Tarta de Santiago recipe & the story behind the legend

31 Aug

Late one night, way back in the 9th century, a hermit wandering through the Spanish countryside saw a shower of stars rain down in a nearby field. Intrigued by this unusual event, the hermit waded into the grass, only to stumble upon a pile of human bones resting where the stars had fallen.

The hermit reported his discovery to the local religious authorities, who quickly declared the bones to be the remains of Santiago, known elsewhere as St. James. Santiago served as a missionary in Spain in the early years of Christianity, but he was martyred not long after his return to Jerusalem. According to legend, Santiago’s body miraculously traveled back to Spain, though its exact location remained unknown. So, the hermit had apparently made quite a find.

Word of the discovery spread through Europe, and before long the Camino de Santiago, or “Way of Saint James,” became a popular pilgrimage route. Devotees from all over the continent made the arduous overland journey to see the Saint’s remains, which the Catholic Church eventually entombed in the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

Fast forward twelve centuries, to the summer of 2005, when I’m the one making the 500-mile journey to the cathedral and its namesake city, along with my adopted Camino family. In front is Amy. We are friends from the States, co-conspirators in everything silly (together we have built a reputation as the “singing pilgrims”), and by now, die-hard backpackers who scoff at the threat of another blister. Behind me walk two rather burly guys, Fokke from Holland and Cord from Germany, who, in an effort to lose weight, have subsisted on little more than canned gerkins for close to a week. To my left is Richard, a 65-year old American, who decided upon retirement that he would like nothing more than to walk 16 miles a day for five weeks. And to my right are two Brazilian brothers, Tiago and Al, who amuse us with their overly confident language skills.

Each afternoon, after walking our allotted distance, I’d hide out under an umbrella at some Spanish cafe with a strong cup of coffee in one hand and my fork in the other, usually going after a slice of tarta de Santiago. This cake is magnificent, not just because of its flavor or even its supreme moistness, but for the memories it invokes every time I make it. You see, tarta is the quintessential dessert of the Camino, having been named after the Saint himself. And now that I have the recipe, I can’t help but make it just to relive the miles I walked with my wonderful friends.

Recipe: Tarta de Santiago (St. James’ Cake), serves 8

The following is mash-up of Penelope de las Casastarta de Santiago, Mark Bittman’s Almond Tart, and some of my own contributions.

2 1/2 cups whole almonds, with skins
6 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp vanilla or almond extract (optional)
Powdered sugar, for garnish
1. Finely grind almonds in a food processor. Don’t over do it, or you’ll end up with almond butter!
2. Beat the eggs and sugar together until thick and light in color. Stir in the almonds, cinnamon, lemon zest, and vanilla. Pour batter into a 9-inch round cake pan.
3. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center of the tarta comes out clean. Cool, then remove from the pan and dust lightly with powdered sugar.
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