I’ve made no secret of the fact that Italy tugs at my heartstrings on a daily basis. In fact, I hope to live there one day… However, there’s one little problem with that. (I mean, in addition to not being a citizen, learning better Italian, getting a job there, and a host of other minor details that interfere with my fantasy.) Many Italian desserts are heavy on almond paste and almond extract, and… I can’t stand the stuff. Even though I’ve been diligently practicing Italian pastry over the past year, I fear that I could never be a real Italian (again, let’s not focus on those inconvenient trivialities above) if I don’t like almond flavor. In fact, I’d like to lodge a formal complaint against almond flavor; to whom, I’m not sure, but nevertheless! Why is it that almond paste and extract taste nothing like the delicious nuts? Why do they need to taste all bitter-floral? Why do people like this stuff, for the love of god?! What I learned from the sage internets is that almond paste and extract are made from bitter almonds, whereas the almonds that we eat are sweet almonds– two different varieties. In fact, bitter almonds are poisonous thanks to a small amount of naturally occurring cyanide and are illegal in the United States– see, the stuff can kill you. I knew I wasn’t crazy. Yes, the cyanide is removed from almond paste/extract, but now I can’t un-know that. In light of all this, the Tricolor Cake from Baked Occasions that Baked Sunday Mornings was making this week promised to be a profound test of my commitment to make every recipe in the book… Could I overcome my inclination to vigorously scrub my mouth out at the taste of almond flavoring?
Perhaps I should go back to focusing on Italy. In researching Italian Tricolor Cookies, from which this cake was inspired, I learned that they are distinctly an Italian-American delicacy, created by Italian immigrants in honor of the Italian flag colors; although bakeries in Italy boast many colorful treats, these are not one of them. They are, in fact, not much of a cookie at all. Tricolor Cookies (also known as Rainbow Cookies) consist of three thin layers of almond-perfumed sponge cake sandwiching layers of apricot or raspberry jam, covered with dark chocolate. They are cut into tiny squares, thus resembling a cookie. I think this layer cake iteration is a brilliant idea, and while any layer cake is a project, I would venture to guess that it’s less labor-intensive than the original version, no?
To make the cake, you’ll first cream together butter and sugar, then add a whopping 6 eggs, followed by the almond paste and almond extract. (I couldn’t bring myself to use so much almond flavoring, so I swapped in vanilla extract. Not that it made much difference.) As I added the eggs, they became increasingly difficult to incorporate, and the mixture looked like might break/curdle, but once I added the almond stuff, it smoothed out fine.
You then add the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) in 3 batches, alternating with milk. Then comes the color: I weighed my batter and measured out ⅓ of it into a smaller bowl (675g, to be precise), which I colored with a mix of Leaf Green and Forest Green Americolor Gel food coloring. I colored the rest with Super Red, and split that evenly between the remaining two cake pans.
The recommended baking time is 40-50 minutes, and my BAKED cakes are usually on the low side, but these cake layers needed about 53 minutes. Even then, I was worried that they would sink in the centers, but they were actually completely level and fully baked. They were also sturdy and easy to work with when stacking and frosting the cake.
I made the cakes on Day 1 and the rest of the components the following day: raspberry preserves combined with Chambord liqueur, chocolate ganache crumb coat, and chocolate glaze. The ganache is simply a combination of chocolate and cream (I opted not to add the optional framboise liqueur), and the shiny glaze is a mix of chocolate, butter, and corn syrup.
Now, this cake was not without its problems. Due to my aversion to almond flavoring, I had never actually worked with almond paste before… and it didn’t go super well. We are instructed to coarsely chop the almond paste before adding it to the mixer, but a lot of small pieces did not fully blend into the cake batter. I mixed and mixed and mixed, but to no avail; I was hoping that all the extra mixing wouldn’t adversely affect the texture of the cake. (It didn’t.) I wonder if it would have been more effective to warm it, mash it, or add it to the batter differently? I ended up with an almond paste chip cake batter… not ideal, but the cakes still turned out fine. If not for the food coloring, the chunks would probably not be visible at all.
Also, the book intro is not kidding when it says that the finished cake will only be as smooth as the crumb coat. I made the ganache for the crumb coat and let it set into a nice, spreadable consistency. Unfortunately, I let my perfectionism ruin what was probably just fine– I wasn’t quite satisfied with the finish, so I tried to smooth it further with a bench scraper… and just as I did this, the ganache rebelled against me and stiffened all at once. Therefore, the bench scraper dragged a bunch of chocolate crumbles with it, making the finish way more uneven than it had been. 🙁 I heated a small offset spatula over a stove burner to spackle the worst patches of ugly chocolate, which helped marginally, but the moral of the story is: don’t be so OCD! (Also, it might be a good idea to hold back a little chocolate, which could then be reheated and used for patching.)
Then, when I poured the shiny chocolate glaze, after a few minutes it looked like most of the chocolate was sliding off the sides– I’m not sure if this is normal, or if my glaze was too thin for some reason. (If it is normal, I would say this is an egregious waste of chocolate, and I might trying cutting the quantity of glaze in half.) I put the cake in the fridge to help it thicken and stop dripping, but when I took it out this morning, all the shine was gone and every.single.flaw was visible. So sad. I let it thaw for a while, and fortunately this did help a little.
When I finally cut the cake, I was delighted to find three tall, beautiful, fluffy layers tucked under a thick layer of chocolate (which was surprisingly difficult to cut through and caused the outer shell to earthquake a little). I was pleased to see that the chunks of almond paste weren’t as immediately obvious as I’d predicted. The texture and the aesthetics of the whole thing were really lovely, chocolate glaze flaws aside; it’s just the flavor that I couldn’t handle. The almond is of course very prominent, and oh yeah, I don’t like fruit cake fillings either, so this one is just not for me. However, if you are a person who likes almond cake and fruit filling, you will absolutely love this!
The cake is in the December holiday section of Baked Occasions for Christmas, what with the red and green, but I like to think of it as celebrating Italy all year round, so I decided to stick with the original colors. Incidentally, you can dye the cake layers any color you want for any occasion and add matching sprinkles: pastel colors for spring would be pretty, as would pink and red for Valentine’s Day, red/white/blue for ‘Murica (ugh), etc.
To get your Tricolor Cake on, visit Baked Sunday Mornings for the recipe. I can’t wait to see the other bakers’ colorful cakes– take a look while you’re there! 🙂
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2017.