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Last weekend, I baked three birthday cakes. One of my mother’s oldest friends was turning 65, and when she mentioned that she was going to order the cake for her birthday party from a bakery, I had to object. People, when I turn 65 someone better bake me a homemade cake, is all I am saying. I think the very least someone deserves for hitting such a fine age with style is a friend, elbows-deep in flour, frosting and devotion.

So I volunteered myself, and I knew exactly what I wanted to make. I had seen this utterly insane and therefore completely and totally awesome cake on Leite’s a couple months ago. It involved all of the best things on earth: a pistachio layer cake, thin ribbons of jam, sheets of marzipan and bitter-chocolate ganache filling and coating. It had marzipan flowers on top, with a trail of pistachios simulating leaves. It was the prettiest things I have ever seen.

pistachio cake batter

But as we got to discussing what would work for her party, we decided to go another route, one that would ensure there would be something for everyone, and in a move that everyone I know still considers utterly insane, I offered to bake three: one Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake (I doubled it, filled and coated it with ganache), one Tiramisu Cake and one Perfect Party Cake from Dorie Greenspan (don’t worry, I’ll get to this one soon). What can I say? I imagined three square cakes lined up on their stands, and the cuteness was almost too much to bear.

Astoundingly, we made it to the party on time with all three cakes intact–and even managed to score a parking space right in front of the Upper West Side apartment building, making for the easiest cake-delivery, ever. But I forgot my camera, something I might kick myself for until the end of time. [P.S. The cakes were a hit!]

pistachio cake cooling

So why am I telling you about this today? Because I couldn’t get the pistachio-marzipan-chocolate cake out of my mind. And my birthday was last week. And I wanted that cake, and that cake only. I bided my time until Sunday, when we’d see our families for Father’s Day and SantaDad’s birthday, not to mention my mother (the ultimate marzipan fanatic). And though the cake decorating session I commenced at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday night was the grimiest, messiest, most gummed-counter one yet, I have to say: this puts last year’s birthday cake to shame.

rolling marzipanmarzipan layerapricot layerganache layerglazing the fin

Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne modeled this cake after European petits fours glacees, those pretty, tiny, complicated things composed of cake layers and jams, covered in fondant, marzipan, chocolate or glaze, always with a piped flower on top. This is my kind of baking. I loved how elaborate the cake was, such a welcome change from the generic layers plus butter cream readily available. I can’t wait to see what else is in the book. But really–because who are we kidding here–I can’t wait to try the leftover slice in the fridge tonight.


Pistachio Petit Four Cake

Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes via Leite’s Culinaria

Look, I don’t need to tell you that this cake is a little insane to make. But I can tell you it’s worth it, and not nearly as complicated as it might seem from the outset. It’s a one bowl (plus food processor) cake, the jam comes from a jar, ganache takes two minutes to make, and next time, I’d probably just buy the marzipan from a tube, already made, rather than making my own from almond paste.

For the cake

3/4 cup skinned pistachio nuts

1 2/3 cups sugar

2 cups cake flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

5 eggs, lightly beaten

For the marzipan

8 ounces almond paste

1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

For the dark ganache glaze

1 pound extra-bittersweet chocolate

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup apricot preserves

Marzipan roses for decoration (optional; see note)

Make the cake

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Butter three 8-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper.

2. Spread out the pistachios in a baking pan and toast in the oven for 7 to 10 minutes, or until lightly colored. Transfer to a dish and let cool completely. Finely chop the pistachios and set 1/4 cup aside for decoration.

3. Put the remaining 1/2 cup pistachios in a food processor. Add the sugar and pulse just enough to grind them finely.

4. Pour into a large mixing bowl and add the flour, baking powder, and salt. Blend with the mixer on low for 30 seconds. Add the butter, milk, and vanilla and, with the mixer on low, beat until completely incorporated.

5. Raise the speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the beaten eggs in 2 or 3 additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl well and mixing only long enough to blend after each addition. Divide the batter among the 3 prepared pans.

6. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the layers to cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Turn out onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely.

