Writing … frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us.
In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture
but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.
– Don Delillo
Salty, sour, bitter, sweet projects lined up on my desktop, teasing, taunting, mocking my laziness, the disorganization of my muddled mind, the disarray of my life. One story down, how many to go? Another birthday come and gone in the madness that is our life with nary a cake in sight. As I get older, I wonder if I get wiser or just crazier. But one thing I do know and can swear by; the more work that piles up on my desk, the more deadlines close in, menacing with their drawn claws and bared teeth, the more I am stimulated, the better and faster I write. I feel like Mike Mulligan and his trusty old steam shovel Mary Anne.
Meanwhile, I spend my days at my desk weaving tales, yet no time for my lonesome little blog. I shut down social media and close myself in a bubble of words and visions. Topics historical, political, personal crowd together, elbowing each other for space, surging forward to be the first out of my fingertips and onto a virgin page.
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,
what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
– Joan Didion
Yet, yet, I finally had the time to bake my birthday cake; better late than never. The day after, I began pulling out flour and sugar, cinnamon and my box of fragrant vanilla beans, stacking them all up on the counter under my kitchen window. As the hours flew by, and then another day, I would occasionally pause in between words, sentences, paragraphs and forage in the cupboard for one more thing I had forgotten, bars of chocolate, baking soda and cocoa powder. A box of heavy whipping cream. Ah, yes, the jar of jimmies, the chocolate sprinkles. I rifled among the pots and kitchen equipment and found my round layer cake tins and added them to the increasing mountain of supplies on the countertop. And then son appeared.
“Will you bake a chocolate layer cake for a friend’s birthday party tonight? I’m invited and offered to bring a cake.”
Well, am I simply a nice mother willing to bend over backwards to help my child? Or am I just thrilled when one of my sons asks for something homemade? Tickled pink that they are proud enough of my baked goods to bring them to friends, no matter how often they themselves spurn a slice of cake or a cookie themselves? My son coming home after the party and telling me that the cake was eaten in seconds flat, that the birthday girl, when asked a day or two later how the party went could only repeat over and over again “You missed an awesome cake!” is reward enough.
And so a day later, I finally made mine. It has been ages since I made this wonderful sponge and knew that I wanted to flavor it with seeds from a vanilla bean rather than the usual liquid extract and a dash of cinnamon. I paired it with my son’s favorite Simple Chocolate Buttercream and with a drizzle of Orange-Chocolate Ganache. But as I found the sponge too delicate for the buttercream, I will make it again and sandwich the layers with stabilized (a bit of gelatin) whipped cream, the whole topped with the ganache glaze. And I also think that this perfect sponge would make a wonderful 3-layer cake instead of two.
Writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence.
– Gao Xingjian
VANILLA BEAN CINNAMON SPONGE LAYERS
This is a classic sponge, light and ethereal, to which I have added the seeds from one vanilla pod/bean and a dash of cinnamon which I know will work so well with the chocolate and orange of the buttercream frosting and the orange-chocolate ganache.
3 Tbs milk
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
1 vanilla bean or ½ tsp liquid vanilla extract
3/4 cup (95 g) flour, lightly spooned into measuring cups and leveled
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon, optional
5 large eggs
A few grains of salt + drop or two of lemon juice to stabilize whites
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter and line two 8-inch (23 cm) round cake tins (measure along the bottom of the tin) with parchment paper.
Prepare the ingredients:
Place the butter and the milk in a small saucepan. Over very low heat, gently warm the milk and butter until the butter is almost but not completely melted. Remove from the heat and swirl the pan until the butter is completely melted. Set aside to cool slightly.
Measure or weigh out the sugar into a small bowl.
In another small bowl, measure or weigh out the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon and stir together.
Using a small, sharp knife, slice the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out the seeds.
Separate 3 of the eggs, placing the 3 yolks in a large mixing bowl. Add the 2 remaining whole eggs to the 3 yolks in the large mixing bowl. Place the 3 whites in a small to medium mixing bowl, large enough to hold the yolks when beat into a meringue. Add a few grains salt and a drop or two of lemon to the whites.
Make the cake:
With an electric mixer, beat the 2 whole eggs and the 3 yolks together with 6 tablespoons of the sugar and the seeds from the vanilla bean on high speed, for 4 to 5 minutes until the batter is very thick, light and fluffy and the batter drops off in a slow ribbon when the beaters are lifted. Beat in the vanilla if using the extract.
Using very clean beaters (wash the beaters if you only have one pair), whip the egg whites on low speed for 30 second, then increase the speed to high and continue beating until foamy. Once the whites go from foamy to opaque, gradually begin adding the remaining sugar about a teaspoon at a time. Beat until all the sugar has been added and the meringue is thick and glossy and soft, moist, shiny peaks hold.
Gently fold in a third of the creamy egg white meringue into the cake batter to lighten it, then fold in the remaining beaten whites in two more additions. Sift or spoon half the flour mixture over the batter and gently fold it in before adding the remaining flour and folding in just until incorporated, making sure that no pockets of dry ingredients have formed. Do not over mix.
Make a well on one side of the batter and pour the warm melted butter/milk mixture into the bowl. Gently but thoroughly fold this mixture into the batter. Again, do not over mix.
Divide the batter between the 2 prepared pans, gently smoothing the tops. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the top is light brown and springs back when gently touched in the center. Remove the pans from the oven onto cooling racks and immediately and carefully run a shapr knife around the edges to loosen the cakes from the sides of the pans; this will keep the cakes from ripping as they cool and shrink slightly. Invert the cakes onto wire cooling racks, pull off the parchment paper then invert back, right side up, onto the racks and allow to cool completely before frosting.
SIMPLE & EASY CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM FROSTING
12 ounces (350 grams) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
8 ½ tablespoons (120 grams) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1.76 oz or scant 7 Tbs (50 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
4 tablespoons very hot water
Using an electric hand mixer, cream the butter and the powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cocoa powder and the hot water and beat, scraping down the sides as necessary, until well blended and fluffy.
ORANGE CHOCOLATE GANACHE DRIZZLE
Once the cake is decorated, save the remaining ganache to spoon over ice cream or even chill and form into truffles or use in the center of molten lava cakes.
Orange Chocolate Ganache (this recipe can easily be halved):
3.5 oz (100 g) Lindt Excellence Orange Intense or equivalent orange-scented 70% dark chocolate
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
Chop the chocolate and place in a small heatproof bowl. Bring the cream just to the boil and pour over the chopped chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is completely melted and the ganache well blended, smooth and creamy. Leave to thicken at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until drizzling consistency. If you like, allow to get very thick and then thin with a bit of Cointreau.