Happy Birthday to Me!
There is an Italian dessert called cassata cake that features sponge cake layered with ricotta, candied citrus peel and a kind of vanilla cannoli cream all covered with marzipan and topped with candied fruit.
This isn’t that.
This is the version you can only get in Cleveland.
Cleveland? Oh, yes. Cleveland.
Apparently the children of an Italian baker in Cleveland in the 1920s didn’t like the traditional cassata cake so he invented something just for them. (I totally understand because frankly I can take it or leave it most of the time). And the Cleveland version of cassata was born. Now Mario Batali has apparently proclaimed the cassata at one Cleveland bakery the best he’s had outside of Italy.
It’s still got the sponge cake, but that’s about it… instead of ricotta and cannoli cream, there’s rum-laced custard. Instead of candied peel, there’s macerated strawberries. And instead of marzipan, there’s silky whipped cream. It’s the cake my parents had at their wedding. It’s the cake probably every Italian kid on the east side of Cleveland has at their first communion. It’s the cake you stuff your face with while walking up Mayfield Road at the Feast of the Assumption festival, all four days, if possible. It’s the cake I suddenly decided on Monday I had to have for my birthday on Tuesday.
I don’t entirely know what came over me, but between strawberry season coming early after a freakishly warm April and a slew of cooking magazines with strawberry confections on their covers, I got it in my head that I had to have this cake. Like, now. Of course Corbo’s bakery in Little Italy isn’t exactly giving away any secrets (heck, they don’t even have a Web site!), so I relied on memory (and a phone call to my parents who, incidentally, were in Cleveland this week) and cobbled together a couple of different recipes to come up with this. Part of that process included trying to trim the whole thing down to a dessert that is significantly smaller than mega-party-sized but still keeping it a mile-high tower of strawberries, cake and custard.
While I say all the time I can’t bake, I guess I proved myself wrong with this one, though as you can probably guess from the lack of in-process photos, it wasn’t necessarily pretty getting there. But if I can make this, so can you. It is a real sock-knocker-offer if you’re having company, but without committing to serving 12.
Kitchenette Cleveland Cassata Cake
Serves 2 or more
Don’t be deterred by the collection of components or time commitment this recipe requires. The world’s easiest custard comes together while the cakes are baking and everything can cool at once. The strawberries can macerate while you whip the cream and from there it’s all just a matter of stacking it up and chilling. And blowing out the candles.
for the cake
1 cup/5 ounces cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 (5.5 ounces) cup sugar + 1/4 cup
3 large eggs
4 large egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup cold water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
for the custard
1/4 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks
1 cup half-and-half
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tabelspoons dark rum
for the strawberries
1 pound strawberries
1 Tabelspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon dark rum
for the whipped cream
1 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons sugar
for the cake
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the middle position.
Sift together flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder and salt into a large bowl.
In a separate bowl with a hand mixer, beat together yolks, water, oil, lemon zest and vanilla until smooth. Stir the yolk mixture into the flour mixture.
With a stand mixer, beat egg whites on medium speed with cream of tartar until frothy. Add remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat on high until stiff and shiny.
Using a rubber spatula, gently fold about 1/4 of the egg whites into the batter until fully incorporated. Gently fold in the rest of the whites, taking care not to actually stir or otherwise deflate the whites, since this is what will make your sponge cake spongy.
Divide the mixture between two 6-inch round cake pans and bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick comes out of the center clean. If they puff up a bit while baking, don’t panic, they will deflate a bit as they cool.
for the custard
While the cake is baking, make the World’s Easiest Custard, starting by whisking together the egg yolks, half-and-half and cornstarch in a small saucepan. Put the saucepan over medium-low heat and whisk constantly until the mixture thickens, about two minutes. This will happen very suddenly, so keep whisking! One second it will be thin and the next it will be Suddenly Custard; it doesn’t get any easier than this but you have to be paying attention.
Remove custard from heat and transfer to a bowl, cover and cool to room temperature. When cooled, more to ‘fridge for at least three hours.
The the cakes and the custard can be made the day before assembly and chilled overnight.
About an hour before you want to assemble the cake (several hours before you plan on eating it), slice the strawberries, reserving a few to top the cake. Mix the sugar, rum and strawberries in a bowl and let sit at room temperature to macerate, stirring occasionally.
Whip together the cream and sugar until stiff, set aside.
Using a large serrated knife, split each of the cake rounds in half horizontally so you have four cake layers, placing the first on whatever plate or cake stand you plan to present it on. Tip the bowl of strawberries so you can access the rum-strawberry juice that has collected and brush the first layer of cake with the juice. Using a slotted spoon, spread 1/3 of the strawberries on the cake layer. Spread 1/3 of the custard on top of the strawberries. Top with the next pieces of cake and continue with the cake-juice-strawberries-custard layering.
When the top cake layer has been added, use a spatula to “frost” the entire cake with whipped cream.
Top with the reserved raw strawberries, carefully cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least two hours, longer if you can wait that long.
Blow out your candles and have a great birthday.
Remind others to share, if necessary.