So, this is seriously the most grown-up birthday cake I’ve ever made. There is brandy and coffee and dark, bittersweet chocolate. My sister turned 30 recently–30! And it’s sort of odd for me, because she’s had her life in order for so long that I have thought of her as a 30something year old for quite some time now.
Oh, look, it’s the essentials. Hey, essentials. This part, the white cake layers, is pretty standard. You could probably just use your favorite white cake recipe, because the magic of this one is in the other stuff. I would not explicitly recommend using a boxed mix either, but… You’re a grown person. Maybe you’re even 30 years old. I do not judge (yes I do, but I’ll shut it).
So, yeah, this is where you end up.
And then, through the magic of chemistry and an oven, here we are. (Here we’re? Nobody says that. That makes me want to say it.)
Then, things get interesting and a bit more complicated with the cake assembly and all. Specifically, we make espresso extract (which is really just super strong coffee sludge) and espresso syrup, which is sugar, water and some of the other stuff. One was made from the other–that’s how the universe works. The extract is used to flavor the syrup as well as your frosting.
I couldn’t find espresso powder on such short notice to make the extract with (also, I accidentally went to Napa Sonoma instead of Williams Sonoma, but that’s a whole another problem o’ mine). Instant coffee worked just fine… I had a little jar of it at work, because sometimes things just get that desperate over there. You don’t wanna know.
The frosting is probably one of my favorite frostings ever. (I have trouble conveying enthusiasm, but trust me, I like it a lot!) It’s perfect: not to sweet, and it holds up very well. Cream cheese does wonders to a frosting, and Italian mascarpone is just the right touch for this cake.
My other favorite thing is the shaved chocolate layer. This should go in other cakes, most definitely. I don’t know why this isn’t happening on a grander scale. There’s texture and crunch and visual interest… And chocolate. Right in between your cake layers.
Soak them layers generously with the espresso syrup. I didn’t do this, but you may want to poke little holes all over with a skewer or fork. And don’t be shy! That cake is THIRSTY. Aren’t you, little fella?
There it is–the chocolate layer. I’ve got all sorts of ideas now. Separate milk chocolate and mini marshmallow layers for a s’mores cake? Tell me that’s not a good idea. Or you could just skip the telling part and stop being my friend right now… But then I’ll be left confused. So yeah, you’d better tell me.
I worried about frosting this, but it wasn’t too bad. It’s a good idea generally, but especially with this cake (with all its crumbs and bits of chocolate flying about), to frost it with a thin first layer to catch all the crumbs and even things out. Stick that in the freezer until firmish, about 10 minutes, then put on the pretty layer. Keeps things neat.
To make the pattern, I cut some strips of wax paper and laid them on top, then shaved chocolate over the whole thing before carefully peeling the strips off. Of course, you could dust with cocoa powder too. It doesn’t have to look perfect–we’re all adults here. We know good things don’t have to be covered in perfect neon-colored buttercream. Then we have more champagne.
For the cake:
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 teaspoons =vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk
For the espresso extract:
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder or instant coffee
2 tablespoons boiling water
For the espresso syrup:
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon amaretto, Kahlua or brandy (I used brandy)
For the filling and frosting:
1 8-ounce container mascarpone
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon amaretto, Kahlua or brandy (I used brandy)
1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped, plus more for shaving on top of cake
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter two 8-inch cake pans (I used square ones). Line with parchment paper, butter the paper and dust pans with flour, tapping out the excess.
Sift your flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl.
In a large bowl (using a handheld or stand mixer), beat the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs and the yolk one at a time, followed by the vanilla. Lower the speed and beat in the dry ingredients and buttermilk (add the dry ingredients in three additions and buttermilk in two, starting and ending with dry ingredients). Pour the batter into the prepared pans, smoothing the tops.
Bake in preheated oven for 28 to 30 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 5-10 minutes, then transfer out of the pans onto cooling racks and cool completely.
Meanwhile, make the espresso extract by stirring together the espresso powder or instant coffee with water. Set it aside in the fridge.
To make the syrup, mix the water and sugar in a small saucepan over high heat just until boiling. Transfer to a cup and stir in 1 tablespoon of the espresso extract and the Kahlua/brandy/amaretto. Set this aside in the fridge also.
For the filling/frosting, beat (or just stir) the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla and Kahlua/brandy/amaretto until thoroughly combined. In a separate bowl, whip the heavy cream to stiff peaks. With a rubber spatula, gently fold in the whipped cream into the mascarpone mixture.
Now… Assemble yourself a cake. Place one of the layers on a cake board of some sort, and soak the layer with roughly 1/3 of the espresso syrup (you can use a pastry brush, or just carefully pour or spoon the syrup). Spread about 1 cup of the prepared mascarpone filling over that layer (I was feeling paranoid about not having enough and scrimped a bit–but don’t be like me. There was plenty left!). Sprinkle the chopped chocolate over the filling and gently press in. Soak the down side of the second layer with the second 1/3 of the syrup, then place it carefully over the chopped chocolate, soaked side down. Use the rest of the syrup to soak the top of the top layer.
Gently whisk 1-2 tablespoons of the remaining espresso extract into the rest of your frosting (taste as you add it). Smooth the frosting over the cake with an icing spatula (you may want to do this in two layers, as described above). Refrigerate the cake, covered, overnight or at least a few hours. Dust with cocoa powder or chocolate shavings, or otherwise decorate as desired, just before serving.