Thursday, February 5, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake

My mother is amazing. Not only is she wickedly smart, curious and adventurous, she makes a mean birthday cake. For my entire life, all of our birthdays have been graced with beautiful homemade cakes. A week or so before your birthday, my mother asks the soon-to-be-feted (as opposed to fetid) what kind of birthday cake they would like. I usually answer in the theme of chocolate: chocolate hazelnut, chocolate almond, chocolate strawberry, etc. If it is the twin brothers' birthday, there are always two different cakes. My father usually opted for my mother's fabulous poppyseed cake with raspberry jam between the layers and billows of whipped cream to frost. I thought this was normal. There were a lot of things about my family that I thought were pretty ABnormal, but birthdays seemed pretty safe - I mean, everyone had cake, right? Apparently not like us.

But this is not an ode to my mother Ellen, it's actually a nod to the tradition she continues to uphold. One that I think is important. A cake "from scratch" can take as little time as one from a mix but it is a process, a creation, an act of love. Of course, a homemade cake can take hours or days, if you like that sort of thing, but a simple cake really isn't difficult and I've never understood why people are daunted by it.

That being said, this year I was a little daunted. Since having kids, I too make a birthday cake every year for Rob, Miles and Isaac. I too take "requests". Rob has a soft spot for cheesecakes (I think last year was the chocolate, salted caramel and pecan cheesecake). Miles has been very adventurous - one year I made a Tomato Spice cake for him - last year his cake was decorated like a basketball. Isaac likes Orange and Lemon for his cakes, although last year's was a chocolate Treasure Chest with edible booty spilling over the edges. I have no shortage of experience with cakes. I've been baking cakes since I was seven years old (and we have photos to prove it). But here we are in the tropics, without an oven, a mixer, a blender or even a whisk. For the last month I have been racking my brains for a way to make a cake for Feb 4th - Isaac's 5th birthday. At one point Rob suggested I just purchase a cake from one of the local bakeries. Has he learned nothing in the 10 years we've been together?! But that's another topic all together.

So I did what I do well - I Googled. I searched far and wide for a solution. DId you know that apparently you can bake a cake in a pressure cooker? Most Indians have pressure cookers. We don't. I checked out ice cream cakes - just not possible with the teeny freezer we have and no electronic kitchen gadgetry. And then I stumbled upon the creation that is known variously as: Gateau de/aux Crêpe, Crepe Cake, Mille Crêpe, etc. A perfect solution to my ovenless dilemma! There are chocolate Crepe Cakes but I have been underwhelmed by Indian chocolate (too sweet for my tastes), ones layered with whipped cream (no desire to beat cream by hand with a fork for 2 hours), and some that are soaked in lots of liqueur (difficult to procure and not really suitable for a 5 year old's birthday). So I borrowed and I tweaked and I developed one especially for our situation. Spiced pastry cream and fruit curd layered between silky saffron crêpes. Piled high and just oozing filling! I had originally planned to make a mango curd for between the layers but the mangoes just aren't ripe right now. So we adapt. Isaac loves bananas, so banana curd it is. It turned out beautifully and Isaac was thrilled even if there was no writing on the cake.

Happy Birthday Isaac! And thank you Mom. Some traditions are definitely worth holding on to.

So, if you ever find yourself in the tropics without an oven on a loved-one's birthday, you too can spread the love and Let Them Eat (real) Cake!

Over the top No-oven Birthday Cake for the Tropics
(or Saffron Crêpe cake with Banana Curd and Ginger Pastry Cream)

Banana Curd
8 small (or 4 North American sized) bananas, peeled and smooshed
125g butter
1 c sugar
3 small limes (or 1 North American sized), juiced & strained
3 medium eggs

Melt the butter over low heat in a small, heavy pan. Add smooshed bananas, sugar and lime juice. Cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes until glossy and translucent. Beat eggs in a bowl. Temper the eggs by slowly adding a few tablespoons of hot banana mixture to them while whisking constantly. Add the egg/banana mix back to the pot in a steady stream while whisking constantly. Cook for a few moments until the curd thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Cool and refrigerate.

Ginger Pastry Cream
1 1/2 c milk
2" knob of ginger, peeled and roughly grated
4 egg yolks
1/3 c sugar
3 1/2 T corn starch

In a small heavy-bottomed pot, bring the milk and the grated ginger to a boil. Take off the heat and let steep for about 10 minutes. In another pot, whisk together egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch until smooth. Slowly add the hot gingered milk to the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Place over medium high heat and bring to a boil, whisking steadily until the mixture thickens. Pour mixture through a sieve. Cool and refrigerate.

Ginger syrup:
1/2 c water
1/2 c sugar
2" knob of ginger, peeled and roughly grated
Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small heavy-bottomed pot. Reduce heat and simmer until all the sugar is dissolved and the mixture thickens a bit. Cool and strain. Store in the fridge.

Saffron Crêpes
85g butter
3 c milk
large pinch saffron threads

6 medium sized eggs
1/3 c sugar
1 2/3 c unbleached flour
pinch salt

Brown the butter in a small pan until it smells nutty - don't let it burn. Heat the milk with the saffron threads until bubbles appear around the edges of the pan. Allow both butter and milk to cool for about 10 minutes. Beat together the eggs, sugar, flour and salt until smooth. Slowly add the hot milk and the brown butter. Cool and refrigerate until ready to use. Storing in a pitcher is ideal for making crepes.
At this point everything, above, can be made the day before and kept in the fridge.

When ready to make the cake, bring the crêpe batter to room temperature. Heat a non-stick crêpe pan (or tava) over medium heat. Pour a scant 1/4 c batter onto the pan and tilt to create a thin film covering the entire surface of the pan. Cook until just beginning to brown, then flip and briefly cook the other side. Slide off the pan on to a plate and repeat until all the batter is used.

Building the cake: Place a crêpe on a serving plate and spread with a thin layer of banana curd, placing slightly less in the middle (or you end up with a strange dome shaped cake). Place another crêpe on top of the curd and spread with a thin layer of ginger pastry cream. Continue alternating until you have only one crêpe left (you could also add a layer or two of fresh fruit in the middle). Place the last crêpe on top and gently press down, to adhere the layers and even the cake out. Chill. Drizzle with ginger syrup. Sprinkle with freshly shaved coconut (or desiccated, in a pinch) and serve in oozy wedges.

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