The Cake I Couldn’t Light On Fire

In fantasy novels, peasants with birthmarks are born to fulfill heroic destinies. In critically acclaimed literary sci-fi, children are born in order to provide organ transplants to their siblings. In my kitchen, on my birthday, tiramisu cakes are born to be doused in high-proof liquor and lit on fire.

I made a big announcement. I invited people over. In the end, though, I just couldn’t do it. In part, the cake was too beautiful, too delicious, too wonderfully varied in flavor and texture. Like the huntsman in the Snow White story, I couldn’t stand to rip out the heart of something so innocent.

But also? I saw some horrifying shit while making this cake. My guests only saw it in its perfect, mousse-filled final form. But I witnessed what happened when I strayed from the recipe. The cloudburst-frosted facade cracked, and when I looked beyond it, I saw the abyss. It’s my personal policy never to provoke the powers of evil. So instead of opening a fiery gate to hell, I cut the cake into sixteen pieces and enjoyed it in its sweet, idealistic form.

My birthday cake was four layers of yellow cake brushed with coffee syrup, filled with alternating chocolate mousse and diplomat creme, and frosted with a brandy-vanilla cloudburst frosting. My birthday cake was possibly a portal to hell. My birthday cake was absolutely worth the risk.

This cake is fussy as all get out, which means that every kitchen implement in the entire world gets dirty during every single step. I’ll keep a running count of the number of times I wash all my kitchen equipment. Also, I made this cake in a single go. It took five hours. I do not recommend this! Every component can be made ahead of time. Pick a few and do them the day before. If you do decide to follow in my footsteps, be sure and take a break for lunch in between.

Step 1: The Diplomat Cream

Diplomat cream is equal parts pastry cream and whipped cream folded together for extra fluffiness. Putting the pastry cream first is a time honored tradition in my kitchen. By which I mean, I’ve done it twice, but why fix what isn’t broke?

My pastry cream recipe is a weird lazy amalgamation of the recipes from The Brown Eyed Baker and Joe Pastry. My best advice? CONSTANT VIGILANCE. CONSTANT GODDAMNED VIGILANCE. If you let up your guard with the whisk for one fucking second, this is what happens.

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Nobody wants to eat this lumpy alien caviar bullshit. Nobody.

Ingredients:
1 cup half-and-half or heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1.5 tbsp corn starch
2 tbsp butter, cut into four pieces
One glug of vanilla

Equipment:
Small pot
Whisk
Mixing bowl
Strainer
Measuring implements
Scraper spatula

Put your liquid dairy of choice in the small pot over medium-low heat. Poke it occasionally. While it’s working itself up to a simmer, grab your egg yolks and sugar, and whisk them together in the mixing bowl until the egg yolks start to look a little foamy. Then add the corn starch and whisk some more. When your eggs are the color of anemic daffodils, you can stop.

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The cream will eventually start simmering. Once it does, pour it into the mixing bowl and whisk the eggs and milk together.

It’s time for constant vigilance. Say it with me. CONSTANT VIGILANCE. Does your nose itch? Do you have to pee? Is anyone standing outside your window with a sign reading DON’T DO IT? Go take care of that first. Now, when you’re ready, pour the egg-cream mixture into the pot. Whisk it. Whisk the absolute shit out of it. Don’t stop. You only get to stop once the whisk leaves ridges in the cream, like so.

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Turn the heat off. I like to keep whisking for a minute more, just to ward off any stray alien eggs, but you do you. Drop the butter and vanilla into the pot and whisk them in until the butter is completely melted and the cream is a uniform color. Wash out whatever leftover uncooked egg is in your mixing bowl, and strain the definitely-not-aliens pastry cream into the bowl. Put some plastic wrap over the top and throw it in the fridge for at least two hours.

The Mess Report:

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Washing Absolutely Fucking Everything Count: 1

Step 2: The Layers

This recipe is ganked directly from Smitten Kitchen’s Best Birthday Cake. I also used it in the Crime Scene Cake. I did absolutely nothing interesting with the recipe until I cut it into bits, so I’m just going to send you over there. Make the recipe as written in two round 9-inch pans.

Done? Good.Now it’s time to enact some Violence Unto Cakes. Since this is a four layer cake, we need to trim the top of each of those layers and then cut them in half. This is Assassin’s Creed: Cake Edition. Do you want to garrote or stab your target? I recently purchased a cake leveler, but a long serrated knife will also work.

