I turned 33 this week, but seeing how I’m a little preoccupied these days with someone else’s impending birthday, I might have brushed over this occasion completely, had it not been for a confluence of events — a fierce craving for Peking duck (then dragging both of our families into it’s crispy-skinned grasp), the decision to schedule our housewarming mocktail/cocktail party the next day (requiring baked goods involving cheese, of course) and the fact that it gave me an excuse to conquer a cake that has been vexxing me for the last year and a half.
The truth is, I start thinking about my birthday cake long before it is healthy or well-adjusted to. I see it as the perfect excuse to tackle something risky and possibly ridiculous — something I’m not entirely confident will work out, but don’t care because I’m only making it to amuse myself. Being freed from not wanting to disappoint another on their birthday has its benefits: There was the Crêpe Cake, which also marked the occasion of me making my very first crêpe, ever. (Which landed in the garbage, as all first and second crêpes were intended to.) There has been a Pistachio Petit-Four Cake, which involved rolling out marzipan and then pressing and tinting little marzipan roses, slightly less risky but no less insane.
And this year, there were nine stacked cookies filled with jam, but I promise it wasn’t as banal as it sounds. The buttery ground almond discs were scented with orange, lemon and more almond and the jam wasn’t just any jam but a strained currant jam caramel with vanilla bean. And the stack wasn’t just a stack of cookies but something that after a day (and even more so, after two) is really more of a rich, dense cake.
I first spied this Neapolitan Cake from Ulterior Epicure eons ago, and as you can imagine, it’s not something easily forgotten — especially when he chases it weeks later with a nutella-slathered version. Gah. I plied him for tips and advice and then more advice and more tips, and finally, when the prospect of pressing out another cookie disc was enough to send me over the edge, demanded some reinforcements in the form of a “you can do it, Deb!” How does that help the rest of you? If you break the cake down over two days, one for cookies and one for filling and stacking (which really takes no time) and give it the one to two days rest it needs (don’t skimp on this), there will be nothing frantic or befuddling about it. In other words? “You can do it, Internet!”
I am struggling to describe this cake as anything other than “European”. It’s almonds and citrus and tart jam and scraped vanilla bean, buttery and dense rather than the plush and pillowy, frosted and stacked American birthday cake. But that doesn’t make it any less of a showstopper, just a little more grown-up in palette than, say, a certain equally-beloved chocolate peanut butter cake.
That said, things I might consider tweaking next time: First, the original recipe is for a six-layer cake, as is the recipe below. As the RSVPs for our party stacked up (I bet they heard I was baking cheesy poufs!) I worried it would not be enough, so I one-and-a-halved it into a nine-layer cake, which although it presented a great “ta-da!” was not necessary. The cake is rich and dense, and the 6-layer height would have been enough.
Second, I wish the caramel flavor had come through better. Despite caramelizing some sugar and stirring in the jam, vanilla and a squeeze of lemon, the end product still tasted more like jam than anything else. Next time, I might play around with a 50% mixture of a deep, lightly-salted caramel sauce with 50% jam, so both flavors fall better into balance. The cream in a caramel sauce will help bring the flavor forward.
Makes one 8-inch, six-layer cake (increase quantities by 50% to create the nine-layer cake in these here pictures); serves (at least) 6 to 8
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups jam, raspberry, apricot, strawberry or peach are suggested, but I used currant jam, which I strained
Half of a vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup whole blanched almonds, toasted
3 cups flour, sifted
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon orange-flower water (I skipped this)
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Make the filling: Place 1/4 cup of the sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over high heat, without stirring, until all the sugar turns caramel. Tilt pan to distribute caramel. Lower the heat and carefully whisk in the jam, the scraped vanilla bean and seeds, 1 tablespoon of water, a pinch of salt and the lemon juice. (The caramel will bubble violently.) Simmer, stirring, until the caramel dissolves into the jam. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. (This can be done a day in advance.)
Make the cookie layers: In a food processor, pulverize the whole almonds with 2 tablespoons of the flour.
Using an electric mixer, cream the butter, remaining sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt and the zests until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Mix in the pulverized almonds until combined. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, and then add the almond extract and orange-flower water. Mix in the remaining flour.
Divide the dough into six equal balls. (Yes, I weighed mine.) Place each ball between two sheets of plastic wrap and press into an 8-inch circle, using the inside of a pie pan as a guide. I used an 8-inch cake pan for this. Try to keep the edges as neat and clean as possible. It may be easiest to do this by trimming any jagged edges once the discs have chilled, before you bake them.
Chill the dough rounds in the refrigerator for 2 hours or freeze for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove plastic wrap, place a dough round on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Please, watch this baking time carefully, as your oven will vary and the cookies are so thin, even an extra minute or two can overly darken the edges. Nobody likes a burnt cookie cake!
Cool completely on a wire rack. Repeat with remaining rounds.
To assemble the cake: Lay a round in the center of a serving plate. Spread with 3 to 4 tablespoons of jam to just before the edge. (If your jam is super-intense, as our currant jam was, err on the 3 tablespoon rather than 4-tablespoon side, so it doesn’t overwhelm the delicate cookies.) Continue to layer the rounds, spreading jam between each. Spread a thin layer of jam over the top and cover with sliced almonds.
The cake can be served immediately, but tastes even better, and is easier to cut, if tightly wrapped and served 1 to 2 days later. (Don’t skimp on this.) Thus, you might find it easiest to wrap the cake without the final layer of jam over the top — as I did — spreading it once you’re ready to unwrap and serve it.