On assignment

Well.  One minute I’m fluffing quinoa, and then I blink, and a million years have gone by.  You’d think by now I’d see it coming, this end-of-semester push that, without fail, yanks the month of May right out from under me, but year after year, it creeps up.  Hoooooooo.  It’s good to be back.

How about a photo of the littlest cutie to get things rolling? 

It’s important to have photos of a littlest cutie lying around for moments like this one, when the photos of your cake leave something to be desired.  

It was dark, and the party was starting, and I’m never one to prep food for the runway, in any case.  I wouldn’t even mention it, except for the fact that, in person, this is a very pretty cake.  Cakes, I should say.  The recipe makes two.

This cake was inspired by something I saw on Deb’s site a while back.  Deb, bless her, always snags the glamour shot.  Actually, why don’t you click on over there and have a look?  (Then come right back.) (Welcome back.)  Isn’t it something?  It really does look like that, jam glistening, whipped cream slumping and slouching.  Until I saw this cake, I’d never known a thing to pull off relaxed and regal so well.  Like that woman at the T stop last week in jeans, a white t-shirt, and heels, hair swept up, lips a pop of red.  I would like to be that woman, if only for a moment, just to see what it’s like.  Alternatively, I’ll settle for cake.

I haven’t yet made the original version of this cake, but I intend to for so many reasons:  It’s a brown, buttery, walnut cake – all words I like to hear when I ask, “What’s for dessert?”  I think it would feel right at home here hanging around with this guy, and this guy, and this lovely thing, and let’s not forget these.  Also, Deb has never steered me wrong.  But when I first baked the cakes you see here today, I was on assignment.  It was February, my friend Mary’s birthday month, and Mary had some very specific ideas about what she was looking for in a cake.  Mary would have you believe that she aspires to nothing more than cereal for dinner each and every night, but I have it on good authority that chicken and, lo, kale have been spotted in her kitchen and that the woman herself has been spotted cooking them.  For dinner guests, no less.  (I’m on to you, M.)  Mary knows a thing or two about food, after all.  I knew it.  And this year’s cake request confirms it:  A white cake, maybe yellow; something vanilla, with raspberry jam.  Hold the frosting, but whipped cream’s okay, as long as it’s not too sweet.  How’s that for excellent taste?  I got right down to work. 

Mary wanted her cake to be CAKE, as she put it.  She grabbed at an imaginary cake of considerable weight and squeezed to show me how little it gave.  Sponge cake was out, she told me.  (“Too airy.  Too springy.”)  Even a traditional birthday cake was too light.  She wanted something denser, richer, a thick slab of a cake with a tight crumb, a cake you have to chew.  In other words, she wanted pound cake.        

The best pound cake I know lives at Hi-Rise Bread Company here in Cambridge, where it goes by the name Vanilla Bean Loaf.  As luck would have it, the recipe appears in Amanda Hesser’s 2003 memoir, Cooking for Mr. Latte.  (Thanks, Molly, for the tip.)  People don’t rhapsodize about vanilla.  Not in the way they do chocolate.  It’s a strange politics of flavor that I’ll never understand.  In this cake, at long last, vanilla gets its due with the kind of doubling and tripling up that is usually reserved for chocolate.  Think chocolate ice cream with chocolate chunks, or chocolate sandwich cookies with chocolate cream filling or, for the win, chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, chocolate frosting, and chocolate sprinkles.  But here, instead of chocolate upon chocolate upon chocolate, you get one vanilla bean buried in a pound of sugar, another scraped into the batter, a tablespoon of vanilla extract, and another couple of beans scraped into a syrup that you brush generously along the finished cakes.
Once the cakes have cooled, you spread nearly half a jar’s worth of jam over each one, and can I just say that plunging a spoon with abandon into the level, unmarred surface of freshly-opened jam, measuring it into a bowl, then easing it out with a plop onto a sturdy bed of cake, ranks among the most pleasurable experiences I have ever had in the kitchen.  Whipping heavy cream and sour cream, spiking it with, yes, vanilla, and mounding it into a giant cushion in the center of a cake is right up there, too.  You can halve the recipe if a single cake is all you need for, say, a dinner-with-friends finale that’s equal parts elegance and ease.  But I like having a special dessert on file that will feed a crowd, a real party cake.  Just knowing I’ve got this recipe tucked away somewhere makes me feel like celebrating.

Vanilla Bean Jam Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen and Hi-Rise Bread Company via Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser 

This cake is sweet, so I recommend going with a jam that is less so, or tarting it up with a few squeezes of lemon juice.  I used raspberry jam on one cake and apricot on the other.  You’ll want to serve the cake immediately after you top it with the jam and whipped cream, but the cake itself can be made ahead of time and stored, well-wrapped, at room temperature for a couple of days.  It also freezes well.

