It was like a dream: a coconut-topped, marzipan encased chocolate cake that was somehow not too sweet. My sister's Mother's Day Cake haunts me like a fuzzy-edged dream, like a memory so beautiful you can't tell if it's too good to have ever happened.
But it did happen! My sister baked my mother and me a cake last weekend. Many sisters and daughters and husbands and sons can bake a cake, but my Dear Sister baked us the chocolate cake from Julia Child's book. I did that once. But My Dear Sister made marzipan too. Homemade marzipan, with homemade almond paste. That is love. That is stubbornness. That is impressive!
I say stubborn because I made the lucky mistake of showing apprehension Mother's Day morning at her mentioning making marzipan and almond paste from scratch for the first time the same day as we were hoping to eat it. I have a history of taking on similar projects too close to a deadline, but marzipan is not just any project. It requires a candy thermometer; it requires cooking sugar to a soft ball stage. Oh, the intimidation!
Sister, I stand in awe.
She mistook my suggestion to "just buy the marzipan" as a doubt in her culinary ability, so she apparently resolved to make it herself. Oh, happy mis-communication! Oh happy day!
I suppose you can already tell from my seemingly excessive enthusiasm that the cake and the marzipan were superb. I felt before, when I made the cake, that the layer of ganache I poured over the top overpowered the delicate almond and chocolate flavor. Her cake obviously remedied this conundrum. The layer of marzipan kept the essence of light sweet almond, and the unsweetened coconut dusting felt like a little epiphany. Of course! Coconut should go with this delicate little cake. Of course! Marzipan should hug close to the cake in every bite. Rarely have I had an icing that felt like it really belonged. In fact, I recommend this marzipan icing only for this cake. If you do not want the marzipan, then just eat the cake plain (though it tastes far from plain), otherwise I believe the cake's integrity is compromised.
And I will share soon about why I can even recommend attempting to make your own almond paste. Soft-ball stage is not so hard after all. A thermometer helps. I might not yet be plunging my cold, wet hand into the boiling sugar to pluck a 'soft-ball' from the mixture (this is how my culinary friends are taught the stages of sugar--you cannot graduate until, literally, you take the plunge...), but I can the follow directions with a thermometer. Listen to me who was intimidated! Be not intimidated by boiling sugar! Really, it is easier than trying to cook a hunk of meat.
Mara's Marzipan Chocolate Cake
(adapted from Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking)
For the Marzipan:
Whip until fluffy:
1 egg white
Work in gradually:
1 cup Almond Paste*
1 1/2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
Use more if necessary to make a paste that is easy to handle. Should it become too thick, work in drop by drop:
Should it become too oily, work it in a dish over ice. In either case, knead the paste. Then roll it into a round to fit over the cake.
For the Cake:
4 ounces dark chocolate melted with 2 tablespoons rum (Mara used Black Spiced Rum)
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
3 eggs, separated
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/3 cup pulverized almonds
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup flour (sifted into a bowl and then measured)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a nine inch round cake pan, set aside. Set chocolate and rum in a small pan, cover, and place in a larger pan of almost simmering water; let melt while you proceed with the recipe. Measure out the rest of the ingredients.
Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks until well blended.
Beat egg whites and salt in a separate bowl until soft peaks form; sprinkle on the sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.
With a spatula, blend the melted chocolate into the butter and sugar mixture, then stir in the almonds and almond extract. Immediately stir in a quarter of the egg whites to lighten the batter. Delicately fold in a third of the remaining whites and when partially blended, sift on one third of the flour and continue folding. Alternate rapidly with more egg whites and more flour until all whites and flour are incorporated.
Turn the batter into the cake pan, pushing the batter up to its rim. Bake in middle level of preheated oven for about 25 minutes. Cake is done when it has puffed, and when 2 1/2 to 3 inches around the circumference are set so that a toothpick inserted into that area comes out clean; the center should jiggle slightly if shaken, and a toothpick comes out oily.
Allow cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and reverse cake on the rack. Cool completely.
Shape a 1/4 inch marzipan layer to fit cake and lay/mold/shape it on. Sprinkle a layer of unsweetened coconut on top and sides and press into the cake. Serve with hot coffee, tea, or cold milk. Enjoy!
If you purchase almond paste, make sure it is high-quality, 'genuine' almond paste. This is no time for an icky ingredient.
Grind 1 lb almonds in a food processor. (Usually you blanch them, but my sister did not, and I liked the whole almond taste.) Usually you want almond flour, this time, let it go oily.
Cook to the end of the soft-ball stage, 240 degrees, in a large heavy pan:
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
Add the ground nuts and:
6-8 tablespoons orange juice
Stir cooked sugar, ground almonds, and juice until thoroughly blended and creamy. Let cool until you can knead it. Use confectioners' sugar to coat your hands (like flour for kneading bread). Flatten paste on a hard surface dusted with confectioners' sugar, then mold it into desired shape. pack in a closely covered tin or jar to ripen for 6-8 days. (OK, Mara did not do this last step of ripening. She did not have time. But if you have the foresight, do it.)