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Side Note: I have this problem where I am dumb. You will not have this problem, because you are reading about my mistakes! I thought, I will finally follow the advice of Smitten Kitchen, and freeze my cake layers! I did not think, gee, maybe I should level and cut these layers before I freeze them!

Oops.

It turns out frozen things don’t like being cut in half. I popped them in the oven on “warm” for maybe five minutes in order to thaw them out a little, then hacked at them with the cake leveler. I put each layer on a sheet of plastic wrap for easier transfer, and then stacked them so they’d be out of my way while I worked on the rest of the cake.

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Are they perfectly even? Nope. Can I do better? Nope.

The Mess Report:

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Washing Absolutely Fucking Everything Count: 2

Step 3a: The Icing

I committed a cardinal sin of the internet. I read the comments and followed their advice. I was punished with a man-eating swamp blob…

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…and a toxic miasma coming out of my stand mixer.

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I’m not even going to tell you how I did that. Instead, I’m going to tell you about cloudburst icing. I’m not woman enough to handle straight buttercream. But the cloudburst icing hit the perfect balance of sweet and creamy, without the unpleasant suspicion that my body is now 15% butter by volume. The sugar granules will leave the cake looking a bit pocked, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay to actually enjoy my goddamn birthday cake.

The first step is to make a boiled milk-flour mixture and then let that cool down. We’ll come back to it after the mousse.

Ingredients:
4 tbsp flour
1 cup whole milk
1 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp vanilla
2 tbsp brandy

Equipment:
1 small pot
Whisk
Plastic wrap
Stand mixer with paddle, or electric hand mixer and a strong constitution
Measuring implements

Put the flour and milk in the pot. Whisk them together. Keep whisking and bring them up to a boil over medium heat. After thirty seconds of full boil, take the pot off the heat and cover the surface of the goop with plastic wrap. Throw the pot in the fridge.

That’s it for part A. Really! No flesh eating ooze required!

Step 4: The Mousse

Hell yeah, chocolate mousse. This is the only step that did not involve weeping or gnashing of teeth. I fucked up, but the mousse forgave me. I am considering changing my stance on baking with chocolate. The mousse recipe is from Smitten Kitchen’s Double Chocolate Torte.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 large eggs
1 cup whipping cream
1 glug vanilla
8 oz bittersweet chocolate
1 cup sugar

Equipment
Double boiler or equivalent
Two mixing bowls
Whisk
Electric mixer
Thermometer (optional, unless you have a lot of feelings about food safety)

Get the double boiler/equivalent going by putting in an inch or two of water and setting it on high. (You can turn the heat down once it starts simmering.) While the water is heating up, separate out your egg whites and egg yolks into separate bowls. (Suggested listening here.) If you have trouble separating eggs, remember to BITCH:

Break the eggshell down the middle
Invert the egg above the whites bowl
Tip the egg yolk from one shell to the other
Catch the whites in the bowl below
Hand off the yolk to a separate bowl

Or just look at this helpful gif.

egg separation

Set the whites aside. Mix the egg yolks, cream, and vanilla together, and pour them into your double boiler. Whisk that around to combine with the melted butter. People who care a lot about food safety should make sure that the egg yolk mixture reaches 150 degrees. Everybody else, just let it heat for six minutes or so. While the eggs/cream/butter are cooking, rinse out the yolk bowl and dry it really thoroughly. Then grab your egg whites, pour the sugar in, and whip the whole mess up to medium-stiff peaks. (I was able to get this done before the yolk/cream/butter mixture was finished, because my hand mixer is possessed by the devil. If your mixer is not so efficient, prioritize getting the egg/cream/butter off the heat. Also consider summoning a demon to reside in your mixer. They’re pretty amenable to the idea if you let them lick the beaters.)

Take the eggs/cream/butter off of the stove once they hit six minutes or 150 degrees. Drop the chocolate in and stir until it’s all melted.

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Then, pour the chocolate-cream-whatever into the clean mixing bowl. Drop a quarter of the egg white mixture into the chocolate mess and mix, then fold in the rest of the egg whites until the mousse is just combined.

It turns out MacGuyvered double boiler didn’t make a perfect seal. Steam escaped into the air, cooled down, and dropped water into the eggs below. This wasn’t apparent until I put the chocolate in and it started getting lumpy. Water is the kiss of death for chocolate anything. The formation of grainy lumps is called seizing, because water is the kiss of death for chocolate anything. To fix this, I employed the time tested method of sticking my fingers in my ears and going LA LA LA I DON’T SEE YOU and folding in egg whites as if nothing happened.

