Carl Sagan once said making a cake from scratch meant first creating the whole Universe. From a strictly astrophysical point of view that’s beyond valid. From culinary, it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s sad that most people don’t need a famous astronomer to dissuade them from trying it. They seem to think cake-making is like stem cell cultivation and any attempt to do it in your own kitchen is painfully dangerous and slightly immoral.
As many of you know, poor Marie Antoinette even lost her head trying to convince people cake was totally affordable. What a brave young woman she was!
So there you go – wherever you find cakes, you can also find a lot of fear, dashed hopes, missed opportunities, regret and just a little bit more blood than necessary. I’m sure that hits the right spot in your stomach, so let’s begin.
Dough ingredients: 5 eggs, 1 teacup of sugar, 1 teacup of flour, backing powder, vanilla
Jam ingredients: plums, sugar, water
Syrup ingredients: sugar, water, vanilla, milk
Icing: vanilla cream, a chocolate bar (a standard, ~120 g one)
Optional: cocoa powder, cinnamon, raw ground coffee, lemon zest
Whisk the eggs, then slowly add the sugar while you continue to beat the mixture. Be merciless, the more air bubbles you are able to produce the finer your cake will be. Add the baking powder, the vanilla and the flour and continue to mix until everything becomes silky smooth.
Pour in a cake pan and bake in a preheated oven for about 10-15 minutes at 180-200 degrees.
Remove from the oven, let it cool for a while and slice in two even layers. One very convenient way to slice a sponge cake is by using a wet thread instead of a knife. If you feel insecure, you may split the dough in 2 even parts before pouring it into the cake pan and then bake each part separately one after the other. The only disadvantage of this method is that it doubles the time for preparation and the number of pans you will have to use and – subsequently – wash.
Let’s make some jam
Let’s bust another myth. The one that says jam is made by forest nymphs at full Moon. Jam is so easy to make it’s practically offensive. Cut some fresh plums, the amount varies but it would be good if you could cover the surface of a standard frying pan. Before you put the plums in it, add about 6 teaspoons of sugar and let them melt. Mix with a large cooking spoon to help the sugar spread evenly on the surface and be careful, sugar melts easily but also burns easily. Add the plums. Stir well and add a little bit of water. Leave everything to boil for about 10 minutes. Check periodically and continue adding water if needed. Remember, warm jam is more viscous than cold one, so don’t expect it to reach the same thickness while on fire because if it does, when it cools down you’ll end up with a pan full of clay.
Remember, you can always buy plum jam from the supermarket but if you do, you will betray me. And when you do, I will appear in your nightmares to chase you relentlessly. I will pass through walls, sneak in through keyholes, follow you in the shower. You don’t want that to happen. So let’s move on.
Making things juicy
Now that you have 2 delicious sponge cake layers and some jam, it’s time to make ’em soak some extra sweetness. And because I am slightly detail-oriented (thank you Steve Jobs, may you rest in iPad Heaven), I like to use 2 separate sauces for each layer. Before you start sprinkling goodness, it’s a good idea to actually place the first layer on the actual plate you intend to keep the cake until it gets fully eaten.
For the bottom layer I use simply milk. That’s exactly how you heard it – milk, no additives, no sugar, no flavorings and certainly no words like “skimmed” attached. I can’t tell you the exact amount needed because there is no universal formula. Just use your best judgement and remember, cakes don’t taste very good if they are dry.
The reason why I use only milk is because after the layer is wet enough, I will spread the plum jam and a large portion of the jam’s sugar will leak down. You are free not to follow my advice and sweeten the milk but don’t come back complaining when you catch diabetes. So spread the jam evenly over the bottom layer. If it’s still too hot, waiting a little bit would help you spread it better. As a rule, you should be able to touch it with your fingers without feeling any discomfort. After you’re done, put the second layer on top.
For the top layer I use vanilla flavored caramel syrup, which is very easy to prepare. Just put several teaspoons of sugar to caramelize, pour some water after it starts to glitter like gold and add few drops of vanilla flavor. Again, wait a bit and let it cool because if you pour it boiling, it will turn the silky spongy cake into a coarse creamy paste. And if you do that at this stage, you better go and kill yourself because everything you made so far would be in vain.
Breathe deeply, we’re almost over.
Icing the gorgeousness
The final hours of the struggle! Okay, to speed things up, I won’t force you to make an icing from scratch, you can use any vanilla flavored cream you find on the market. Spread it well on top and on the sides. Don’t make it too thick, you don’t want to look cheap. Finesse comes in small packages.
When ready, melt a whole chocolate into a pan at low fire, add a tiny amount of milk, just enough to make the hot mixture a bit more fluid and prevent it from burning. After everything is silky smooth, start spreading or sprinkling it over the cake. Put the whole thing in the fringe and don’t look back for several hours. Then return with a vengeance and cut it with your knife. Take a bite.
Now you know how Heaven tastes like.
There is a very easy way to make your cake look even yummier. Before you put the dough mixture in the baking pan, split it in two parts. To the first part add lots of cocoa powder, a pinch of cinnamon and sprinkle some raw ground coffee. Grate some lemon zest over the second part and mix it into the dough. How are you going to proceed from then on is completely up to you.
For example, you can bake every part in a separate pan. This way you will have one brown and one yellow layer. You can also pour the first mixture in a pan and then add the second one on top without too much mixing. This way it will resemble a Marmer cake. With the risk of repeating myself – don’t limit your imagination!