March 11, 2003
Birthday Cake
posted by Nadia

It's Carl's birthday today. He's pretty old.

I wanted to make something special for him, dessert-wise ... you know, break out of the typical flourless chocolate cake mold. My Aunt Lialia, at whose house we typically celebrate Ukrainian Christmas, is a wonderful cook, and she makes a cake that I think is fantastic. It's referred to as French Cake, and is a decadent cake with layers of buttercream, apricot jam, and crisp, flaky dough. It's hard to describe, but the overall impression is very refined and classy, the sort of thing you'd have alongside a goblet of dessert wine. [Did I mention I bought ice wine for today as well? More on that later.] I don't know where the recipe originates, but it's obviously a special-occasion cake for folks with enough disposable income to buy and use nearly two pounds of butter in one recipe. Plus, it takes all day to make. This may sound excessive (and maybe it is), but the results are well worth it.

I served this cake with a Blue Mountain Vineyard 2001 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine. Blue Mountain (a Pennsylvania winery) has recently opened a shop in Reading Terminal Market that sells about 20 or 30 of their own wines. They offer tastings, which are very helpful for those of us skeptical about Pennsylvania wine. The ice wine was lovely -- sweet and deep, with an apricot flavor that was a perfect match for Aunt Lialia's cake.

Aunt Lialia's "French Cake"
Read the whole recipe through before starting!
Set aside a whole day!
Do not make this unless you are truly committed!

Step 1: The Dough

3+ c. flour
1/2 lb. butter
1+ Tb. vegetable shortening
3 yolks
1/2 pint heavy cream

In a food processor (you may need to do this in two batches), process the flour, butter, and crisco until pebbly. One at a time, add yolks; then add heavy cream. Turn out the dough (which should resemble pie crust dough) into a log shape and wrap it in cling film; refrigerate until cold. When it's cold, divide the log of dough into 8 equal portions and flatten each into a small round. Refrigerate these rounds for a good long while, preferably overnight.

When you're ready to bake, roll out each round of dough into an 8- or 9-inch circle on a sheet of parchment, dock with a fork, and bake the circles one by one on the parchment in a 400-degree oven (the others can wait in the fridge). My aunt was very specific about baking them one by one, and I'll bet it has something to do with oven heat consistency, etc. If you want to try baking more than one at a time, you're welcome to -- but you alone are responsible for the results! Each circle should bake for approximately 8-10 minutes (use your judgment), until it is crisp and light golden. You want some color, but not too much. Take them out and put them on a cooling rack until absolutely cool. Be careful, because they're delicate.

Step 2: The Icing

While you are baking the individual circles, you can set about making the buttercream icing. In the meantime, set out 1 lb. of butter in a very large bowl, so that it can soften to room temperature.

Then, in a sturdy and big saucepan, heat up:
1 Tb. butter
4 c. whole milk
1 lb. confectioner's sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

Cook this "caramel" over low heat for an hour or more, or until the color changes very slightly and the mixture thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the vanilla bean and let the misxture sit on the counter until it cools to room temperature. When it's cool (and it must be cool! But do not put it in the fridge!), add it very slowly to the pound of butter sitting in a bowl on your counter while beating with an elexctric mixer. After a while, you should have a huge bowl of buttercream frosting.

Step 3: Assembly

You should probably have a cake stand for this, or something to lift your cake above the countertop so as not to make a mess. I turned a cake pan upside down and built my cake on top of this.

In addition to your 8 circles of dough and your icing, you should have a bunch of apricot jam. If you want to get very fancy and make the cake a little more refined, mix the jam with a bunch of dried apricots that you have steamed and then chopped into bitty pieces.

Also -- if one of your circles of dough is broken, worry not! Stick it in a Ziploc and mash it up into crumblets. If, on the other hand, you are perfect like Martha Stewart and all your circles are intact, now is the time for you to wish you hadn't been quite so careful, because you are required to crumble up one circle anyway!

Ok. So now you should have 7 circles, a bunch of icing, some apricot jam, and a bag of crumbs. First, put some icing on your stand/plate/platter/pedestal so the first cake layer sticks to it. On top of layer 1, spread the buttercream. Then layer 2, then jam. Then layer 3, then buttercream. And so on and so forth. Your 7th layer of cake should be topped with most of the rest of your buttercream, which should also be spread lovingly on the sides of the cake so it looks wonderful. This may be hard if all your circles are not the same size; it will require a little more icing. Finally, you can press the reserved crumbs onto the sides of the cake for a little textural variety.

Before eating, you should probably refrigerate the cake for a few minutes so it sets, but not so long that it gets entirely hard. Serve with fancy dessert wine and watch your guest of honor swoon.

[Also, this cake ends up really big. If you like, you can cut it in half and freeze part -- my aunt says the cake freezes very well].