Baking a cake for someone clearly is a labour of love. You don’t bake cake just for anybody. I don’t. Especially not layered cakes or anything that is more fancy than a simple stir-up-and-go kind of cake. When you bake for someone, you take time for them, you think about what they might like and what might give them pleasure, and you give yourself plenty of time to contemplate what it is you like about them. Last week, I made my husband a birthday cake. Or rather his birthday cake, since it is the exact same cake each year. He asks for it – I make it. What may seem like a rather monotone and dull endeavor is actually a very romantic ritual to me, and in a way, it is emblematic for a long term relationship as such: of course, after a few years, there will be repetitions. And there will maybe not be a whole lot of razzle-dazzle and dashing surprises each and every day. The trick is however, to go about it with the same care and devotion as the first time, every single time.
This cake is a version of a German regional classic, the Frankfurter Kranz: a layered pound cake (no sponge! we wouldn’t want to miss the extra butter) filled with a vanilla buttercream and jam, covered in hazelnut brittle. I understand the protocol as to what may be named a Frankfurter Kranz is rather strict, so I went with a non-Kranz (=wreath) shape altogether to avoid being sued for violation of intellectual property (read: I don’t own a ring mold). The flavor combination is very simple and classic: vanilla, brittle, butter. And there is nothing wrong with a good classic. You can fancify it by putting in the extra effort and make the brittle yourself. And since this is for a special occasion and someone, I did as well. The only thing I (not in the least apologetic) got in a shop-bought-but-good version is the jam. I like to use blackcurrant, which is not traditional for this cake, but do try it anyway and thank me later.
This is a ‘project recipe’, which is to say that it is quite a bit of work. But the good news is: You can easily do it in several days. I did the brittle on one day, the cake part the next and the butter cream and assembly job on the third day. Inbetween I took a day off. You don’t want to be exhausted and on the edge when assembling your loved one’s cake. I have tried to give you a few tricks on how to go about making this cake without ending up a nervous wreck, and they are born from my own
mistakes experience over the last years. Even after several times I did it now, I keep learning: For instance that it really makes sense having one of those large palettes to transfer the ready-dressed and glorious looking cake to the presentation plate. Because if you have one of those – and if I had had one of those, the cake wouldn’t have done a slide and gone a bit tilted. So, well. It’s not perfect. But that’s the beauty about baking for your loved one: to him (or her), it always will be perfect anyway.
“Frankfurter Kranz”-style layered cake w/ vanilla buttercream & hazelnut brittle
Active time: 40 minutes, resting: 20-30 minutes, baking: 50 minutes
100 g hazelnuts, whole
50 g castor sugar
(this makes just enough for one cake. While you’re at it – make a bit more. I went with 300 g hazelnuts and 150 g sugar. I keep the leftover brittle in an airtight container for next time or some other use)
150 g flour
150 g castor sugar
125 g sweet cream butter
3 eggs (size M)
3 tbsp milk (full fat)
500 ml milk (full fat)
3 egg yolks
25 g starch
3 tbsp raw cane sugar (or castor sugar)
2 vanilla pods
250 g sweet cream butter
For putting it together
about 80 g blackcurrant jam (without skins & pips)
about 6 glacé cherries
1 Hazelnut brittle. If there are still skins on the hazelnuts, peel them as follows: roast the whole hazelnuts in a pan without additional fat or in the oven (180 °C, middle shelf) until they are fragrant (this will take about 10 minutes) and start making crackling noises. Immediately transfer to a kitchen towel you are not very fond of (it will get stained) and form a bundle. Rub the hazelnuts thoroughly to remove the skins. Quickly process the nuts or chop them to resemble fine gravel (the result will look like this). Prepare a plate or baking tray with baking parchment. Put a pan on medium heat and add the sugar. Let it dissolve until liquid and slightly browning, do not stir but rather give the pan a swirl when to mix. Then add the nuts and quickly stir to cover the nuts and transfer to the baking parchment. Once this is cooled, give it another quick blitz in the processor to break up the brittle, again, you’re going for a gravel-y texture.