Make the marzipan

1. Crumble the almond paste into a large mixing bowl. Use an electric mixer on low speed to soften the almond paste. Add the confectioners’ sugar and corn syrup and beat until smooth. Wrap well in plastic so it doesn’t dry out, and allow to rest at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours before rolling out.

Make the dark ganache glaze

1. Chop the chocolate coarsely and put it in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to a bare simmer. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let stand for 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth and use the glaze soon after making so that it doesn’t set.

Assemble the cake

1. Roll out a third of the marzipan on a work surface dusted with a little confectioners’ sugar to about 1/8-inch thickness.

2. Set one of the cake pans upside down on the marzipan and trim around it with a small knife to make an 8-inch round. Repeat two more times with the remaining marzipan. Save all your scraps to make roses for decoration, if you like.

3. Place one cake layer on a cake board, flat side up. Spread 1/4 cup of the preserves evenly over the top, leaving a 1/4-inch margin all around. Place one marzipan round on top of the preserves and spread 1/3 cup of the Dark Ganache Glaze over the marzipan so that it completely covers the surface. Repeat with the second cake layer, adding more preserves, another round of marzipan, and more ganache glaze. Top the cake with the third layer. Spread the last of the apricot preserves over the top of the cake and cover it with the last round of marzipan.

4. Place the cake on a wire cooling rack that is nesting in a baking pan. Pour the remaining ganache glaze over the cake, in several additions, spreading to coat the top and sides. Allow the ganache to set. Garnish the cake with the reserved chopped toasted pistachio nuts and a single marzipan rose or several smaller roses.

Note: To make marzipan roses

1. First, tint the marzipan, if desired, by kneading in a tiny amount of paste food coloring, dabbing just a small bit onto the marzipan with the tip of a toothpick. Flatten the tinted marzipan into a disk and roll out on a work surface dusted with confectioners’ sugar or between 2 sheets of waxed paper to a sheet 1/8 inch thick.

2. With a 1 1/2-inch round cookie cutter, cut out 8 or 9 circles. Cover all the marzipan you are not using immediately with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out.

3. Roll one piece of marzipan into a ball the size of a marble and pinch with your fingers to shape into a cone about 1 to 1 1/4 inches high, tapering to a fine point at the top.

4. Take another round of marzipan and wrap it like a petal around the cone, pinching it at the bottom to adhere and at the top to thin and ruffle slightly like a flower. Repeat with the remaining “petals,” overlapping slightly as you work your way around. If necessary, use a little water to help glue the marzipan in place.

Some Prep and Travel Tips

The more cakes I make, the more I get back to the basics I learned when I worked in a bakery in high school. Previously, I never thought that all of those “extra” things they did applied to the home baker; I was wrong.

First, I baked the cake itself a few days in advance, flash-froze them, wrapped each layer in three sheets of plastic wrap, and decorated it, still frozen. This made them very easy to maneuver, and saved me from the chaos that would be baking and decorating in one session. (It also saved us the mighty inferno of last weekend’s weather. By the time the heatwave hit, I’d already had all the cakes baked, THANK GOD.) Wrapped well, you can freeze cakes for up to a month and nobody would ever know upon tasting the final product.

Second, I finally started using cake boards, or those cardboard rounds about 1-inch wider in diameter than the cake. Bakeries use them for a reason: they protect the sides of the cake when it is boxed up. They also make it very easy to transfer the cake from box to plate. You can line them with a shiny foil paper or a doily. Having tried both, I think I prefer the former.

Third, I’m finally slipping some scraps of waxed paper under the cake, protecting the board from my decorating messes. Yes, I know this is Cake Decorating 101 material, but my laziness always won out in the past.

Finally, I didn’t even bother trying to use my cake carrier. I simply bought three boxes from a local bakery (they give them to us for about $2 each, the smartest money we spend.) Hearkening back to my bakery days, I tied them with bakery string, the honest-to-god easiest way to carry a boxed cake, while keeping it balanced. In a pinch, you can even stack the boxes (rotating each one slightly, so their sides cross the corners of the box below), though I don’t recommend this for any extended period of time.

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