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It worked! Put the mousse in the fridge until the cake is ready to be assembled. Try to let it cool for at least two hours, but hey—shit happens. It’ll be OK if your mousse isn’t perfectly set.

Washing Absolutely Fucking Everything Count: 3

Part 5: The Syrup

The flour-milk mixture for the frosting is supposed to set for about an hour. Making the mousse didn’t take that long, so I stuck the syrup creation in here to fill the gap. Like all my cake syrups, this one includes at least two ingredients that are toxic to infants.

Ingredients:
2 cups water
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 cup sugar
4 tsp instant coffee

Equipment:
Pot
Bowl
Stirring implement

Dump everything in the pot. Bring it up to a simmer. Remember to come back every few minutes to stir things around. After maybe 20 minutes of simmering, you’re done! Pour the syrup into a bowl and let cool.

Part 3b: The Icing

Your mandatory hour has passed. Grab your flour-milk pot out of the fridge. The paste is going to look really goddamn gross. That’s okay! Butter fixes all of life’s little problems.

Put the butter and sugar in your mixing bowl of choice and cream until the butter is fluffy and ready to rehabilitate the paste.  Spoon in the milk-flour stuff and beat everything together until you can’t resist sticking your finger in to try the frosting.

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Please remember to turn off the mixer before putting your hand in the bowl. Pour the brandy and vanilla into the bowl and mix until the frosting reaches uniform consistency again. Throw this bowl in the fridge and get ready: we’re approaching the end game.

Washing Absolutely Fucking Everything Count: 4

Part 1b: The Diplomat Cream

From the depths of your fridge, find a remaining 1 cup of heavy whipping cream and 1/3 cup of granulated sugar. Drop them in a bowl and whip until you get stiff peaks.

Then, from behind the mousse, behind the icing, behind the expired milk that you’re really going to clean out of the fridge tomorrow, find your pastry cream. It’s hiding like the dreams of your youth, like the hours of the day that somehow vanished while you were wrangling cake. Tell it to stop being a dramatic little shit, and fold it into the whipped cream.

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Ta da! Diplomat cream achieved.

Part 6: The Assembly

Here are the components you need to gather:

  1. Cake layers
  2. Syrup
  3. Mousse
  4. Diplomat cream
  5. Icing
  6. A chocolate bar

I suggest the following equipment. Feel free to substitute your own dark magic/heroic willpower for any of the following:

  1. Icing spatula
  2. Plastic freezer bag with a corner snipped off
  3. Big spoon
  4. Pastry brush
  5. Vegetable peeler
  6. Serving surface–this can be a plate, a cake stand, a cake board, whatever. I did not plan ahead, so I hacked a circle out of cardboard and covered it in aluminum foil. WE DO WHAT WE WANT.

Put a small amount of the icing in the freezer bag and seal the top.  Slather your serving surface with icing and smack the first layer of cake on there. The icing works like plaster to keep the cake from sliding off the service surface. Brush the layer over with syrup. Soak that shit in there. Then, erect a defensive border of cloudburst icing around the edges of the cake. You’re trying to keep the mousse from squishing out and marring the outside of the cake once the layers are all put together. Plop about half the mousse in the middle once you’ve finished your fortifications.

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Smooth the mousse out with the spatula. Try not to smear it over the frosting layer.

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Throw another cake layer on top and repeat, filling the circle of icing with diplomat cream instead of mousse. Return to mousse for the third layer of filling. Lay the top layer on. If you’re confused, check this helpful diagram!

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Then ice the shit out of this cake. I really can’t offer any advice on this front. My best efforts can be described as “rustic.”

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Finally, take a vegetable peeler to a bar of chocolate. Pretend the chocolate is a potato! Peel off a bunch of chocolate shavings and throw them on top.

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THE CAKE IS COMPLETE. YOU CAN SIT DOWN NOW. Look upon your works, ye mighty, and be mildly bemused at how much your feet hurt.In the service of the tiramisu cake, much was sacrificed. Much was learned. Much was gained. Much was eaten. Never forget your glimpse into the abyss. Or you know, forget and have a second slice.

If you want an idea of the scope of the mess involved in the tiramisu cake–here is the sum total of “absolutely fucking everything” that got washed four times:

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Part 7: I LIED

I totally made a trifle with the cake scraps and lit it up.

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Happy birthday to me, bitchcakes! May all your dreams come true.

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