2 Pound cake. Prepare a 20 cm Springform by greasing it and set aside. Separate the eggs and beat the whites with a pinch of salt and 3 tbsp of the sugar (add gradually) until very stiff and glossy (in my experience, this will take about 7 minutes. I also find that one constantly underestimates how long 7 minutes are. Watch the clock – you’ll be astounded). Make sure you use a completely fat-free bowl.
In a separate bowl cream butter and remaining sugar until white and fluffy (7 minutes again), then incorporate the egg yolks one by one. Sift the flour over the mixture in one go and quickly mix with the butter. Do not fiddle about for too long and stir too fiercely, for this will make the cake dense later. I use a large whisk and get under the flour blanket with it in a vertical-circular motion, then beat the whisk down to let everything fall through. I repeat this until the batter is barely mixed. Add a little bit of milk if the batter becomes too dense. Preheat the oven to 180 °C top and bottom heat. Next, add a third of the beaten egg whites and stir in to lighten the mixture first, then fold the remaining egg whites in. I do it with the same whisk-move I described earlier, but I make sure I do not hit the bowl, so I don’t beat the air out. Bake for about 30 minutes until just set. Leave it to cool in the Springform for about 15 minutes, then take out to cool on a cake rack. If you do this a day in advance, cover the cake in aluminum foil once it is cooled entirely.
3 Vanilla buttercream. Mix the egg yolks and starch in a small bowl. Put a small saucepan on medium heat and add the mild with a pinch of salt. Deseed the vanilla pods and add the pulp and pods to the milk. Bring to a simmer and take off the heat, add the sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture steep for a while to enhance the vanilla flavor. Then remove the pods and bring the vanilla milk to a boil again.
Do not throw away the vanilla pods after you have flavored the milk with them. Vanilla is a very potent spice and the empty and extracted pods are still full of flavor. Simply rinse them under hot water, dry them, and you can still use them to make vanilla sugar or for your next mulled wine.
Once it’s boiling, take off the heat, add a ladle full of the hot milk to the egg yolk mixture, constantly stirring to avoid any curdling. Put the egg and milk mixture back into the saucepan and put over very low heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon and let the custard bubble for a few minutes to thicken it. Transfer to a bowl and cover with cling. Make sure the cling film covers the entire surface of the custard directly to avoid the leathery skin. Cool completely. Cream the soft butter with an electric hand mixer until white and fluffy. Then gradually, spoon by spoon, add the custard and incorporate it well with the butter before adding the next spoonful. Fill into a piping bag. If you don’t have one, you can fill the cake with a spatula or knife as well. But having the buttercream in a piping bag makes things way easier.
4 Assembly. Pass the jam through a sift to remove skins and pips. Slice the cake into three layers. The easiest way for me is to first mark the points where I want to cut and to then pierce a serrated knife into the cake absolutely parallel to the surface of the cake until the middle. Then I cut a quarter of the circle, turn the cake so that the knife goes back to its starting position and continue. Remove crumbs from the slices’ surface with a baking brush. Now start with the bottom layer and cover with buttercream. Then add circles of buttercream like you see on the photo above. Fill the spaces between with jam. Cover the middle cake slice with buttercream rather thinly and put on top of the Tim Burton-cake you have just created, buttercream side down. This works best if you put it on your one palm, position it at the rim of the lower layer and give it a quick flip.
5 Cover with buttercream again and top off with the third cake layer. Then put a generous amount of buttercream on top and spread it with a spatula or knife. Spread it evenly and on purpose create excess buttercream at the rim which you then spread vertically with your spatula or knife. This may be a bit fiddly the first time. Cover the cake completely in buttercream, keep some for the decoration.
6 Now scatter the cake with the hazelnut brittle and cover it entirely. On the sides this is easiest by filling your hands with loads of brittle and sliding along the cake. You might want to check out a tutorial video on the net to get an idea for how this is done easiest. Remove any excess brittle from the plate and transfer the cake to your presentation plate (this is the tricky part. You best use a large spatula and be quick about it. You can also enclose the cake in a cake ring to stabilize it and slide it from one plate to another, if you have such a thing). With a piping bag, make little dots of buttercream on top of the cake, always doing one on the opposite side of the one you just made to get a regular pattern. Half the glacé cherries and top each dot with a cherry.