I just threw together flour, sugar, almond flour/meal, cold butter, and a pinch of fine sea salt and went at it with a pastry blender. You can count on a cake that happily straddles the fence between a coffee cake and a not-too-dense pound cake. A great cake overall, even without our beloved Michigan cherries.

Cream Cheese Nectarine Cake with Crumbly Streusel

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Yield: About 16 slices

For the cake:
2 and 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup almond flour/meal
1 teaspoon baking powder
2/3 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2/3 cup unsalted butter, softened (that's one stick and about 2.5 tablespoons)
8 oz. cream cheese
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)
1 extra-large ripe nectarine, unpeeled, pitted, and chopped into very small pieces

For the streusel:
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup almond meal/flour
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons of cold, unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
1 pinch fine-grain sea salt

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9" springform pan.

Make the streusel first:

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, almond meal/flour, and all purpose flour. Toss in the butter chunks and combine with a pastry blender or a fork until most of the mixture is in pieces approximately the size of a large pea. Cover the bowl and put it in the fridge.

To make the cake batter:

In a medium bowl, lightly whisk together the flour, almond flour/meal, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside.

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment on medium-high speed, beat together the butter, cream cheese, and sugar until the mixture is fluffy and light in color (beat for at least five minutes and as long as eight). On low speed, add in all of the vanilla, and add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. Stop and scrape the bowl and paddle periodically.

Still on low speed, add in all of the nectarine pieces, beating just for a few seconds to combine, then add in all of the dry ingredients. Mix only until the flour looks completely incorporated. Scrape all the batter into your greased and floured cake pan. Sprinkle all of the streusel evenly over the top.

Bake the cake on the middle rack of the oven for about 55-65 minutes. You'll know it's done when the top is lightly golden, the sides are just beginning to pull away from the pan, the top of the cake doesn't jiggle at all when you move it, and a toothpick inserted in the center come out mostly dry. Check your cake after about 40 minutes and if it appears to be browning too fast, lay a piece of foil loosely over the top. Let the finished cake cool in its pan on a rack for at least 15 minutes, then run a thin knife around the sides, remove the springform carefully, and let the cake finish cooling on the rack.

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