It was dad’s special day, his birthday that is, and I wanted to make something that reminded him of our family trip to Italy. I remember him raving about the tiramisu we ate in Venice and I quickly dove into my cookbooks for some inspiration.
I didn’t have to search very long. Dorie Greenspan’s recipe, from her book ‘Baking from My Home to Yours’, was calling out to me. It was a tiramisu cake, and soon the other cookbooks faded to the background with this one stealing the spotlight. Needless to say, my interest was piqued.
Kissed with a light sweetness, the cream enriched mascarpone filling sandwiches two buttery layer cakes which mimic the role of the golden ladyfingers. Espresso spiked syrup is brushed over the layers to give the flavour profile a slight edge and shadow of bitterness.
The mascarpone is topped with shaved chocolate for a crunchy texture. The entire process is repeated, as with a traditional tiramisu, and the exterior of the cake is enrobed with more of the rich frosting. Shaved chocolate is sprinkled over the top and the cake is dusted with cocoa to complete the vision of beauty.
I upped the ante by adorning the sides of the cake with tiramisu flavoured wafer rolls. A pretty little bow bound the cake together and all that was left was to sing Happy Birthday!
When he saw it, Dad appeared quite pleased, and although he’s man of few words, he spoke with his eyes which twinkled with the wide-eyed delight. He looked like a child who was in anxious anticipation to taste this sweet treat; something made especially for him.
Cakes in our house usually last about a week before all the contents are finally devoured. This one was gobbled up in two days. I think its safe to surmise that he liked my cake.
Some lingering impressions: This is the perfect cake to serve to an adult crowd; it’s not too sweet, and mature in flavour combinations due to all the layering. The beauty of this creation is the harmonious interplay between all the components: the mascarpone, espresso syrup (+ booze!), and cake layers. The layers need to be assembled the evening before and given a good rest in the fridge to let the flavours meld together. The result is a tender cake with pockets of espresso spiked liquid and a creamy brightness from the mascarpone. As always, my notes and comments are in italics.
For the cake layers:
2 cups cake flour (couldn’t find any cake flour by itself. Used cake and pastry flour instead. It worked fine)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt (table salt is fine)
1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs (room temperature)
1 large egg yolk (room temperature)
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk (room temperature)
For the espresso extract: (the extract is divided and used in both the syrup and the frosting/filling, so make sure you read the directions through before starting)
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
2 tablespoons boiling water
For the espresso syrup:
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon amaretto, Kahlua, or brandy (I used Disaronno amaretto and upped the amount to 3-4 tbsp)
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 Disaronno amaretto)
1 cup cold heavy cream
2 1/2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped, or about 1/2 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips (I used a dark chocolate Lindt bar with 55% cocoa solids)
Chocolate-covered espresso beans, for decoration (optional) (I used tiramisu wafer rolls instead)
Cocoa powder, for dusting
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9×2 inch round cake pans, dust the insides with flour, tap out the excess, and line the bottoms of the pans with parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.
To make the cake:
Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat for another 3 minutes. Add the eggs one by one, and then the yolk, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla; don’t be concerned if the mixture looks curdled. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, adding the dry ingredients in 3 additions and the milk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients); scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed and mix only until the ingredients disappear into the batter. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.
Bake for 28 to 30 minutes (took mine out at 24 minutes.. be careful not to overbake), rotating the pans at the midway point. When fully baked, the cakes will be golden and springy to the touch and a thin knife inserted into the centers will come out clean. Transfer the cakes to a rack and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them, and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right-side up.
To make the extract:
Stir the espresso powder and boiling water together in a small cup until blended. Set aside.
To make the syrup:
Stir the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and bring just to a boil. Pour the syrup into a small heatproof bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon (or more. I wanted to boozy flavour to shine through more) of the espresso extract and the liqueur or brandy; set aside.
To make the filling and frosting:
Put the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla, and liqueur in a large bowl and whisk just until blended and smooth.
Working with the stand mixer with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, whip the heavy cream until it holds firm peaks. Switch to a rubber spatula and stir about one quarter of the whipped cream into the mascarpone. Fold in the rest of the whipped cream with a light touch.
To assemble the cake:
If the tops of the cake layers have crowned, use a long serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even them. (you can always save these cake crumbs. I use mine for cheesecake crusts) Place one layer right-side up on a cardboard round or a cake plate protected with strips of wax or parchment paper. Using a pastry brush or a small spoon, soak the layer with about one third of the espresso syrup. Smooth some of the mascarpone cream over the layer – use about 1 1/4 cups – and gently press the chopped chocolate into the filling. Put the second cake layer on the counter and soak the top of it with half the remaining espresso syrup, then turn the layer over and position it, soaked side down, over the filling. Soak the top of the cake with the remaining syrup.
For the frosting, whisk 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of the remaining espresso extract into the remaining mascarpone filling. Taste the frosting as you go to decide how much extract you want to add (I added it all). If the frosting looks as if it might be a little too soft to spread over the cake, press a piece of plastic wrap against its surface and refrigerate it for 15 minutes or so. Refrigerate the cake too.
With a long metal icing spatula, smooth the frosting around the sides of the cake and over the top. If you want to decorate the cake with chocolate-covered espresso beans, press them into the filling, making concentric circles of beans or just putting some beans in the center of the cake.
Refrigerate the cake for at least 3 hours (or for up to 1 day) (I chose to refrigerate it for a day. This cake tastes better with age) before serving – the elements need time to meld.
Just before serving, dust the top of the cake with cocoa.
Yield: 10 servings