Jed’s birthday cake

Jed celebrated his birthday last month. For most of July, we had non-stop rain here in Manila. Sometimes we delude ourselves, putting a fantastical spin by imagining we were in London. Truth was, we were stuck in lockdown for the nth time, rain pouring as we looked at each other with nothing more to say. On that rainy Sunday morning, Elmo and I sang a happy birthday to him, a delicate candle perched on top of this cake I especially baked for his special day. And by the way, Jed is not a big cake person. Like that would dissuade me.

So this cake is a fancy rendition of good old white cake. I got the recipe from Thalia Ho’s blog. It’s called a “Marzipan Cake with Gin Blueberries and Brown Butter Swiss Meringue Buttercream.” A mouthful noh? Just by the name you could tell it’s going to be laborious. Worth it but laborious. What better excuse to fuss over an indulgent cake than your partner’s birthday. I rolled my sleeves and got to work.

Before I share how I conquered this cake, I want to sing my praises for Thalia Ho. Ever since I discovered her genius on Instagram, I pored over her blog (and even bought her beautiful cookbook Wild Sweetness) like a finals exam about her work was right around the corner. She’s a master baker and pastry stylist and photographer too. Her work has that subdued quality yet unmistakably decadent in ingredients and flavor. She takes inspiration from nature—fruits, herbs, florals, and spices. I could feel the seasons changing as I read through her recipes. And this is coming from someone who knows only sun and rain. Thalia Ho makes me long for baking on cold mornings where the heat from the oven is a welcome refuge rather than the last nail of hell coffin.

This cake has five components—(1) Marzipan, (2) Blueberry Compote, (3) White Cake, (4) Gin Syrup, and finally the (5) Buttercream Frosting. Yup! Five things to take care of before we get to the assembly process. Sometimes I am amazed by my hardwork to be honest with you. I can’t say I’m “in love” with the whole process, but I’m pretty sure I’m in love with the end product. Making a fussy cake like this takes patience and the whole time I’m puttering in the kitchen I remind myself to be in the moment. Anything done with joy tastes infinitely better than when I’m in a foul mood.

I had no idea what marzipan was. I wish I could easily buy it here in Manila, but you probably know that’s not the case. Turns out, I could just easily make it with almond flour, sugar, and an egg. Another example of what quarantine has done to all of us—learn to make things from scratch. So marzipan is basically an almond paste, so I let that sit in the fridge to set and made the blueberry compote.

Compote is, for me, just a fancy way of saying something that resembles a light jam, light in the sense that it’s not preserving something in a hardcore manner but more like making any fruit spreadable with sugar and a little bit of acid. The recipe details all of it.

The cake itself is a white cake that’s infused with a LOT of almond flavor, hence the marzipan. Thalia also used a reverse creaming method (which btw didn’t ring a bell to me until after I’ve baked the entire recipe and realized ohhh that’s what she meant), which is basically adding the butter after we’ve already mixed all the dry ingredients first. Usually when making cakes, we combine sugar and butter together, as they meld they transform into this creamy buttery mixture that I suspect makes the cake moist. Keywords here are “I suspect.” Anyway this reverse creaming method definitely resulted in a very, very moist cake, a creamy crumbly texture that almost feels like the cake has been slightly infused in almond liquid. It’s unbelievably soft.

So I made four separate 6-inch cake layers. That was quite an endeavor, especially if you have a tiny oven like me. That’s almost four times the number of hours each cake has to be baked. Ugh!

The last component, and definitely another round of extended kitchen time, was the brown butter swiss meringue buttercream. This frosting is a little extra because we have to brown a portion of the butter that goes into it. That means heating up the butter until it becomes this liquid gold in shiny caramel color. Then we proceed with whisking an insane amount of butter with fluffy, stiff-peaked egg whites, and, of course, a crazy amount of sugar. I’m health conscious but also a big dessert person (obviously), so everytime I make decadent cakes I brace myself whenever I see these copious amounts of butter and sugar, which to me translates to diabetes and heart attack—the bane to my sanity.

I also bought a special gin for the simple syrup. I wanted to follow the recipe word for word to ensure the best results. I mean I’ve already embroiled myself in this much effort, I may as well do it right, right?

Finally, assembly time comes (I think a day after a whole day of prep work). I swear baking could be a workout all on its own. I love love assembling cakes. I think it’s my favorite part, even more enjoyable for me than eating it. I like playing with the frosting, swirling the cake as I sculpt the smoothest possible coating. It’s truly therapeutic. It takes a certain amount of time too because you have to let the whole cake set in before you pile on more buttercream.

If you look at the images, I copied Thalia’s styling to a tee. Not that I have no imagination, I just love how hers looked like so I figured out how to do it. I like cakes that look pared down, embellished with real fresh flowers, minimal, elegant. This cakes involves a little piping action. As messy as it is to pipe frosting, it’s unbelievably satisfying to shoot these ribbony, swirly buttercream down a bursting plastic pipe. I just love it.

You can imagine the anticipation of eating this cake. Jed was curious too after watching me bust my ass for two whole days. I made another Thalia Ho Vanilla Cake a few weeks prior and he loved that cake. He even asked me to make that same cake. I said, “Sure! I’ll make you a better one, even.” And proceeded to make this cake. I mean it’s a white cake too with blueberries and almonds extravaganza. What’s not to like?

Slicing through all four layers of this cake is thrilling. It’s like Christmas morning. How will the inside turn out? And anything layered (with blueberry preserves and gin syrup lather on each one) just stimulates all my senses. It’s one of the prettiest cakes I’ve ever made.

So on that dreary morning, on Jed’s birthday, we had this cake on our breakfast table. As for a main meal, we were hardly prepared. We had plans actually to eat outside but because of the heavy downpour, we had no choice but to stay at home (forever lol). So we fried some spam and cooked eggs sunny side up. We ate rice, spam, eggs, and brewed coffee for breakfast. Then we ate this cake.

It’s no doubt a mouthful of almond flavor. The crumb was soft and sweet. Definitely not one dimensional as it’s a combination of almond, gin, and vanilla. The blueberries add a burst of tanginess, like how it’s used in cheesecake. I have to admit that almond, in all its fancy glory, is a bit of an acquired taste for me. It’s intense and refined all at once. But this cake, when paired with strong coffee, makes one hell of a rich and delicious dessert.

Rain still pouring, we ate this cake while watching some Netflix movie. I don’t recall the movie. I was just happy it was all worth it. And spam was shockingly a great prelude for this cake. A pleasant surprise altogether.

(Again, see entire recipe here.)

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