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Height of fashion

Layer cakes are more fabulous than ever. The surprise? They're simple to make.

October 18, 2006|Amy Scattergood | Times Staff Writer

MAYBE because she's too busy partying in her Manolo Blahnik shoes, punk princess Marie Antoinette, as conceived by filmmaker Sofia Coppola, never offers cake to the angry rabble. But she does put away a lot of it -- and it's easy to see why. Birthday parties, holiday soirees, coronations: They're all perfect occasions for a good layer cake.

Rising tiers of delicate genoise layered with ethereal French butter cream -- imagine cirrus clouds caught between fine-crumb strata -- make for glorious culinary architecture. A layer cake is a celebration in sugar. And, unlike many other high maintenance accouterments of civilization (ball gowns, say, or multistoried powdered wigs), you don't need a team of experts to accomplish it.

Deconstructed, their seemingly intricate parts disassembled and laid out, layer cakes are really pretty simple things. Sure, most of us have a little bad cake history: warped and sliding layers, icing filled with crumbs, the occasional dry and flavorless cake. But, unlike the ill-fated house of Bourbon, we can overcome that history with a handful of sly tips.

The right basic cake recipes -- one for a white cake, another for a chocolate -- and the right kind of frosting -- French butter cream -- are the foundation. Then, you'll need a few simple techniques borrowed from the pros: brushing the cake layers with simple syrup (which allows you to riff flavors as well as keep your cake wonderfully moist); using a simple tool, the cake leveler, to make perfectly even layers; and briefly freezing the cake layers for easier frosting. Voila! You don't need a palace pastry chef to make a confection fit for a king. Or a queen.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Layer cakes: An Oct. 18 article on layer cakes included a recipe for basic genoise that called for 4 ounces (half a stick) unsalted butter. Four ounces of butter is one stick. In the recipe for French butter cream, the point at which the vanilla extract should be added was omitted from the directions. It should be added at the beginning of step 5. For the corrected recipes, please go to latimes.com/food.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Layer cakes: In the Oct. 18 Food section, an article on layer cakes included a recipe for basic genoise that called for 4 ounces (half a stick) unsalted butter. Four ounces of butter is one stick. In the recipe for French butter cream, the point at which the vanilla extract should be added was omitted from the directions. It should be added at the beginning of step 5. For the corrected recipes, please go to latimes.com/food.

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Three key ingredients

AS with any architecture, the key to a successful layer cake is the building materials. Start with a cake recipe that you can use over and over again, one that can stand up to cutting and stacking and can be adapted to many methods and flavors.

Most layer cakes are made with either a standard genoise (also known as a sponge cake) or a creamed butter cake. A genoise, which relies on whipped eggs for its volume and is composed of essentially equal parts sugar, flour and eggs, is often the basic foundation for everything from birthday cakes to traditional tortes to wedding cakes. Unlike a heavier, richer butter cake, it stores well and can make different concoctions such as a raspberry-studded cake with white chocolate frosting or a coffee-flavored cake with mocha butter cream.

Because of this versatility, it's worth taking the time to master a genoise recipe you like. For the recipe here, The Times Test Kitchen spent two days making cakes, testing recipe after recipe from classic and current cookbooks until we settled on this variant of a recipe I used in culinary school. It's a quintessential genoise, made with a little butter.

A note about genoise cakes: They're very simple cakes, relying on equal parts of the three ingredients with the optional addition of melted butter. But many cookbooks, perhaps because they've been adapted from old European recipes that rely on measuring by weight, often get the amounts wrong. The eggs, sugar and cake flour need to be in equal proportions by weight, not volume. So though a cup of sugar and a cup of cake flour may seem comparatively equal, by weight they're almost 2 to 1.

The lesson? If you're trying out a new recipe, weigh your components first: If the three major ingredients don't come out to roughly the same weight, reconsider your recipe.

If you're going the chocolate route, however, you want a somewhat richer foundation than a genoise. Although you can make a chocolate genoise (just sift in cocoa with the flour), the result will be a light, airy cake with a subtle chocolate flavor. And who wants subtle with chocolate?

So we've used a recipe from "Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts," the classic paean to chocolate baking reissued this year on the 25th anniversary of its publication. Dense, rich and chocolatey, this cake is still light enough for layering.

Whether you use a genoise or a chocolate butter cake, the best frosting for layering is not necessarily the thickest or the richest or the one you pile onto cupcakes. You want a frosting that not only can hold up to construction, but specifically aids in it. One that's adaptive and can act as both decoration and mortar. In other words, you want butter cream. French butter cream.

Unlike frostings made with whipped cream or meringue, French butter cream can be reused and re-whipped to accommodate the vicissitudes of cake assembly. Whip egg yolks with hot sugar syrup and butter for a very rich frosting that is also extremely light and malleable. You can flavor it, adding melted chocolate or coffee or any number of extracts or liqueurs; you can color it or leave it plain. And unless the weather's very hot, it's extremely stable.

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