“In these moments where an abyss opens up in my soul, the tiniest detail distresses me like a letter of farewell. I feel as if I’m always on the verge on waking up. I’m oppressed by the very self that encases me, asphyxiated by conclusions, and I’d gladly scream if my voice could reach somewhere. But there’s this heavy slumber that moves from one group of my sensations to another, like drifting clouds that make the half-shaded grass of sprawling fields turn various colours of the sun and green.” – Fernando Pessoa, an excerpt from the Book of Disquiet
October so far has been dove grey morning skies that dim and fade into the evening. For the most part it rained. Rained, endlessly. A sole droplet flows and disturbs far deeper than the sum of the ocean. Everything and nothing can be glimpsed through the thin veil of mist and fog. The shroud, both elusive and fathomless. There’s a kind of phantasmagoric atmosphere to October’s temperament. An ethereality that I want to sanctify. And possess.
And when it rains I bake. I bake regardless of the rain, but, my desire waxes tenfold when the skies turn bleak and the clouds burst. So, here’s a Marzipan Cake with Gin Blueberries and Brown Butter Swiss Meringue Buttercream to demonstrate my commitment to the dream that’s so far been October.
It’s a good cake, revelatory in nutty sweetness and intense with flavoural depth. It’s my perfect white cake. Perfect is an understatement. Rather, it’s the white cake. For so long I’ve struggled with white cakes, the one’s in the past could never quite live up to my inner expectations and without fail discontent. And after many tweaks, this is it. The cake crumb is intensely moist, soft and fluffy. Richly flavoured with marzipan, almond and vanilla bean. The four layers are drenched in a gin sugar syrup and then slathered with jammy pockets of quick blueberry preserves. There’s a very burnt brown butter Swiss meringue buttercream to coat the cake too. And a little hint of cinnamon. It’s a dream kind of cake.
This recipe utilises the reverse creaming method. The technique requires that instead of the butter and sugar being creamed together at the start, the butter is incorporated into the dry ingredients later on. It’s a method that I wholeheartedly endorse. The result being a more moist and flat cake, with a finer crumb.
I used fresh blueberries for the preserves. You could also use frozen. If so, make sure to keep an eye on the liquid level. The preserves might need slightly longer to thicken on the stove top too. Additionally, the blueberries I used weren’t particularly sweet. Adjust the sugar levels as necessary to accommodate for berries that a little on the sweeter side, or a little sour.
If you don’t like gin, you could easily substitute it for another alcohol or even juice of choice. Amaretto liqueur would be a wonderful replacement. As too would champagne. Or even fresh orange juice.
MARZIPAN CAKE WITH GIN BLUEBERRIES AND BROWN BUTTER SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM
For the cake:
175 g marzipan, 300 g granulated sugar, 280 g cake flour, 100 g almond meal, 1 tbsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, 215 g unsalted butter (at room temperature), 260 g egg whites (at room temperature), 325 g sour cream (at room temperature), 1 tbsp. vanilla bean extract, 1 tsp. almond extract
Pre-heat the oven to 180 c (350 f). Grease and line 4 x 15 cm cake pans with non-stick parchment paper. Set aside.
Use your fingers to break the marzipan apart and into rough chunks. Place the pieces into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment, along with the granulated sugar. Beat, on medium speed for 2 minutes, or until the marzipan is evenly broken up.
Meanwhile, whisk together the cake flour, almond meal, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients into the stand mixer. Beat, on low speed until combined.
Set the mixer speed back to medium. Add in the butter, a tablespoon at a time, until it is all used up. Beat, for a further 3 to 5 minutes, or until combined. The mixture should begin to form something that resembles a rough dough ball around the beater blade.
In a separate large pouring jug or bowl, whisk together the egg whites, sour cream, vanilla bean extract and almond extract.
Set the mixer speed to medium-low. Pour in half the liquid ingredients. Beat until just combined then pour in the remaining mixture. Pause mixing to scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl as needed. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, 3 more minutes.
Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans, making sure to use a rubber spatula to smooth out the top. Bake, for 30 to 35 minutes, or until risen, lightly brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and let them cool in their pans for 15 minutes before carefully turning out and onto a wire rack to cool completely. Once cool, level off any domed tops.
For the blueberries:
400 g blueberries, 65 g granulated sugar, 1 tbsp. lemon juice, 1 tbsp. gin, 1 tsp corn flour, seeds from 1 vanilla bean, 1/8 tsp salt
Place the blueberries, granulated sugar, lemon juice, gin, corn flour, vanilla bean seeds and salt into a large saucepan set over medium heat. Stir to combine. Heat, stirring often, until the sugar has completely dissolved and the berries are beginning to release their juices. Increase the heat to medium-high. Continue to cook, stirring often, until the berries have slumped and the syrup is thick and reduced by a quarter, 5 to 7 more minutes. The syrup should also be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Turn off from the heat and let the preserves sit at room temperature until cool, making sure to stir occasionally to prevent a skin from forming.
For the buttercream:
350 g unsalted butter (at room temperature), 180 g egg whites, 210 g granulated sugar, 1 tsp vanilla bean extract, ½ tsp cinnamon, ¼ tsp salt
Place 150 g’s of the butter into a small saucepan set over medium heat. Set the remainder aside. Heat, stirring often, until the butter is golden and melted. Increase the heat to medium-high and continue to cook, swirling the pan occasionally but not stirring, until the butter is beginning to turn amber in colour and smells nutty in fragrance. The butter will begin to foam, but will subside as it continues to cook. Some brown butter solids should just be beginning to form at the base of the saucepan. Remove from the heat and pour the brown butter into a large pouring jug. Set it in the refrigerator to set until the butter is malleable and soft, about 1 hour.
Once set, remove the brown butter from the refrigerator and re-weigh it – you should have about 100 g’s. Add the remainder of the plain butter, as set aside above. Re-weigh to reach a combined total of 350 g of butter. You may need to add a little more plain butter depending on how much butter evaporated during the browning process. Set aside.
Place the egg whites and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk by hand to combine. Place the bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water set on medium-low heat. Do not let the bottom of the bowl touch the water. Heat, whisking often, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 70 c (160 f) on a candy thermometer. The sugar should be completely dissolved and the mixture hot to the touch. Once at temperature, remove the bowl from the heat and set it on the base of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.
Whisk, on medium-high speed, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture holds stiff peaks. The bowl should no longer be hot to the touch and the meringue should be glossy and cool. Pause mixing and swap the whisk attachment for the beater attachment.
Add in the combined butter, a tablespoon at a time, until it is all incorporated. Add in the vanilla bean extract, cinnamon and salt. Increase the mixer speed to high and continue to beat until the buttercream is thick and silky smooth, 5 more minutes. Set aside for assembly.
For the syrup:
50 ml gin, 50 ml water, 100 g granulated sugar
Combine the gin, water and sugar in a medium sized saucepan set over medium heat. Heat, stirring often, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and set the syrup aside until needed.
To assemble the cake, place the first cake layer, cut side facing up, onto a serving plate or cake stand. Use a pastry brush to glaze the first layer of cake with a little of the gin syrup. Then, use an offset spatula to spread about 3 generous tablespoons of the buttercream over the top of the cake. Slightly hollow out the center of the buttercream with the back of a metal spoon to form a buttercream dam. Fill the center with two tablespoons of the blueberry preserves. Gently press on the second cake layer, cut side facing down. Repeat the layering process as above for the next cake layers. Gently press on the final cake layer, again, cut side facing down. Cover the top and sides of the cake with a thin layer of the remaining buttercream. Set the cake in the refrigerator to chill the crumb coat, about 30 minutes. Once set, remove the cake from the refrigerator and use the offset spatula to thickly spread on the final layer of buttercream and decorate the exterior however you desire. Set the cake back in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to firm the outside buttercream, before slicing and serving.