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.)