Burnt Almond Cake, a San Jose Specialty, Remains a Mystery

A slice of real-deal San Jose burnt almond cake. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

http://www.kqed.org/.stream/anon/radio/tcrmag/2014/07/2014-07-04b-tcrmag.mp3

If you grew up in or near San Jose, you’ve probably eaten a slice of burnt almond cake at a birthday or a graduation party. It’s not that people don’t eat this fluffy delight elsewhere, but in San Jose it’s a local specialty.

The whole thing started with a man named Tony Peters, back in 1936.

"Believe it or not," says Tony's son, Chuck Peters, "this used to be a horse pasture before my father built this building." Chuck, the current owner of Peters' Bakery, is 72 years old.

Today, Peters' Bakery is tucked into an aging row of retail storefronts in East San Jose. Between the oven old enough to qualify for an AARP card, the staff wearing old-timey aprons and the white boxes tied up with string, you might be forgiven for presuming burnt almond cake was invented here. But no.

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The recipe started with a basic white cake from a Betty Crocker magazine. Fresh creamy custard is slathered inside and out. So far, so good, but it’s what goes on top of the icing that makes the cake utterly addictive. It's a salty, sweet mixture of crushed toasted almonds, plus ... something else. Chuck refuses to reveal what, exactly, despite my repeated attempts to get him to cave.

The cake is simple, fluffy and fresh. It's hard to eat just one bite, which may explain how the bakery sells a couple hundred a week, as it has for more than 70 years.

"Well, they’re not too sweet," explains Mary Imamura, who lives nearby in Berryessa. I talked to her as she picked up a sheet cake for 50 people. "They’re always delicious. Always."

There is a Peters' Facebook page and a Twitter handle, but the cake moves largely by word of mouth. That's how Imamura heard about it. "My mother-in-law told me about this place probably about 40 years ago, and we’ve been coming since."

Peters' makes other things — strawberry tarts, chocolate eclairs, hot cross buns — but the bakery's reputation is built on burnt almond cake.

Over the years, locals have cultivated a rumor that Peters' is locked in an ancient rivalry with another bakery 20 minutes to the west. Indeed, Dick’s Bakery appears to be cut from the same cloth: the aprons, the boxes tied up with string — and there, in the refrigerated cases — the burnt almond cake.

Careful research has determined the Dick's burnt almond cake is almost identical to that from Peters' -- but the Dick's almonds are chunkier and caramelized. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)
Careful research has determined the Dick's burnt almond cake is almost identical to that from Peters' -- but the Dick's almonds are chunkier and caramelized. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Laurel Sota explains the two bakeries are related … literally. She married into it. "My husband’s grandfather and great-uncle actually started Dick’s Bakery together in 1947."

Tony Peters used to run a local chain of bakeries, and a lot of relatives worked for him, including his cousin, Dick. When Dick came back from World War II, he bought one of the bakeries. Numerous bakers have worked at both businesses. Both sides insist there is no bitter, burnt rivalry. Nobody stole anything. But Dick’s did tweak the recipe.

"Our nuts are different," says Sota. "We’ve changed the nuts to suit more of our taste. They’re larger, and we also caramelize the top."

It’s just as delicious — and if I was hoping to pry the secret of the almond mixture from Sota, I was mistaken. "Honestly, I don’t even know. My husband knows. You know, and we have certain bakers that know certain pieces, and they don’t really merge together. So we kind of keep it tightly wrapped."

Not unlike the way another Silicon Valley neighbor, Apple, is famous for keeping employees working on different parts of the same product siloed from each other.

"Yes, of course," Sota laughs. "Just as important! Yes."

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