Luka went upstairs again and sat down at her desk. "I have to write." She'd been on the island since summer, now it was February and she hadn't written a word. Each morning she woke up at five, sometimes four, and jumped out of bed longing to write--the book was ready inside of her, every chapter, every sentence, every comma, everything was in its place, perfectly set, and she knew she could do it...but as soon as she sat at her desk the book became a reflection, the color green, a round egg, a face peering at her, and she would grab her pen to try and write as fast as she could, but the sentences rose up before her like waves pounding against the pier and the paper drew back, her hand struggled to reach it like a shipwrecked sailor grasping at the rocks of some shore.
-Margarita Karapanou (The Sleepwalker)
The first week of the semester is over; it passed in a whirl of commas, library runs and many contemplative, yet productive hours spent in front of the computer screen. And I do have to say that there's something that feels just plain good about that. When you think about what a "beginning" really is, you realize that how something starts will often set the tone for what it will become. It made me think about last semester, when, after a viewing of The King's Speech with some friends, I returned home to the horrible sensation that I was coming down with the flu, which led, in one way or another, to the sickliest semester of my life. But this semester feels different; the urge to work is there and health and other circumstances are (thus far! *knock on wood*) cooperating. So, I decided to share a cake with you all--one that, yes, I did bake while I was still in Pennsylvania, but who's counting? The point is that cake, in any and all forms, is a way of celebrating.
And cake, especially a tiramisu layer cake, is a labor of love that doesn't differ all that much from a dissertation. Think about it: it requires a framework (the yellow cake, but of course), support (the creamy mascarpone frosting) and style (simple syrup with amaretto and chocolate chips/shavings. Style, in a nutshell is a personal thing). Most importantly, however, a dissertation has to be an original contribution to your field; when it comes to Tiramisu, what can be more inventive than Dorie Greenspan's approach to make the dessert with a spongey cake, rather than with ladyfingers? This, in the world of Tiramisu, is clearly a game changer kind of recipe, much like when a scholar manages to produce a reading of an acclaimed literary text (think Crime and Punishment. Or Jane Austen anything) that suddenly causes everybody to sit up and think, "Now here's a voice worth listening to!"
Further strengthening my metaphor (yes, I'm going to run with this to the bitter end!) is the small fact that this was a very laborious project, but one that was well worth it in the end (as I've heard from those who have made it to the other side of dissertating; I'll let you know what I think when I get there). It was a deliciously heavy cake that, when you put your nose right up to it, smelled of chocolate and coffee--in short, all things good. I've always felt with layer cakes that half the fun is that you get twice the goodness in one slice, double the cake and double the icing, but I know this is just a fantasy on my part. Fantasies are key to any experience, however. And, after three and a half hours in the kitchen of making cake from scratch (a fun tip for those of you who find yourselves without cake flour and in a pinch: for every cup of all purpose flour, subtract 2 Tablespoons and replace them with 2 Tablespoons of corn starch), mixing the frosting and waiting for the cake's flavors to set in the refrigerator for a few hours, I felt I was entitled to a little fantasy. Maybe it was just me, but I'd swear that the first bite was more than worth the wait.
Yields about 10 pieces, depending on how you cut the cake
Barely adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours
The main difference between my cake and Dorie's cake was that I didn't have instant espresso powder. The very strong coffee that I prefer, however, worked like a charm.
For the cake:
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/4 stick 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 extract:
4 Tbsp. very strong coffee or 2 Tbsp. instant espresso powder mixed with 2 Tbsp. boiling water
For the espresso syrup:
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. amaretto liqueur (Disaronno, for example)
For the filling and frosting:
1 8-ounce container mascarpone
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. amaretto
1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
For the cake:
-Butter two 9-inch round cake pans, dust them with flour and dump out the excess. Then, line the bottoms of the cake pans with parchment paper.
-Preheat the oven to 350.
-Sift together the cake flour, baking powder and soda, and the salt.
-Working with a stand mixer with a paddle attachment (a hand mixer and a large bowl will work just as well), beat the butter on medium until creamy.
-Add the sugar and beat for about 3 minutes more.
-Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the yolk, beating in between each addition.
-Beat in the vanilla; at this point, the mixture might look curdled, but, according to Dorie (and me), this is fine. Beat on!
-Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, alternating with the buttermilk. You should begin and end with the dry ingredients.
-Mix until combined.
-Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.
-Bake for 28-30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. When done, the cake will be golden and springy to the touch (obviously, a cake tester should come out clean, too).
-Transfer to a rack and let cool for about 5 minutes. After this, run a knife around the edges of the cakes and invert the cake pans. Once the cakes are released, peel off the parchment paper and, again, let cool.
For the extract:
-Either make a cup of very strong, dark coffee and take out 4 Tablespoons or stir the 2 Tbsp. espresso powder and 2 Tbsp. boiling water together in a small cup until blended. Then, set aside.
For the syrup:
-Stir the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
-Turn off the heat and pour the syrup into a small bowl.
-Stir in 1 Tbsp. of the espresso extract and the amaretto.
For the filling and frosting:
-Whisk the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla and liqueur together in a large bowl until smooth and well mixed.
-With a hand mixer (or by hand), whip the heavy cream until it holds firm peaks.
-With a rubber spatula, stir about one quarter of the whipped cream into the mascarpone. Gently fold in the remaining whipped cream.
To assemble the masterpiece:
-Place one cake layer right side up on a cake stand protected with wax paper (N.B. this makes icing the cake a neat process, although I warn you that it's not all that easy to remove the wax paper. This is a moist--due to the syrup-- and delicate cake).
-Using a small spoon, soak the layer with about a third of the espresso syrup.
-Smooth some of the mascarpone mixture over this layer (about 1 1/4 cups) and then lightly press in the chocolate chips into the cream.
-Put the second cake layer on the counter and soak the top of it (N.B. this will be the bottom of the top layer) with half of the remaining espresso syrup.
-Turn the layer over and position it over the filling (soaked side down).
-Soak the top of the cake with the remaining syrup.
-For the frosting, you will whisk 1 to 1 1/2 Tbsp. of the remaining espresso extract into the remaining mascarpone filling. Feel free to adjust this to taste.
-If the frosting is too soft, you might want to refrigerate it at this stage for about 10-15 minutes. If not, however, add the frosting, smoothing it around the sides and over the top of the cake.
-Once done assembling, refrigerate the cake for up to 3 hours or overnight; I found that the cake's flavors were stronger the next day, so this is definitely something that you could make in advance of a special occasion.
-Before serving, you can dust the cake with cocoa powder or decorate it with chocolate-covered espresso beans. I chose to leave mine as it was--simple and unadorned. If I make this again, I think I'd go for toasted almond slivers, but that's just me.