Yesterday we celebrated the birthday of a dear friend who finally turned 18 last month. It was a real testament of her trust (albeit blind) in me that she commissioned me to the honourable task of making her cake. I was flattered, excited, then scared. I’m still astounded that it wasn’t all a pile of goo by the time I got there, that it somehow survived in the 35°C heat and 1.5hrs of train ride. Many a times it could have gone south; the cake tearing, the frosting melting, me accidentally dropping it etc. but by some miracle it all went to plan.
Because of the aforementioned insane temperatures, the stability of the buttercream was my #1 concern. It had to withstand the heat and be able to take on flavours well, so I opted for what is theoretically the more stable Italian meringue buttercream. It did take ages, though, for the heat from the boiling sugar syrup to dissipate before I could add the butter, which was threatening to puddle any moment.
The cake layers consisted of hazelnut sponge cake, brushed with syrup of course to keep them from being sucked of moisture (just like my skin). This was where my powers of improvisation came into play. With no food processor and whole nuts, it’s amazing the blender didn’t start producing black smoke and explode, or that it didn’t turn into nut butter.
Was this challenging? Not really, as it would’ve been otherwise quite an enjoyable process if not for the damn heat. I felt accomplished, actually, as I’ve never had cause to feed more than 5 people, let alone a whole party. I thought I was going to burst from intense anxiety when people took their first bites, even though I already knew it tasted pretty good (no scraps went to waste), but thankfully my friend was very happy.
Happy birthday, you smol child.
Hazelnut layer cake (makes 3 8″ layers)
For the hazelnut sponge cake:
Follow this recipe
For the soaking syrup:
50g white granulated sugar
Hazelnut liqueur, optional
For the marbled Italian meringue buttercream:
3 large egg whites (~120g)
150g white granulated sugar
pinch of salt
170g unsalted butter, room temp.
dash of vanilla
~150g dark chocolate
Ferrero Rochers, to decorate (optional but why wouldn’t you)
To make the sponge cake, I just followed these instructions. If like me, you can’t find ground hazelnut, you can grind your own. Roast the hazelnuts before grinding for maximum flavour, and rub off the husk by rolling in a tea towel. Pulse the nuts in a food processor, which would be preferable, but just a regular blender worked for me. Only pulse a little at a time and stop as soon as it turns into a meal, any longer and it’ll turn into nut butter. I added a couple spoons of the flour in the recipe as a precaution, as it helps absorb some of that oil from the nuts.
For the syrup, simply boil the sugar and water together until the sugar has dissolved, then add the alcohol once it has cooled, if you like.
To make Italian meringue buttercream, start by placing the water in a deep saucepan with a candy thermometer, followed by the sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil. In the meantime, start whisking the egg whites with the pinch of salt on medium speed. When the syrup has reached 116°C/240°F, take it off the heat and start streaming it very slowly into the egg whites while the mixer is on. Aim for the sides of the mixer bowl instead of the whisk as the hot syrup could splash back. Once the sugar has been poured in, turn the mixer on high speed and whip until the bowl returns to room temperature. Add the butter a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture comes together/emulsifies, at which point I added the vanilla. I like to then beat it with the paddle attachment to aerate it a bit so that it’s fluffy and almost white.
Because I was going for a marbled effect, I roughly split the buttercream into 4 portions and added nutella to one, and cool melted dark chocolate to another. I then took the cake layers out of the freezer where they’ve been chilling, and brushed them with the syrup. The layers were then filled with some of the first portion of vanilla buttercream and some crushed Ferrero Rochers sprinkled on top. The entire cake was then covered with a thin layer of crumb coat, with the remaining vanilla buttercream from the same portion (so now there’s 1 equal portion of each flavour) and returned to the freezer for 10 minutes.
Once the crumb coating has firmed up, I swirled together the vanilla, nutella and chocolate buttercream, but barely so that the colours are still distinct from each other. I didn’t do this very well as you can barely see the white in the finished result. I then applied it onto the cake (just with an offset spatula) in a roughly even layer. I used a decorative comb to drag out patterns on the sides of the cake, and then the top. For the final touch I sprinkled on hazelnut bits
in a feeble attempt to cover up my mistakes.
Then say a prayer and hope it doesn’t get smudged on the train on your way to the party.