Wouldn’t you know it, only a week after I made Dylan’s birthday cake (the first cake I had baked in a year!), another birthday presented itself. I always remember my friend Melissa’s birthday because it just so happens that the second week of May is when the peonies bloom in my parents’ backyard and my mother never fails to remind me of this from afar, even though it appears that my father killed the peony bush last year with some overzealous pruning. But I digress…
Melissa and her husband Colin live in San Francisco now, and so we rarely have the opportunity to celebrate birthdays with them, but this particular year, they decided to take a last minute trip to Southern California, which is how we found ourselves baking a birthday cake for Melissa one Saturday afternoon. Given the good luck I’d had with the deliciously gluttonous Desserts (Best of Martha Stewart Living) on Dylan’s birthday, I thought I’d give it another try.
The first section of the book, layer cakes, is something to be avoided at all costs, by those on a diet. With such gorgeous pictures of fluffy cakes with heaps of frosting and gooey toppings, it was hard to choose what to try next. The citrus-poppyseed cake looked seriously fabulous, but perhaps a little too close to last week’s 1-2-3-4 lemon cake. I had also been eying the moist devil’s food cake from day one, but it seemed just a bit too heavy for such a hot day. And so forth and so on, the process of narrowing it down to just the perfect cake continued, until we happily decided upon Martha’s ginger pecan cake, a heaping tower of gingery cake layers interspersed with rich, bourbon-laced creme fraiche, and a gloriously oozing layer of caramel studded with candied ginger on top. Would you believe me if I told you it tasted even better than it looked?
It turned out just as rich, nutty, and fragrant as you might imagine, despite a number of minor recipe changes. Mostly notably, knowing that Melissa and Colin eat dessert like little birds (a phenomenon totally foreign to our household), we decided to cut the recipe down by a 1/3, making 2 8×2″ layer cakes instead of three. Conveniently, all of the other quantities were amounts that could be reduced by a third with no trouble (beyond a little on-the-fly division in one’s head). But deciding that four layers are much more fun than two, we then cut each of the layers in half, very gently, using a long bread knife. With four layers (rather than the three specified in the recipe), we’d need more creme fraiche filling, so we decided to “lighten” it up by using a pint of heavy creme and 8 ounces of creme fraiche instead of a pint of creme fraiche. This way we’d still have the support of the thick, whipped creme fraiche (no one wants the filling to get absorbed by the cake under the weight of the layers), but with a marginally lighter taste. If all of our machinations sound a bit perplexing, just follow the recipe below, as Martha herself intended it, directly from the cookbook.
One other change worth noting is that if, say, you find that you only have a small handful of pecans and are tired of running around to all of the local grocery stores (hypothetically, of course), you can substitute almonds, or almond flour, or some combination thereof. (Or if you fancy some other nut, by all means try it!) And a few carefully placed skewers will help hold the cake together during the assembly phase, should you find that the layers start to slip.
It wasn’t your typical buttercream frosted birthday cake, to say the least, but for something a little different and, dare I say it, more sophisticated, than your average birthday fare, this ginger pecan cake was just perfect. Happy 31st, Melissa!
Ginger-pecan cake (makes one 8-inch round layer cake)
7 oz pecans plus nine intact pecan halves
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
3 cups sifted all purpose flour, plus more for pans
1 1/2 tbsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp ground ginger
3 cups light brown sugar, sifted
6 large whole eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup plus 2 tbsp milk
3/4 tsp freshly grated ginger
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 pint creme fraiche
2 tsp bourbon(optional)
3 tbsp confectioners’ sugar, or more to taste
1/4 ounce crystallized ginger, cut into thin strips or small pieces
Ingredients for caramel icing:
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
1. Heat the oven to 350; arrange two racks in the center of the oven. Spread the pecans on a baking pan and bake until fragrant, then transfer to a bowl to cool. Reserve the nine intact pecan halves and finely grind the remaining nuts in a food processor, yielding 1 1/2 cups.
2. Butter three 8-by-2 inch round cake pans. Line each with a circle of parchment paper. Butter paper and dust bottoms and sides of pans with flour. Tap out any excess. Set pans aside.
3. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and ground ginger. Add the ground pecans and whisk.
4. In the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, cream butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add the brown sugar and beat until fluffy, 4-5 minutes. Drizzle in the eggs, a little at a time, beating until batter is no longer slick, about 5 minutes. Scrape down sides twice as you go.
5. Reduce mixer speed to low. Alternately add the flour mixture and the milk to the batter, a little of each at a time, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down sides twice as you go. Beat in grated ginger and vanilla.
6. Divide batter among the pans. Bake 30 minutes, then rotate pans for even browning. Bake until a cake tester inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, 5-10 minutes more. Transfer pans to wire racks to cool, 15 minutes. Turn out cakes and allow to cool completely on wire racks, top side up.
7. In bowl of mixer, whip creme fraiche until soft peaks form. Add bourbon, if desired, and confectioners’ sugar. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until firm, 1 hour.
8. Remove parchment from bottom of cakes. Set the prettiest layer aside for the top. Place one layer on serving platter; spread with half of the creme-fraiche filling. Place a second layer on top; spread with remaining filling. Top with reserved cake layer. Chill cake while preparing icing.
9. To prepare icing: place sugar in a large skillet, and set over medium heat. Cook until sugar begins to melt and turns golden, 2-3 minutes. Stirring with a wooden spoon, cook sugar until amber in color and a candy thermometer reads 310, about 3-4 minutes. Slowly stir in the cream, being careful to avoid splattering. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue stirring; the hardened caramel will melt into the cream and become soft and liquid. Using a whisk, stir slowly, minimizing bubbles, until completely smooth, 1-3 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let cool, 3-4 minutes. Pour icing directly onto the chilled cake. If the caramel becomes to stiff to pour, rewarm in a double boiler.
10. Pour caramel icing onto center of cake and let flow down sides. Let icing set slightly, 5-10 minutes; arrange the pecan halves and crystallized ginger on the top. Serve immediately or refridgerate until serving.