Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Vanilla Cake, Filled With Custard and Fresh Raspberries, Swiss Buttercream Icing

{small voice: don't judge me for the icing efforts, people, it was my first time}

Once upon a time (a bit more than 3 years ago, to be exact), on a sunny June day, we ate a cake with all of our closest friends and beloved family. Ok, it was more like 1:30 am by the time we actually cut into it, but it was inextricably part and parcel of a day that (and I'm trying really hard to avoid all cliches here) I keep in a sealed corner of my mind, to return to in the rainy moments of life. A day, the simple memory of which, is guaranteed to make me happy.

Smiling goofily, we read our vows in English and in Hebrew, and I think I might have promised him my heart and he might have promised to give my dad some goats. I wasn't following too well, and the Hebrew vows are something like 5,000 years old, so I was pretty sure I could catch up later. But the cake was really awesome. The cake had a story, it was a whole saga, in fact. Now, if you don't live in Los Angeles (or New York), you'd better sit down when I tell you that bakeries want to charge a starting price of $6.50 per slice of wedding cake. That's for a plain cake with plain frosting with no decorations. If you dare to want some piped flowers, and maybe some fruit, you will be paying close to $10 (that's per slice). That is not including tax, a hefty delivery fee (even if the bakery is within a mile from your place of choosing), and a cutting fee if your place of choosing happens to be anything other than a private residence. I wonder that they don't make you buy the cake flour. When A. and I sat down and calculated that we would have to pay two thousand dollars for a cake, I think I might have fainted for a little bit. I mean, do you know how many cakes I could make for two thousand dollars? And worst of all was that I pretty much hated all the cakes I had so diligently tested from supposedly "famous" bakeries. Dry, crumbly, with icing that was at once flavorless and too sweet... and don't even get me started on fondant. Yuk.

I was on the verge of doing something crazy (ordering 200 cupcakes - whoah, Irene, move away from the ledge), when my dearest mom remembered a tiny French bakery close to her house in Santa Monica, and off we went. The second I saw Jean-Louis, and more importantly had smelled some of his creations, I knew we were in good hands. He looked -- he looked like a guy who bakes cakes. That's the only way I can describe him. By the end, I was ready to kiss him (and, drunk on the petite fours he pressed on us, I think I just might have. Sorry, A.). Long story short (too late), he baked our cake for the staggering price of $2.50/slice, and the cake was so unbelievably awesome that we kind of ditched the whole idea of freezing the top and ate the leftovers the next day for brunch. Since then, I have been living with the idea of duplicating this cake. I can't say that I've done it, because, you know, he's Jean-Louis and fabulous, and I'm me with a hand mixer, but this cake is so great that even my GRANDMOTHER (woman who never praises other people's food and who is skeptical of me trying to boil water), called me the next day and said that the cake was "really good." I might have fainted again.

My cake-making phobia was eased into mild panic when Deb from SmittenKitchen made a wedding cake (crazy... awesome... crazy...). My mission was on a much lesser scale -- I was to make a cake for my sister's birthday brunch with 40 people. Ok, I thought, I can handle this. I decided on a 1/4 sheet (a 9x13) vanilla cake with three thinner layers, filled with custard and fresh raspberries, and iced with buttercream. This, in my personal dictionary, is listed under "Jean-Louis" and "taste bud heaven." There were going to be three components to my cake: the cake, the custard (pastry cream), and Swiss buttercream.

The cake was a cinch to bake, turned out beautiful, fluffy and golden, and is an absolute smashing keeper of a recipe. I added the zest of two lemons to the batter and the hint of lemony flavor brought out the tartness in the raspberries to perfection. The recipe made three perfect 1 inch 9x13 layers, which was exactly what I had envisioned. So far, so good. The custard also didn't give me any trouble. It was a pastry cream recipe from one of my favorite dessert books, Tartine, and I made a batch and a half just to make sure I would have enough. It's lighter than real French pastry cream, but with the heaviness of butter in the cake and with buttercream, I figured I needed to cut some calories or people would revolt. The Swiss buttercream, on the other hand... ... ... let's not get into that, I'm still a little scarred. After some tears, adjustments to my A/C and possibly whisk-throwing, I braved it through (it's true what they say, whip, whip, whip), and it did finally come together. And the result was as follows: my two uncles, forks in hand, stealthily slicing off tiny bits of the last few slices of cake in the kitchen, and my mom coming at them armed with her scariest frown and taking away the leftover cake because she wanted it for herself. Such are the cake trials and tribulations at Chez Irene. Ok, without further ado, here are the recipes:

Vanilla Buttermilk Cake
Swiss Buttercream

Pastry Cream (Tartine) - 2.5 cups
(I made 1.5 batches of this for my 9x13 3 layer cake)

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup + 1 tbsp sugar
2 large eggs
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
3 to 4 tbsp cornstarch (depending on how set you want the pastry cream to be)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Pour the milk into a heavy saucepan. Add the salt, place over medium-high heat, and bring to just under a boil, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, whisk together the cornstarch and sugar. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth (don't let the eggs and sugar stand together for too long or else the sugar will cook the eggs *so I've heard*).

When the milk is ready, slowly ladle about 1/3 of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking continuously. Pour the egg-milk mixture back into the hot milk and continue whisking until the custard is as thick as lightly whipped cream, about 2 minutes. The mixture must come just to the boiling point (slow bubbles, not boiling vigorously, or you will curdle the eggs, yuk). Remove from heat and immediately pour through a sieve into a bowl (or not, like me). Stir in the vanilla extract. Let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cut the butter into 1 tbsp pieces and whisk into pastry cream 1 tbsp at a time until smooth.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing directly onto the top of the cream to prevent a skin from forming and put in the refrigerator to cool. If using fresh fruit like raspberries, carefully fold into pastry creme before spreading between the layers of the cake. Seriously, people, this is really good!


Peg said...

Oh, Irene! Thanks for sharing such a great recipe. I can already taste it. Mmmmmmmm!

(Just reading your posts is going to make me have to eat only salads for a week. *grin*)

Irene said...

Oh, it's best just not to think of everything that goes into this cake. Not one for the faint of heart! :)

And I think you will really enjoy the book!!

deb said...

I am glad you had such success with the cake! It looks gorgeous.

Aran said...

irene... that last shot of the measuring cups is unbelievable!

Lori said...

Judge you, what are you goofy? It looks so professional. I should be so talented. The writing is perfect.