Finance are the plain Janes of the pastry world. Usually, they’re unglazed, unfrosted, undecorated in any way. And that’s the way they’re meant to be — simplicity was built into their DNA. The story goes that the pastry chef Lasne, who had a shop near the Paris stock exchange in the late 1800s, created these little cakes for his stockbroker clients as a treat that wouldn’t muss their hands. The version I heard was a little fuller. Someone once told me that the brokers, also known as financiers, would come into the shop for a break in the afternoon and that they were always in hurry — they didn’t have time for the pastries that required a knife and fork and a moment to savor them — and that they tried to avoid anything that left crumbs. I always imagined them racing back to the exchange trying to brush itsy bits of pastry off their ties, mufflers and beards.
The miniature cake that Lasne created could be eaten out of hand. It was made with ground nuts — usually almonds — and mixed with egg whites, so its texture had a subtle chewiness. And it had butter, a lot of butter, adding roundness to the flavor and, I thought, making the cake as rich as the people it was named for. In order to make it even more appealing to his clients of him — or perhaps because he had a sly sense of humor — Lasne baked the cakes in rectangular tins, so that they mimicked gold ingots. I love the stories around the financiers so much that it comes as almost a relief to find that the cakes live up to their legend. They’re quietly delicious — butter, nuts and sugar have discreet charms. They’re satisfying — a small portion delivers outsize pleasure. And they’re an inspiration to bakers — the recipe invites variation.
Finance can be made with other kinds of nuts; they’re often made with hazelnuts and are particularly nice with pistachios. The melted butter can be browned, which adds a deeper flavor and more color to the cake. Spices can be mixed into the batter. A berry or a thin slice of fruit can be added to the top of the cakes before baking. I think I’ve riffed on the financial at least a dozen ways, but the play on the recipe that I always come back to is run through with chopped chocolate and known in French pastry shops as tiger, which means striped. I misread the name the first time I saw it — I thought it meant “tiger,” and so I’ve been calling them “tiger cakes” ever since. In a break with tradition, the tiger is usually topped with a little ganache.
My tiger cake is truly a cake — I bake it in a round pan rather than individual molds. It has melted butter, but a little less than the classic recipe; egg whites, of course, because they’re the key to the cake’s texture; and a little leavening to help the larger cake bake evenly. Instead of a dollop of ganache, I’ve coated the entire cake richly and even dappled the top with toasted almonds. It’s both elegant and easygoing. It could be a dinner-party dessert or, because it cuts so nicely and holds its shape so well, a snack. It can be eaten slowly or on the run. In spirit, it echoes the original cake. In reality, it smudges your fingers and is prone to leave a few crumbs here or there and a telltale trace of chocolate on your lips. Stockbrokers beware.
Recipe: Chocolate and Almond Tiger Cake
Dorie Greenspan is an Eat columnist for the magazine. She has won five James Beard Awards for her cookbooks and writing. Her new cookbook of hers is “Baking With Dorie.”