Visitandine or Financier? Did you know they were the same thing? Both describe an almond cake. And oh my, what a cake! It's sweet, nutty and has an eggshell-crisp exterior. I like them much better than their shell-shaped first cousins, Madeleines. But then all a recipe has to say is almond flour and I'm a goner.
They've been making financiers in France for more than 100 years. The classic way to bake the financier (pronounced fee-nahn-see-AY) is in tiny round, fluted or rectangular molds. Anytime I see see them in a pastry shop in the U.S., they are called financiers. But many patisseries in Europe still call them visitandines. You can also bake it in a classic cake pan; still, the recipe is identical.
Pierre Lacam, in ''Memorial Historique de la Patisserie,'' published in 1890, wrote that the financier was created by a baker named Lasne, whose bakery was near the financial center of Paris. Presumably, the rich little cake was named for the wealthy financiers who frequented his bakery. The cake was baked in rectangular molds, the shape of gold bars.
But I've also read because butter and almonds were so pricey, that only the rich (i.e. well-financed) could afford to eat them. The rectangular shape was not as attractive as other shapes; a boat-shaped mold became favored, and today the cake can take any shape that appeals to the baker.
Now Lasne may have thought he invented these but Nick Malgieri, the director of the baking program at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, said a similar cake made with nuts, egg whites and brown butter existed even before that. It was made, he said, by nuns of the Order of the Visitation and was called a visitandine. (The visitation referred to in this case was the one made by the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, before Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist.) The cakes don’t derive from an ancient Hebrew recipe, but were originated in the convent of a community of French nuns called the Sisters of the Visitation, colloquially known in French as the "Visitandines.
Which of these stories is correct? Your guess is as good as mine.
No matter the name, the cakes have a nutty flavor from the browned butter and are perfect served with coffee or tea. And you'll often find them served with a spoonful of jam on top or even a raspberry stuck in the top before baking.
If you make Visitandine in cake pan form, you could eat a wedge just as is, but it's also lovely with some fruit. Lucie at Bilingual Butter had a wonderful post about it recently. Reading it was what tweaked my interest. And Dorie Greenspan weighed in on it too. The recipes are slightly different than the one I used, but the cakes all are divine.
Is this a difficult recipe? Not really. All you need is a whisk, a bowl and a pan. A few steps make or break the cake. The first, browning the butter, is what defines its flavor and adds depth to the almonds. Remove it the moment it attains the color of a chestnut. The second trick is to mix the batter as little as possible. It should be stirred until just blended. If you stir too much, the gluten in the flour will get overworked and the cake will be tough. And the batter has to rest a few hours in the refrigerator before baking.
Vistandine (or Financiers)
Adapted from Francois Payard of Payard Patisserie
9 tablespoons butter, more for molds
1-1/4 cups powdered sugar
3/4 cup almond flour
1/4 cup bleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon, plus 2 teaspoons cake flour
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 egg whites, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
With a pastry brush, butter thoroughly butter the financier molds. Arrange them side by side, but not touching, on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet with the buttered molds in the freezer to resolidify the butter and make the financiers easier to unmold.
In a small pan over medium low heat, heat butter, occasionally swirling, until it begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
Sift sugar over almond flour. (If using whole almonds, process with sugar in a food processor until mostly fine.) Add both flours, salt and baking powder, and gently whisk to combine. Add egg whites one at a time, whisking just to combine. Do not overwork or the cakes will be tough.
(Storage: Keep the cakes loosely covered with plastic wrap on the day they are made. For longer storage, transfer them to a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover in one layer and refrigerate them. Bring them back to room temperature before serving again. I froze some just to see what happened and, while not as good as fresh, I would not have been embarrassed to serve them to company.)
Photo credit for the rectangular financiers: http://dessertfirst.typepad.com/dessert_first/2009/04/honey-financiers.html