I like making cakes. It's really that, a process of making, when you tweak the recipe just so, when you carefully pick out just the right sort of chocolate and cut every strawberry to a desired thickness, when you whip the cream to be not soft and not hard, when you look and say, no, just a little more chopped or a teaspoon of this will make the difference (when it's probably all in your head). It's about making something special for someone special, a private communication between you and that person, a wordless expression of feelings only the two of you will understand.
Someone asked me last night, "what is in this cake?" And I blinked and had to think about it for a moment -- the question really stumped me -- "the usual things that go in a cake, I suppose" I said: butter, eggs, flour, etc (oh, and brandy)... The end result is so much more than the sum of its parts, though. The real ingredients are laughter and voices and the clinking of glasses, a cake-naming contest and lights and running out of wine.
The birthday girl won the contest, by the way, and named this cake "Temptation." :)
A few notes about the cake:
*I tweaked the recipe just a tiny bit -- I added more brandy and more espresso to the espresso syrup and upped the cream by a third of a cup. I also added strawberries, which I think was a really successful touch. I also did not use powdered chocolate (ick) but just grated some real chocolate over the top of the cake.
*This does not taste exactly like traditional Tiramisu, but the recipe yields a tender, velvety cake with a light, mousse-like filling. The texture held up well even after soaking, though the cake was by no means "wet" like actual Tiramisu.
*Although the list of steps might seem daunting at first, this cake is really one of the easiest cakes to make and I put it together in a flash (and I'm the slowest baker alive when it comes to a recipe I've never made before!)
*I love my new icing spatula. There, it has nothing to do with the recipe, but for someone who's been using a butter knife to frost things, an icing spatula is a luxury. Love, love, love it. Also, love, love, love this cake. Definitely a winner, people.
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan)
FOR THE CAKE
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 (10 T) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk
FOR THE ESPRESSO SYRUP
2 T espresso (about one shot?)
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
2 T brandy
FOR THE FILLING/FROSTING
1 8-oz container mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 T brandy
1 1/3 cup cold heavy cream + 3/4 T for strawberries
3 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
12 or so medium to large strawberries
1 T espresso
Make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350F and butter two 9x2 inch round pans. Line the pans with parchment paper.
Sift or whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. In a different, large bowl (or mixer bowl), beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat for another 3 minutes. Add the eggs one by one, and then the yolk, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. It's going to look gross and curdled, but don't worry. Reduce speed to low and add the dry ingredients in 3 additions alternating with 2 additions of the buttermilk (begin and end with dry ingredients); scrape down the bowl and mix only until the ingredients disappear into the batter. Divide evenly between two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.
Bake for 28-30 minutes, rotating the pans at midway point, or until cakes are golden and springy to the touch and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes to unmold, flip over onto a rack or plates and peel the paper liners. Flip back over and cool at room temperature.
While the cakes are baking, make the espresso syrup: stir the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and bring just to a boil. Stir in the espresso and brandy. Set aside.
Make the filling and frosting: In a small bowl, whisk the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla and brandy just until blended and smooth. In a large (or mixer) bowl, whip 1 1/3 cups heavy cream until it holds firm peaks. With a rubber spatula, stir in about one quarter of the whipped cream into the mascarpone. Fold the mascarpone into the rest of the whipped cream with a light touch. Chop 1 oz of the chocolate very finely. Hull 6 strawberries and slice them thinly.
Strawberries: Take remaining 6 strawberries and slice them in half lengthwise, leaving the green tails on. Top a tray with wax or parchment paper and arrange strawberry halves on top. Chop 1 oz of the chocolate very finely and put in a small bowl. Bring 4 T cream to a boil and pour over the chocolate; let stand a minute and then whisk until smooth and glossy. The chocolate should be thin enough to drip from the end of a spoon -- if not, add a bit more cream and whisk in. Drizzle melted chocolate over strawberries. Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hr.
To assemble the cake: If the tops of the cake layers have crowned, use a long, serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even them. Place one layer cut side up on a cake plate. Using a pastry brush or a small spoon, soak the layer with 1/3 of the espresso syrup. Smooth some of the mascarpone filling over the layer. Gently press the 1 oz chopped chocolate into the filling and arrange sliced strawberries on top. Put the second cake layer on the counter, cut side up and soak it with half of the remaining espresso syrup. Turn the layer over (carefully, it'll be very soft) and position it on top of the first layer and filling. Soak the top of the cake with the remaining syrup.
Whisk 1 T of espresso into the remaining mascarpone filling and smooth the frosting around the sides and on top of the cake. Grate 1 oz of chocolate over the top of the cake. With a butter knife, detach the refrigerated strawberry halves from the wax paper and arrange in a circle on top of the cake.
Refrigerate the cake for at least 3 hours or for up to 1 day before serving -- the elements need time to meld.