At Hi-Rise, they bake this cake into loaves, but I used two 9-inch round pans, instead.  I also skipped the syrup, since I thought it might be too much together with the jam and whipped cream.  If you’d like to make the original loaves, pour the batter into two heavily buttered 8 x 4 x 3-inch loaf pans.  Bake for 30 minutes, rotate the pans, and then for another 30 or minutes or so, until a cake tester comes out almost clean.  While the cakes are baking, dissolve 1¾ cups sugar in 1 cup of water over medium heat, and stir in the seeds from 2 vanilla beans.  Remove from heat.  Brush the syrup all over your cakes when they’re about ten minutes out of the oven.  (Don’t forget the bottoms).  Repeat a couple of times as they cool. 

For the cake: 
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2½ cups vanilla sugar (made by stirring a split vanilla bean into a pound of sugar and leaving it to sit for a few days, at least)
1 vanilla bean
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
8 large eggs, at room temperature
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt 

For the toppings:
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, divided (optional)
½ cup apricot jam
½ cup raspberry jam 
1 1/3 cups chilled heavy cream
½ cup sour cream
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

Make the cake: 
 Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Generously butter two 9-inch round cake pans.  (I bet 8-inch pans would work, too, though you’ll probably have to increase the baking time by a few minutes.)

Cream the butter and vanilla sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Scrape the vanilla bean into the bowl, add the vanilla extract and eggs, and beat well.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a separate bowl.  Add these dry ingredients to the batter and mix just until smooth.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and fold the batter a few times.  Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for 45-55 minutes, rotating the pans once halfway through the baking time.  The cakes are done when a tester inserted into their centers comes out almost clean.  Cool for 10 minutes in their pans before turning them out onto cooling racks. 

Make the toppings: 
When the cakes have completely cooled, stir a teaspoon of lemon juice each into the apricot and raspberry jams.  (You can skip this step if you feel your jam is tart enough.)  Spoon the raspberry jam over one cake and the apricot jam over the other.  Beat the heavy cream with the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla until it holds soft peaks, then spoon it over the jam.   

Serve immediately to 16-20 eaters.  (Any leftover cake with topping holds up surprisingly well in the fridge for a day or so.)


Chihiro said...

Your daughter is heart melting, but you must get that all of the time. Your posts are always worth waiting for, congratulations on finishing the semester! Only now I'm kicking myself for missing Hi-Rise on my visit to Cambridge last week--I was too busy gorging myself at Flour.
Have a nice week!

Molly said...

If this is half as good as Hesser's almond cake, I am so sold.

And please, do tell: is a June visit still in the works? Because I think I need to admire those cheeks.

Jess said...

Chihiro - Thanks for the warm welcome back. I'll pass along your compliments to the little lady. As for Hi-Rise, next time! You must.

Molly, hello! Yes, yes, we're coming, and we're bringing those cheeks! E-mailing you now...

Molly said...

that was SO good. pretty cake. pretty baby. pretty pretty. xo

Lecia said...

Welcome back, you! I can't get over how much her gaze is your gaze. (Just had to scroll back to the top of the post to get another good long stare at her precious face.)

Two birthdays ago, Cal wanted a peach cake, and I looked high and low for a good recipe. What I came up with wasn't great; last year he requested root beer floats instead of cake, probably because of the disappointment. Maybe this year I'll try this one for his birthday. Not that I'll likely wait that long.

Nishta said...

missed you! and I *want* this cake. do you think it would work as a not-glamorous tea/breakfast-y cake, without the toppings and with some nuts added?

I love vanilla. More and more as I get older do the virtues of vanilla present themselves.

Rogue Unicorn said...

Welcome back!
1) I love Cooking for Mr. Latte. It's one of my favorites.
2) I want to be that woman on the T as well. Mostly when I wear high heels I just end up feeling like I am about to tip over in the most ungraceful way possible. So jeans, t-shirt and heels-how does she do it?
3)I love your baby's cheeks. And her eyes. And her everything.
4)Vanilla is highly neglected. Let's remedy this situation.

Jess said...

Molly - And pretty you! I have a great shot of you from that night. Remind me to show you.

Lecia - Really? Wow! I think she's the spitting image of Eli. (You should see his baby pictures; the resemblance is breathtaking.) But sometimes I think I see a glimpse of my sisters in Mia's eyes, which must mean that there's a tiny bit of me in her, after all. I wonder what kind of a peach cake Cal had in mind. Did you see the rhubarb snacking cake over at Smitten Kitchen yesterday? It looks wonderful, and I wonder if it might work with peaches. Though root beer floats is an excellent fallback position...

