|Our adorable neighbor, John. I like to call him “Pop.”|
How often do you get invited to someone’s 102nd birthday party? If you’re like Glinda and me, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime proposition and a big deal for us. Our neighbor, Linda, asked us to celebrate her father’s 102nd birthday over the weekend, and we adore John — he’s sharp and funny, and still surprisingly active, and he scolds us about our “peach” tree every summer — so of course we said yes. Then we started wondering What do you get for someone who’s 102 years old? It’s not like he really needs anything. We got him a nice bottle of wine for his 100th, and he spent 101 in Italy. So what do we do to honor a century plus on this earth for a man we’re so very fond of?
About the time we started talking about gifts, our friend, Pam, posted a photo of a cake that had captured her fancy. We could both see why, the thing looked like it had been made by the fairies. I’d seen similar ones on Pinterest (Source of all that is gorgeous and inspiring) but never one like this. Quite simply I thought it was the prettiest cake I’d ever seen. I went searching for the original in hope of finding out more about it, but the only citation I could find via Google Images was from The Natural Wedding Company and I don’t know where they got the original photo, but the only hint of a recipe was a notation about yellow cake and a mix of lemon curd and whipped cream as a filling. I thought it looked like a sliced angel food, but what do I know?
So we decided to give it our best shot. Linda had told us that his favorite cake was vanilla or yellow cake with strawberries. Glinda was tasked with finding a cake recipe, I had to find a filling that I thought John would enjoy. If we weren’t satisfied with our choices, we’d go buy a really nice cake at Swedish Bakery and give it to him along with more wine. If we found a combination that we thought would be really delicious and achieve the look we wanted, we’d decorate it together and share the blame if it ended up looking like an explosion at a garden party.
Glinda went to one of her favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen. She’s always said that the recipes she finds there aren’t insanely difficult, but they always look and taste like they’re much more labor intensive than they are. She did some searching on the site and found a recipe entitled “Best Birthday Cake.” Glinda’s process is to find a single recipe she really likes, study it, and then make it as written with very few changes, if any on the first go. If the recipe was good, her cake would be.
My process is a bit different. I tend to collect between three and six recipes for the same thing, study them for what they all have in common, and then work up my own recipe. In this case, I thought about doing a crème pâtissière, so I went back to my store of recipes that I’d collected when I did Glinda’s birthday cake. Along the way I discovered diplomat cream, a heady mixture of crème pâtissière and sweetened whipped cream. I swooned. I began researching diplomat cream recipes and watching YouTube videos on the making of diplomat cream, and found one that so completely fit the bill that further research and refinement was pointless. The video that convinced me is Pastry Cream and Diplomat Cream – The Aubergine Chef . His crème pâtissière had the right heft, something I hadn’t seen in the other videos. Adding whipped cream to it, would still give us a substantial filling that wouldn’t melt right into the cake, even under the weight of the fruit. I found his recipe, and made a shopping list.
On the morning of the party, Glinda and I were out of the house by 6:30 and at the Oak Park farmers’ market by 7 a.m. There’s a lot to be said for hitting the market that early. It’s not crowded, and even on hot days, the mornings are cool and pleasant. We shopped for about an hour, buying four big tomato plants, three pounds of asparagus, a pound of rhubarb, a five pound jar of local honey, a pound of harvest butter, pea shoots, and a pot of violas just in case we wanted to add them to the cake. We also got a jar of strawberry jam. Our plan was to skim coat the layers with jam just to make sure the cream didn’t sink into them immediately. But there were no good-looking berries since it was only late May and we’d had a terribly hard winter. That meant we had to hit Mariano’s.
So after breakfast at the new Elly’s, which has a very nice bakery in back where we scored croissants and bread, we headed out to Mariano’s and did the fastest shopping run I think we’ve ever done. So fast, in fact, that I think we missed Linda and John who were shopping there about the same time! We bought two pounds of strawberries and a pint each of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. They all looked and smelled lovely, so we had high hopes that they would taste good too. We picked up more whipping cream, just in case the whole decoration thing went south. Frosting the cake with whipped cream would cover a multitude of sins. And then we doubled down. We didn’t buy a back-up cake. We did, however, buy another jar of jam because the color was better. Yes, we’re just that picky.
On the way home we popped into Michael’s in search of butterflies. Most of them were much too sparkly. John is not a sparkly guy. We finally found a sheet of stick-on butterflies, most of which wouldn’t look good, but one or two of which would be fine. Yes, we’re just that picky.
Once home, Glinda went upstairs to bake. I started the crème pâtissière. It was easier than I thought it would be even though it had a lot of steps, something which often makes me impatient. (Now you know why I’m erratic.) Before chilling it, I tasted it and swooned. It was like the best eclair filling ever. I think maybe it was at this point that I knew this cake would taste heavenly.
Glinda let me taste the cake batter, and when it came out of the oven, there was a broken bit so we split it. Both were extraordinary. The crumb on that cake was so tender it nearly melted in my mouth. Glinda had added a tiny bit of almond extract along with the vanilla, and while it wasn’t obvious, it rounded out the flavor beautifully. She tasted the pastry cream and approved. With the deadline rapidly approaching, and both of us badly needing showers since the day had been hot, and we had collected some Unidentified City Dirt along the way, we agreed to meet downstairs in an hour to begin the construction.
Once washed and dressed, I finished the diplomat cream by making sweetened whipped cream and folding it into the beaten pastry cream. I tasted it. I swooned a lot. Glinda came down with the cake layers and I let her taste the filling. She swooned. Glinda doesn’t swoon often, so you know this stuff is so good you could die from it.
She’d brought down two tall, beautiful layers which needed to be sliced in half, a fairly difficult and dodgy procedure which took close to 20 minutes of scoring and micro-cuts, and subsequent trimming up of floppy or uneven bits. But once the layers were cut to suit Glinda, we began construction.
Yes, the dripping jam was intentional. Also the all-strawberry filling. If John likes strawberries best, that was what he was going to get, by god. You can see that the diplomat cream is good at holding a soft shape, and supporting the fruit which is one of the things I was most worried about. So good cake, good filling, good fruit = proof of concept. I had the sense that we were going to do this thing.
We knew from studying a lot of photos of “naked cakes” that contrast was the key to creating something memorable, that dark fruit added drama, and of course, the flowers had to compliment the colors of the fruit. Glinda went out to the garden and began to cut rosebuds and green strawberries with long stems and their leaves. We had tons of possibilities for the flowers but we knew that we could overdo it way too easily and end up with something fussy, something that looked like, as my mother would have said, “Tried to and couldn’t.” In this case less wasn’t more but more wasn’t more either. We had to find just the right amount of too much.
We had plates of washed and dried fruit and flowers to work with, beautiful stuff, really, and tasty enough with the added boost of the sugar in the cake and filling. We planned, we placed, we replaced, we cut, poked, evened out. And we got this: