Growing up in my house there were three March birthdays. Mine came first, early on, thank goodness! Better presents. Mid-March is Cynthia’s then towards the end of the month came our precious baby brother, Tommy’s, birthday. Good Lord, when that boy was born you’d have thought the Messiah moved in! A boy. A BOY. My parents had a huge navy pram for him, natch, and Mama would let Cynthia and me take him for walks around the neighborhood. People, mostly women, would stop, lean waaaaay forward to look inside and exclaim, “Oh, she’s beautiful! And look at those curls!” Our little bodies at six and eight would stiffen with rage and indignation as we retorted as angrily as we could, given that we had to exhibit perfect manners at all times, “It’s a HE NOT a she and he’s our brother!” We positively adored him. We were completely captivated. We wanted to feed him, bathe him, change any diaper…even the muddy ones. A little over a year later our younger sister, Pamela, was born. Tommy became Cynthia’s baby and Pamela became mine. The four of us grew up extraordinarily close. Although at times we fought like cats and dogs in the privacy of our home, in public we protected each other to the end and by whatever means. We covered up for each other with our parents as well. For example, no one tattled-taled on another sibling if one had been drinking or partying during school hours. Heck, no! All our lives we’ve kept an eye out for each other. And still do to this day. Whether I ask Tommy, “Which do you like best? These sandals? Or these?” or ask his advice regarding the color of paint I should use in my hallway, he helps me with the same intensity, only thinking of what’s best for me. Early on he helped me with relationship problems and just recently counseled me with the utmost patience and thoughtfulness through the heartbreaking loss of a dear, 25 year friendship. He’s not demonstrative in the least but a few sweet words, a fast reminder of our quirky, outlandish childhood is all we need to become grounded and back on track. He gives so generously of himself. And that’s all we want. So this cake might just be the tee-tiniest bit late but instead of two layers I made it four. In place of pudding in between the layers I made a wildly rich pastry cream with lots of vanilla bean. And rather than finish it off with an everyday chocolate glaze I crowned this beauty with a ravishing, magnificent dark chocolate ganache. Because he’s OUR brother!
Although this cake is definitely old school I thought I would crank it up by making my favorite vanilla cake but if you’re short on time or energy a boxed mix is just fine. If you choose a boxed mix then a few simple additions will make it even more luscious. In place of oil use butter. Replace water with whole milk, add an extra whole egg, a teaspoon of good vanilla extract and continue to follow the directions on the box. While the cake cools make the pastry cream. I use this recipe from Epicurious by Chef Lou Jones. I must say the directions state that the cream thickens in about 1 minute but it took mine roughly 5 or 6 minutes to thicken. Other than that it was pretty much on target…I wanted to eat it out of the pot. The perfume of the vanilla in the kitchen was absolutely heady and intoxicating! I spread it in between the layers of cake then refrigerated it. I covered it with the chocolate ganache the following day. Uhh! Sweet Jesus, but it was gorgeous. I studded the top with fresh strawberries that had been given a shiny shellac job with the help of a small paintbrush and melted passion fruit jelly. I’m so glad it turned out to be the perfect birthday cake!
yield: about 3 cups
- 2 1/4 cups whole milk
- 6 large egg yolks
- 2/3 cups sugar
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup milk, egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar and cornstarch.
- Transfer the remaining 1 3/4 cups milk to a heavy, medium-sized saucepan. Scrape in vanilla seeds from bean and add the pod. Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup sugar over, letting sugar undisturbed sink to the bottom. Set pan over moderate heat and bring to simmer without stirring.
- Whisk hot milk mixture, then gradually whisk into egg yolk mixture. Return all to saucepan over moderate heat and cook, whisking constantly until pastry thickens, about 1 minute. (Took me a few more minutes but nbd.)
- Remove from heat, discard vanilla pod and whisk cream until smooth.
- (At this point I covered 3 layers of cake each with 1 cup of cooled cream, assembled the cake stacking the layers leaving the top of the 4 layer cake bare but well covered with wax paper.)
- Transfer to a bowl and press plastic wrap directly onto surface. Chill until cold, about 4 hours. Pastry cream can be made ahead and refrigerated, wrapped well with plastic wrap on the surface, up to 3 days.
yield: about 2 cups
- 9 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon liquor, such as orange flavored, Armagnac, brandy, rum
- Place chocolate in a medium-sized bowl.
- Heat cream to just before boiling point.
- Pour hot cream over chocolate bits in bowl and whisk vigorously until smooth.
- If using, stir in liquor until completely incorporated.
- Allow to cool slightly before pouring over cake. This works best on a chilled cake.
If you are decorating the cake with berries wait to place them on the cake a few hours before serving it so the fruit stays fresh. Heat up a bit of clear jelly in the microwave and with a small paint brush spread the liquid jelly on the bottom or cut side of the fruit. The jelly will act as your “glue”. Carefully paint the jelly on the top and sides of the fruit to give it a glossy finish. If the heated jelly starts to thicken while you’re working with it, it can be warmed up again in the microwave.