Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Elderflower Cake

This weekend, at the Union Square green market, I bought a small basket of elderflowers. I don’t recall seeing them at the market before. I took them home, put them on the kitchen counter -- white on white -- and instantly, happiness arrived. But it was a strange kind of happiness, the kind that comes with a load and lingering aftertaste and leaves you wanting. But in a good kind of way.

My grandmother had a garden. It was small garden, say a tenth of an acre, perhaps even less. But it was lush, with all kinds of trees, bushes, flowers, and herbs planted in a haphazard way that probably looked weird in the beginning, but over the decades that my grandmother inhabited the house, the randomness turned into order, the plants thrived, and the garden became larger than life. It was fenced with a wrought-iron gate and ivy-covered brick walls, sightly slanted and crumbly, and to a six-year-old it seemed like an enchanted forest. 

At the edge of the garden was an elderflower tree. Old an imposing, it covered a large section of the garden, touching the house almost. It cast a deep shade on everything, and in the summer protected the house from the merciless Belgrade heat. I never thought much of the tree, it was a constant, a default... I was seldom around to see it bloom. Or maybe I was too young to remember. I never thought much of the flowers either -- among magnificent lilacs, peonies, and tulips they seemed of lesser significance. 

It’s been a long time since I left. Belgrade has changed. Modern, luxury high-rises have sprung up along the river, glittering billboards have crowned almost every rooftop in the city, and the sunset over the Great War Island, where the Sava and Danube rivers meet has acquired grayish tint. Yet, the garden still exists inside my mind’s eye. And it is more beautiful then ever. Sometimes, after a long day, I curl up in the sofa with a book in my lap, close my eyes and go for a visit. Strangely enough, it’s not the lilacs and peonies that come to me first. It is the tree. It’s always the tree. I open the iron gate, walk in and take a seat in its shade. The air is still, and somehow cool and warm at the same time, interlaced with scents of grass, moss, and geranium. I wait for the happiness to register, and then open my book and begin to read. 

Elderflower Cake

for the pastry cream:
80 grams sugar 
30 grams cornstarch 
50 grams egg yolks (3 egg yolks)
3 tablespoons Elderflower syrup of Saint Germain liquor
375 grams milk 
1/2 vanilla bean (or 1 tablespoon vanilla powder, I use Nielson Massey)
50 grams butter
1 gelatin sheet

for the sponge layers
6 eggs (at room temperature), yolks and whites separated
180 grams sugar, divided (120 grams + 60 grams)
1 tablespoon vanilla powder
½ teaspoon lemon zest, shaved on a microplane
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice
120 grams cake flour

to assemble:
250 ml heavy cream
edible flowers or sprinkles to garnish (optional)

three 8-inch springform pans. If you are using one, see the note for how to adjust the baking process.

Make the pastry cream: In a medium sized bowl combine the sugar and the cornstarch. Add the egg yolks and elderflower syrup, and whisk until pale and creamy. 

Pour the milk into a medium sized saucepan. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the inside. Add the seeds and the pod to the milk. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove the pod. 

Add the milk slowly to the egg mixture. Add carefully in batches to avoid cooking the eggs. Mix constantly. Once fully combined, pour the mixture back into the saucepan. Return the saucepan to the stove on medium heat. Whisk continuously until the cream thickens. It will take about 3 minutes. (Even if the cream thickens before, make sure you cook it for full three minutes to eliminate the cornstarch flavor.)

Remove the cream from the stovetop, add the butter and mix well. Push the cream through a sieve into a clean bowl. 

Soak the gelatin sheet in cold water until soft. Remove the gelatin from water, squeeze the water out and add to the cream.  Stir to dissolve. Refrigerate the cream for at least two hours, or overnight.

Make the sponges:  Preheat oven to 350°F and place the baking rack in the middle.

Lightly grease the baking pans and line them with parchment paper. 

Sift the flour.

Combine the egg yolks with 120 grams sugar, vanilla powder, and salt. Beat with the mixer for several minutes until the mixture is pale yellow, thick, and forms ribbons when you lift the whisk out of the bowl. Add the lemon zest and mix to combine.

Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl. 

Clean the bowl of the mixer and the whisk with soap and water and dry carefully.

Combine the egg whites (make sure that they are at room temperature), the remaining 60 grams of sugar, and the lemon juice in the bowl of the mixer. Mix on medium-high speed until the whites form firm peaks, about 3-4 minutes. (Do not beat all the way to stiff peaks, as the cake may collapse – the batter will have too much air and it may not be able maintain its own structure.)

Using a broad rubber spatula, gently fold half of the egg whites into the egg yolks. When completely incorporated, fold in the remaining egg whites. Add about a third of the flour and gently fold in with a broad spatula (the wider the better as it is more effective in mixing in the flour and helps reduce overbeating the batter). Repeat two more times until all flower is used. Be careful not to overmix as the cake will be spongy.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. 

Unmold the cakes and leave on a wire rack to cool completely before assembling.

Assemble the cake: Place the base of the cake on a cake platter. Spread half of the pastry cream evenly on top. Top with the second layer. Spread the remaining pastry cream on it and top with the third layer. Keep the cake in the refridgerator until ready to frost and decorate.

Beat the heavy cream. Frost the cake with the whipped cream. (You may leave a little bit of whipped cream to pipe the decorations, or alternatively, decorate with edible flowers or sprinkles.) 

Keep in the fridge until ready to serve.

Note: If you are using only one cake pan, do not make batter for all three upfront, because it will collapse over time. It is better to make three sponges separately. To do so, beat all egg yolks and sugar, and divide into three equal portions. Then, to make one sponge, beat two egg whites with 20 grams of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice and proceed according to the recipe. Repeat with the remaining sponges.