For my little brother’s 30th birthday, I ignored the call of the tried and true and went on the prowl for a new cake recipe. Among the 30 top-rated cake recipes at epicurious, I found this simple summery confection: two golden layers sandwiching a thick cloud of cream, served with fresh berries in a sweet, boozy syrup. A hundred-plus rave reviews, including one that called it a giant gourmet Twinkie. I had to try it.
Nearly every birthday in our family is celebrated with the perfect chocolate cake, partly because it’s so good and partly because it’s eyes-closed easy. But when we have bunched-up birthdays – in this case we’d just had chocolate for my sister-in-law’s 30th – even the best cake suffers from repetition. It’s also a cultural difference that my Chinese California family is not as enamored of chocolate as my Irish Ohio in-laws, so I knew they wouldn’t mind a switch.
I have a strong preference for unfrosted cakes, not because I don’t like frosting but because I lack the artistry to pull off a beautifully frosted cake. As you already know from my unpretty pies, finesse is not my strong suit. I don’t bemoan it; we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and I can crank out dinner for 20 without a fuss. So I breezed by temptingly decorated cakes without regrets and settled on something I knew I could do well.
Yellow cakes can be dry, but with buttermilk in the batter and mascarpone in the cream filling, I had a good feeling about this recipe. Mascarpone (pronounced moss-car-PONE-ay, not MAR-skuh-pone-ay), a deliciously gooey Italian cream cheese, gained recognition in the ’80s as a primary ingredient in tiramisu. Think of it as a richer, less-tangy version of crÃ©me fraiche or a thinner version of clotted cream – in any case, it’s good.
Measuring flour is a tricky issue in baking. For accuracy, flour should be measured in weight, not volume. A cup of flour can hold varying amounts, depending on how you scoop it and whether it’s sifted first. King Arthur Flour says that properly measured cup of flour should be 4.25 oz, but according to Cooks Illustrated, one cup can vary from 3 ounces (cake flour sifted into a cup measure) to 5 ounces (unsifted all purpose flour scooped and leveled). This difference has a real impact on how the cake turns out.
The original recipe calls for cake flour, which I never have on hand, and pre-sifting, which with a four-kid-crazy household I can’t be bothered to do. I used a substitute of all purpose flour and cornstarch (apparently the cornstarch inhibits gluten formation, mimicking the lower-gluten cake flour), without sifting, and it turned out just fine. But if you’re not sifting, and because cake flour is lighter than all purpose, it’s better to err on the side of less flour when measuring.
(When I get back to my kitchen scale in Ohio, I’ll work out weight measurements. Most of us in the US use cups despite the inaccuracy, since kitchen scales aren’t common here. But I know the metric world will appreciate weight measurements, and I’m becoming a convert myself.)
I forgot to take a picture of my measured dry ingredients, but you already know to mix your dry ingredients separately. Because I rarely make layered cakes, I buttered and floured my cake pans with extra care.
Cream butter and sugar. Usually I just beat batter by hand, but for my brother’s special birthday I dug out my electric mixer, which my great friend Allison gave me in college. Who needs a stand mixer? This baby’s still going strong two decades later.
Add eggs, one at a time.
I think vanilla was supposed to go in earlier. Lemon zest would also be a lovely addition.
The original recipe calls for adding buttermilk at once, and then adding flour in batches.
But the buttermilk makes everything a little curdled.
Adding the flour in batches, the batter smooths out. But next time I’d alternate the flour and buttermilk to avoid the curdling.
The original recipe calls for baking in one deep cake pan. But I read that some people had problems with the batter spilling over, and I didn’t need the additional challenge of splitting the cake into two layers. Seems much easier just to divide the batter into two cake pans to start.
Shake to even out the batter.
The layers were a bit rounded when they came out of the oven, but they conveniently deflated to stackable flatness as they cooled.
Heat sherry and sugar to make a syrup for the berries. If you don’t have sherry, use what you have on hand (eg grand marnier, amaretto, sweet marsala). The alcohol boils out, but if you don’t want the taste of alcohol, orange juice would be wonderful too – mix juice with a bit of sugar, pour over without heating.
Let the berries relax in their warm bath while we whip the cream.
Mascarpone, heavy cream and sugar in a bowl.
Mix for a few minutes until cream is stiff enough to hold nice peaks when you lift out the beaters. Better to err a little on the soft-peak side – over-beaten cream will be harder to spread smoothly.
Run a thin spatula around the cakes to loosen them. My pans have a nonstick coating, so I don’t like to use a knife.
First layer goes face down on the plate. I breathed a sigh of relief when it came out intact.
Top with cream and spread evenly. I thought about leaving some out, but I’m glad I didn’t. Since the outside of the cake is unfrosted, I say it’s okay to have an extra-thick layer in the middle.
Top with second layer, right side up, and a dusting of powdered sugar on top. This is my kind of decorating.
It’s a gigantic cream sandwich.
And here are our boozy berries, comfortably soaked and relaxed.
Serve it up with a scoop of berries, and don’t skimp on the syrup, it’s fanastic.
We’ll be glad to get back to our standby chocolate cake this fall, but this cream-filled wonder is the perfect summer cake. Even the chocoholics came back for seconds.
Mascarpone Cream Cake with Boozy Berries
The ultimate summer cake – two golden layers sandwiching a thick cloud of cream, served with fresh berries in a sweet, boozy syrup. Adapted from from epicurious.com, where one reviewer dubbed it a giant gourmet Twinkie.
- 2 cups cake flour or 1 3/4 cups all purpose flour plus 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (1/4 teaspoon if using salted butter)
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
- 1/2 cup Fino (dry) sherry
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 4 cups mixed berries, cut if large
- 8 ounces (1 cup) mascarpone
- 1 cup chilled heavy cream
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Preheat oven to 350Â°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.
- In a medium bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Measure the flour lightly; don’t pack. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Beat in vanilla.
- Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
- Add roughly 1/3 of the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Then add 1/2 the buttermilk, mixing until just combined. Alternate mixing in another 1/3 of the flour, the rest of the buttermilk, and the rest of the flour, mixing after each addition until just combined.
- Spread batter in cake pan, shaking the cake pan from side to side to even out the batter. Rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles.
- Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes. Run a knife around edge of cake to loosen, then invert onto a plate. Reinvert cake onto rack to cool completely.
- Bring sherry and sugar to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Put berries in a bowl and pour hot syrup over them, gently tossing to coat. Let stand 15 minutes to two hours.
- Beat mascarpone and cream with sugar in a large bowl using cleaned beaters until mixture just holds stiff peaks.
Put layer on a plate (flatten with serrated knife if necessary), then spread evenly with all of cream and second layer.
- Serve with berries and syrup.
- Optional add: lemon zest in cake batter.
- Cake can be baked a day ahead. Wrap in plastic wrap once cool and keep at room temperature. Layer with cream before serving (store in refrigerator if assembling cake more than an hour or so before serving).
- Sherry alternatives: orange-flavored liqueur (eg triple sec, grand marnier), amaretto, sweet marsala. Or for a nonalcoholic version, use fresh orange juice mixed with a bit of sugar (don’t heat).
- Refrigerate leftover cake to maintain freshness of cream-based frosting.
Here’s the link to a printable version.