Nishta - Yes, without all the toppings it is precisely that kind of cake, no nuts required. I'd bake it up in loaves, Hi-Rise style, and add the syrup (see recipe notes). It makes the crust feel, well, crustier. Sturdier, and pebblier, and sweeter, of course. It's very good. You can open a jar of jam and put it on the table, too, if you want.

Tiki - I got my first pair of heels at age 26 and six years later, I'm just beginning to figure out how to maneuver in them. Yes, those cheeks, and eyes, and everything are out of control. Love that girl.

Mary M. said...

Can I just say, being featured on Sweet Amandine is pretty much the most special I think I've felt in a great long while. So happy to have had your cake and your company at my party, and your narrative now and forever.


Hannah said...

Hi! Your daughter's sweet photo brought a big smile to my face. I remember when my boys were that age (now in high school). They're still so sweet, but not so little anymore! I miss Hi-Rise and adore the vanilla bean loaves - it's always a stop for me when I visit Boston. Your cakes are stunning and I've been on a vanilla kick ever since making my own for the first time. Love the triple vanilla here! And the whipped cream and jam topping is just pure decadent.

Talley said...

This post makes me want to bake about 15 different cakes (this one, Deb's walnut cake, the walnut cake I spotted in Bon Appetit sometime this winter, and about every single cake in Cooking for Mr. Latte). I'm just now reading Cooking for Mr. Latte, and I've found myself melting into each chapter, willing myself to stay put in my chair instead of running out to the grocery store. I actually just read the chapter with this cake yesterday and the description of the vanilla-vanilla cake soaked in vanilla had me looking up trains to Paris so I could visit G. Detou, where earlier this winter I bought the plumpest vanilla beans and the thickest of syrupy vanilla extracts (vanilla in Zürich just doesn't compare).

And by the way I think your cake photos are stunning, but that said, I do think starting off a post with those eyes and those cheeks was a wonderful idea. You had me smiling before I'd even started reading. Beautiful!

Hana said...

So glad I finally stopped over to see what's baking :). I love a dessert that is simple, complex and could be made in endless variations. See, half of the people living in my home like fruit desserts and the other half only eat things with chocolate. So, one cake smothered in fruit, the other ganache, both with whipped cream. Dessert dilemma solved with one cake recipe. Toda raba!

Kiran @ KiranTarun.com said...

Thoroughly enjoyed browsing through the "littlest cutie" photos. A sweetheart :)

Girl Parker said...

What a bundle of cuteness! And Yummmers. I'm dying to take some time to bake.

Jess, I gotta tell you, I found your blog while searching Google images for a genuine appeltaart, but in English. =) It's now well over an hour later (I gotta hustle back to work) and I'm hooked. I love your writing, your love for food, and the story of your aneurysm. Oh honey, how I admire you! I had my own medical run-in and could relate with every word you related. Three years later, I'm so thrilled for you - and happy I found your blog. Well done.

katerina said...

Your blog is lovely, your job is great, your baby is so sweet and your recipes unique! Congrats dear!!! I'm following you just to keep in touch with you :)
Have a nice day..


A Plum By Any Other Name said...

So, everyone should know that this cake is one hundred percent amazing. I made a version of it over the weekend and I just walked home at lunch to sneak a piece. (I also mailed some to California ... and it arrived beautifully.) Thanks for all your wonderful recipes, Jess! I always look forward to your blog.

Jess said...

Hi, guys. Arrrgh, I've been having a hard time staying on top of comments lately. Forgive me! I want to do better.

Mary, my dear, you are the sweetest. I'm so lucky to know you.

Hannah - Wait, babies grow up? They go to high school? Nooooo! Glad these cakes brought you back in time a bit. I'd miss Hi-Rise, too, if we lived somewhere else.

Talley - Ah yes, I know the feeling when cake upon cake beckons. I missed that walnut cake in Bon Appetit, so thanks for mentioning it. I'm going to have to dig it up. That you can look up trains, actual trains that travel between where you sit and Paris, makes me envious! But did I see that you're here in the States on holiday? Perhaps even here in New England? Hope you're enjoying, and staying cool in this heat.

Hana - The best of both worlds! I like the way you think.

Kiran - Thank you! She's a keeper.

Girl Parker - Such a kind note! Thank you. I'm so glad you found us here. I just poked around on your lovely site. I hope you're feeling well.

Katerina - Thank you!

Plum - Thanks, my dear! Oooo, you're right that this cake is great for the mail. It's sturdy and, well wrapped, I bet it might even get better after 2-3 days... Brilliant!

Isabelle Hulm said...

I saw this photo of your baby girl and the first thing I thought was: "The face of an angel." Wow.

I see you haven't posted for a while, hope you're okay. xxx