Chances are, your earliest kitchen memory involves a cake mix, a set of beaters, and an ungodly amount of store-bought frosting, most of which you ended up either eating or wearing. Eventually, one must forsake childhood things like licking the bowl and devouring huge hunks of cake slathered with icing . . . or not. Suddenly, old-fashioned layer cakes are back in fashion, whisked out of the revolving display case and onto some of New York's most sophisticated dessert menus, alongside the precious plated micro-sweets and nouvelle novelties. We tasted our way to the top three, each luscious enough to crack the staunchest "just a sliver" resolve. And we discovered that chefs were young once, too. One man's madeleine is another man's lemon-meringue--especially if he grew up in Kentucky. "Meringue is big down there," says Eli's chef Scott Bieber, who lavishes layers of yellow cake with a tart lemon curd and browns the Swiss meringue shell with a blow torch. Ruby Foo's was the unlikely source for our all-American chocolate layer cake, a moist, rich classic oozing with eggs, butter, and sour cream. And Wayne Harley Brachman's hazelnut-praline masterpiece at Strip House is chock-full of nuts and spiked with Frangelico, a boon for the inveterate bowl-licker. There is such a thing as an adults-only batter after all.
Hazelnut-Praline Layer Cake
WAYNE HARLEY BRACHMAN
MICHAEL JORDAN'S THE STEAK HOUSE NYC
THE STRIP HOUSE
2 cups cake flour
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 and 1/4 cups sugar
3 large eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup Frangelico
1/2 cup roasted, skinned, and finely chopped hazelnuts (roasted in a 350-degree oven for 6 minutes, then chopped; roasted-hazelnut flour can be substituted)
1 and 1/4 cups sugar
4 large egg whites
Pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup praline paste or filbert paste (available from New York Cake & Baking Center, 56 West 22nd Street)
3/4 cup roasted, skinned, and coarsely chopped hazelnuts
Cake: Set a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 375 degrees. Lightly coat two 9-inch cake pans with nonstick vegetable spray. Line the bottom of each pan with a circle of baking parchment. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together three times. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter and sugar at high speed for 15 seconds, until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until each is incorporated. Continue beating on high until light and fluffy, about 6 minutes more.
With the mixer on its lowest setting, beat in a third of the flour mixture. Beat in half the buttermilk and all the Frangelico, then the hazelnuts and another third of the flour mixture. Beat in the remaining buttermilk and then the remaining flour. Spread the batter in the prepared pans and bake about 20 to 25 minutes, until cake is golden brown and the center springs back when lightly pressed and a cake tester comes out clean. Set the pans on a rack to cool. Turn out the cakes when cool enough to handle. (If the cakes are refrigerated for 2 hours at this stage, they will be easier to handle and frost.)
Praline buttercream: Put 1/2 cup water and the sugar in a small saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer. Over high heat, bring the temperature to 240 degrees (soft-ball stage). In the meantime, in the completely clean and dry bowl of an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar until creamy, foamy, and barely able to hold very soft peaks. With the mixer running on slow, carefully drizzle in the hot syrup. Continue to whisk on high speed until mixture is fluffy, firm, and cooled to room temperature; gradually beat in the butter and then the praline paste. When the cakes are cold, trim the tops with a large serrated knife. Split each cake into two layers. Spread a 1/4-inch layer of the buttercream between each layer. Frost the outside of the cake with the remaining buttercream, and then coat the sides of the cake with the chopped hazelnuts.
Optional: Decorate top of cake with whole hazelnuts, blackberries, or raspberries to form a row around the edge.
Chocolate Layer Cake
1 pound butter, softened, plus extra for cake pans
1 and 1/2 cups cake flour plus extra for cake pans
3 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate (good-quality, preferably Valrhona)
6 and 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (good quality, preferably Valrhona)
2 and 3/4 cups granulated sugar
10 eggs, 2 whole and 8 separated
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
14 ounces sour cream
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
4 cups chocolate icing (recipe below)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Butter and flour three 9-inch-diameter cake pans. In a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water or in the microwave, melt the two chocolates together, then set the bowl aside. With an electric mixer, beat the butter and 2 cups sugar until they're light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the 2 whole eggs and 8 egg yolks, vanilla, and sour cream and continue beating until well blended. In another bowl, mix together the cocoa and baking soda, then whisk in 3/4 cup hot water until the mixture is smooth. Add the melted chocolates, then the cocoa mixture, to the batter in the mixer bowl. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt and fold into the batter. Whip the egg whites in a large bowl until frothy, then add the remaining 3/4 cup sugar, a little at a time, until the whites reach soft peaks; do not overbeat. Whisk a little of the beaten whites into the batter until well blended, then fold in the remaining whites. Pour the batter into the three prepared pans and bake for about 50 to 60 minutes or until the top is springy and the cake begins to separate from the sides of the pan. Unmold onto a wire rack and cool. Level the surface of each cake; spread a layer of chocolate icing between each layer of cake and frost the outside of the cake with the remaining icing. Decorate with chocolate shavings if desired.
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (good-quality, preferably Valrhona)
1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream
8 ounces granulated sugar
3/4 cup egg whites (about 6 large eggs)
12 ounces butter, softened
Place the chocolate in a bowl. Bring the cream to a boil in a saucepan and pour over the chocolate, stirring until the chocolate has melted. Set aside in a cool place to set. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar with 1/2 cup water and cook over high heat until the syrup reaches soft-ball stage (240 degrees on a candy thermometer; a spoonful dropped in ice water should form a ball when rolled between the fingers).
Meanwhile, whisk the whites in the bowl of an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Gradually pour in the hot sugar syrup, and continue beating until the meringue cools to room temperature. Whip the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer with the chocolate-cream mixture until it's light and fluffy. Fold in the meringue, and use immediately.
9 egg yolks (reserve the whites for Swiss meringue recipe below)
1 cup lemon juice
1 cup sugar
4 ounces butter (1 stick)
1 cup softened butter (2 sticks) plus extra for the cake pans
3 cups all-purpose flour plus extra for the cake pans
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 cups sugar
6 whole eggs
1 cup milk
2 cups egg whites, reserved from lemon curd
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Lemon curd: Combine all the ingredients in a double boiler set over medium heat. Bring the water barely to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens (it should reach 130 to 140 degrees, and it should form a thick coating on the back of a spoon). Pour into a nonreactive container to cool; cover and refrigerate. The curd will thicken as it cools. (May be made up to a week ahead and kept refrigerated.)
Cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Sift the flour and baking powder together. Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle, and cream together on high speed until white and fluffy, about 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined (do not overbeat). Add the flour mixture and milk alternately in several batches. Mix until thoroughly combined, taking care not to overbeat.
Pour batter into cake pans, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the cakes are golden around the edges and the center springs back from the touch or a toothpick comes out clean.
Swiss meringue: Place egg whites, sugar, and lemon juice in a mixing bowl, and place the bowl over a simmering water bath, making sure the water remains hot but not boiling. Whisk on medium speed until the mixture is warm and the sugar crystals have dissolved. Continue whisking for 10 minutes. Transfer the meringue to a food mixer, and continue whisking on medium speed for 15 minutes, until meringue is thick.
Assembly: Slice each cake in half horizontally to form four layers, and spread the lemon curd between them. Using a spatula, spread a thin layer of meringue over the entire cake. Pile the remaining meringue on top until it's tall and pretty. To serve, slice and garnish with candied citrus rinds.
Optional: Light a small kitchen blowtorch and very quickly move the flame over the cake until the meringue is just lightly browned, taking care not to burn. (The cake will last for 12 hours if it is not browned, for 2 days in the refrigerator if it is.)