I haven’t been cooking much recently. Or: I haven’t been cooking much interesting food. We’ve been traveling nonstop to races – a week and a half in Rumford, Maine, almost immediately followed by three days in Lake Placid – and cooking on ski trips is rarely exciting. It’s a lot of pasta, stir fry, and other basics which are tasty but uninspired.
Luckily, when I was home for the holidays I had enough culinary adventures to satisfy me during this boring interlude. I wrote about Christmas dinner, but I neglected to mention that I made a giant, very fancy cake for dessert that night. I think the cake might have taken about as much energy as the entire rest of the dinner, as well as approximately the same number of special ingredients, so it deserves its own post as well.
I’d had my eye on a particularly spectacular cake since April, I kid you not. I had dreamed about this cake for months, but never even thought about making it. For one thing, it is a huge cake. I only make layer cakes for birthdays, and this one never seemed right. Secondly, I never had any hazelnuts. Those are expensive little suckers.
But on Christmas, I had to pick something for dessert. We traditionally have pie, but since I was completely abandoning tradition with regards to dinner, I figured I might as well make something completely wild for dessert as well.
And so: triple caramel cake, a recipe from Melanger, one of the food blogs that inspires me quite often. If you look at the photos of the cake, you’ll see immediately why I wanted to make it. It’s beautiful! Also, I love caramel. And hazelnuts. It seemed like a classy cake. A winter cake. I went for it.
I made the cake layers themselves early on Christmas morning, even though I was exhausted and could barely function in the kitchen. Still, I knew that the rest day would be hectic – I had to make a roast and a dinner for five people! – so I managed to whip up some cake.
The one problem with the layers was that they sunk a bit in the middle. This is a problem I’ve had in the past with cakes with a dense crumb, and I’m not sure how to solve it. Luckily, with a layer cake, you can just fill the dents with more frosting, so it isn’t a huge problem. Frosting can cover up any number of blemishes….
Once I was over at my grandfather’s house and the dinner was in the oven cooking its merry way along, I tackled the buttercream. It isn’t a true buttercream, but luckily for me, it is modeled after an American buttercream, and doesn’t have any egg in it. The one time I tried to make a real French buttercream, it didn’t go very well. But this frosting was a cinch to whip up. Instead of mascarpone, I used quark. Quark, a soft European fresh cheese, is one of my new obsessions. The Vermont Butter and Cheese Company makes a good version.
So: buttercream complete, I started assembling the cake, which meant trimming up the cake layers first. I got to sample some of the cake trimmings and confirm that the cake was in fact delicious. Then I frosted the cake, much less elegantly than Julia over at Melanger did, partly because I wanted to actually use up the buttercream.
The last step was to make the top look fancy. I started making the praline and…. it was a terrible disaster. I won’t elaborate. But it ended with me boiling some water in a pan and hoping that my grandfather wouldn’t walk in and ask me what I was doing. I pressed the hazelnuts into the frosting, minus their praline, and then drizzled on some store-bought Vanilla Bean Caramel from Fat Toad Farm, a goat creamery in Brookfield, Vermont. Highly recommended for putting on top of ice cream, in baked goods, or just for eating. I’m jealous that my grandfather got to keep the rest of the jar.
So: the finished product was revealed after dinner, and we all ate slices which were much too big. It’s a big cake. It’s a rich cake. It’s a delicious cake. Definitely worth the time and effort, although I can’t say that I will make it again unless another fancy occasion pops up. Did it live up to my expectations? Not quite. But my expectations were pretty high. And part of the reason it wasn’t as good as I was hoping was because it didn’t look as nice as the one Julia made. But we can’t always be perfect. I am an amateur home baker, after all. Thanks, Julia, for inspiring me, as always.
Triple Caramel Cake
3 ½ cup plain flour
1 1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar
2 cups salted butter (4 sticks), or use unsalted butter and a dash of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
This is a really, really basic cake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Then pour them into two largeish round cake pans lined with parchment paper. Bake the cakes for 30-40 minutes. Let them cool 5 or 10 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling racks. That’s it.
Quark Caramel Buttercream
1 ½ lb powdered sugar
1 ½ cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/4 cup caramel sauce
1/4 cup quark
Cream the butter and powdered sugar together in a bowl until it is smooth and no longer lumpy. Add the caramel sauce and the quark and continue beating until smooth. The buttercream should be sweet but slightly tangy as well from the quark. Sample it to see if you want to add more caramel to give it a stronger flavor.
1 cup toasted hazelnuts
more caramel sauce
Trim the cake layers so that they are flat on top, not domed, if necessary. Then, cut one of the layers in half. Put one of the half-layers on your cake stand or platter, and plop some frosting on top of it. Then put your full layer on top of that. Then frosting. Then the last half-layer, crumb-side down. Frost around the outside and add an extra thick layer on top.
Press the toasted hazelnuts slightly into the frosting on top of the cake, just so they stay put. Drizzle caramel sauce over the whole thing; I think it looks nice to have some drips headed down the side of the cake, but others might think that’s just sloppy.