This past little while has been a swirl of citrus and sugar. Kumquats–spiced and in marmalades. Blood orange marmalades too, and blood orange cakes. Candied pomelo peels, and a few birthdays. When I think about how many 5lb bags of sugar I’ve gone through lately I can only shudder.
And the crowning glory, or perhaps the nadir, of this sugar spate, was this cake.
When I got the Tartine Bakery cookbook for Christmas (yes, the companion to one of my other favorites) my husband immediately zeroed in on this recipe. And though I was hesitant, you can’t not honor birthday requests, can you?
Making this cake is definitely a birthday-level undertaking. And it’s as spectacular as it looks: layers of chiffon cake, moistened with lemon syrup, sandwiched together with lemon cream, burnt caramel, all enrobed in fluffy, sticky meringue, blowtorched into submission.
It’s not actually that difficult of a cake, if you break it down into pieces. It’s more the sheer quantity: really five sub-recipes, with the main set of instructions being more of an assembly guide. I knew if I tried to do it all at once, I would be so frustrated by the end of the process that I couldn’t bear to eat one bite. (I’m exaggerating, obviously, but you get my point). So I strategized. Making this one cake was like organizing a dinner party: What can I do ahead of time? What piece is the trickiest (and might be wise to try and try again)? What stands up well to freezing? What must be done the day of ? How much special equipment do I have to buy? How can I keep from going insane?
Cake was made in advance (twice, in fact, given its propensity to collapse on me) and frozen, cut into layers so I didn’t have to stress about shredding the cake into crumbs on the big day. Caramel sauce was made a week ahead–why not, since it keeps a month in the fridge? Lemon cream–a silky, smooth, genius twist on lemon curd–two nights early. Lemon syrup, meringue, and done. (If you follow our Facebook page or my instagram feed at sarabclever, none of this is news to you as I posted each step).
I wasn’t sure if I was going to think all that work was worth it but, of course it was. How could there be any question? The clouds of meringue released an aroma of campfire marshmallows as the blue flame of the kitchen blowtorch waved across. The intense sweet of the cake was tempered by the tart, bright citrus. And most surprisingly, the burnt caramel sauce also proved essential: to cut the sugar, and to ensure the cake was balanced rather than cloying. (I’ll only note in passing the absurdity of this that caramel, made from sugar, prevented the cake from being saccharine).
There’s no way I could really give you my version of this recipe. Making the cake was enough of an enterprise for me. If no birthday is coming up, pick up the book from your local library (though I warn you, overdue charges may start to accrue so you might cut your losses and just get your own copy from the outset). Or check out these folks who have braved the challenge and lived to blog the tale here, here and here.
And while I am far from mastering this cake (chiffon cakes and I are still having problems), as is the case with all worthy opponents, I learned. Here’s my collected wit and wisdom.
(1) Do things ahead of time if you can. When drenched in syrup, slathered with creams, and covered in icing, it doesn’t matter if the cake had a stint in the freezer.
(2) If you need meringue and are afraid of using raw whites (say, because you have small children), do NOT use pasteurized egg whites. Buy the powder. I had no problem using pasteurized whites to make buttercream, but they just won’t cut it when the body of true meringue is called for. I actually made a first attempt with pasteurized whites, and started to feel about as deflated as the meringue looked when I realized in horror that I was about to repeat the errors Marie’s birthday cake. Ye who do not learn from history. Disaster was averted when I remembered I had meringue powder on hand from Christmas cookies, and victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. It’s nothing but counterintuitive that a powder works so beautifully while seemingly “fresher” refrigerated egg whites do not, but mine is not to question why.
(3) Chiffon cakes are temperamental. So many things can go wrong; in my case I think my oven was too cold. But there’s no need to get too obsessed with chasing perfection (or so I decided after my second cake glumly sunk upon removal from the oven). Rather than tear my hair out, I just made the best of it. I meant to make a three layer rather than four layer cake, OK? So what if it’s a bit denser than desired? The thing is going to be painted with lemon syrup and slathered with lemon cream and caramel, not to mention that meringue. Really, is anyone going to notice? (But I admit I bought my third oven thermometer for the next time–hopefully I won’t break it this time).
(4) Equipment–Besides the kitchen torch, a new 10″ x 3″ springform pan was acquired. (Oh right, and another oven thermometer. It’s a problem). The cake rises well above the rim, so it’s no good when it turns out the advertised depth is shallower if you use the base. Besides (ahem, instead of) sending nasty messages to amazon, you can place just the ring directly onto a sheet of parchment paper laid out on a baking sheet. You get a few extra portions of an inch, it really doesn’t leak out, and the cake won’t get stuck to the bottom of the pan. And you can feel like a professional–bakers use cake rings rather than cake pans all the time!
(5) Kitchen blowtorches aren’t quite as scary as they sound. (But I’m still a little scared).
(6) Invite people to help you eat this cake. It’s huge.
With all this, I hope you’ll understand (and forgive) the lackluster photography. After all that effort and anticipation, when the cake was served, I was as ready to dig in as the birthday boy.
I am afraid of what he’ll request next year.