A Very Particular Cake, Triple-Layer Vanilla Cacao Nib with Passion Fruit Curd and Coffee Frosting

This morning I woke up, brewed some coffee, made a fruit salad, and decided that today was the day to superlatively discuss cake.  A painstaking cake.  Supremely vanilla with its top frosted in coffee icing and its insides stuck together with passion fruit curd, studded with cacao nibs.

I am here to say confection doesn’t get much better than this.

The downside to discovering the greatest cake in the world is that it is even more of a pain in the ass to write about.  The recipe is really a collection of five smaller recipes, which means if you are interested in eating the greatest cake in the world you’ve got your work cut out for you.

You could also try and befriend someone you deem mad enough to take on such a project.  But even this has its downsides. Those who complete such tasks are usually quite particular people.  Adjectives such as stubborn and quixotic come to mind. 

Moving on.

The recipe comes from Milk Bar, of the Momofuku fame.  It was originally very modern in design.  Its frosting insides clearly visible from the outside. Three-tiered layers standing trim and tall and capable of serving six to eight people. 

However, this required acetate strips, a 6-inch cake ring, and the abolishment of a half dozen friends.  So my version is a little stockier.  A little less refined. And with the addition of cacao nibs instead of mini chocolate chips.  Because I’m particular when it comes to chocolate.

All and all it’s an outstanding cake, capable of comfortably feeding a baker's dozen.  People whom you must like very much.

Triple-Layer Vanilla Cacao Nib Cake with Passion Fruit Curd and Coffee Frosting


for the passion fruit syrup

5 passion fruit
50 g (¼ cup) sugar
juice of ½ a lime
pinch of salt
splash of vanilla extract

for the passion fruit curd (this will make extra)

200 g (1 cup) passion fruit puree (see note below)
130 g (2/3 cup) sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp powdered gelatin
340 g (3 sticks) butter, cold and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 g (½ tsp) kosher salt

for the chocolate cookie crumbs

50 g (1/3 cup) flour
2 g (½ tsp) cornstarch
50 g (¼ cup) sugar
35 g (1/3 cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 g (½ tsp) kosher salt
45 g (3 tbsp) butter, melted

for the vanilla cacao nib cake

230 g (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
500 g (2½ cups) sugar
120 g (½ cup) light brown sugar, packed
6 eggs
220 g (1 cup) buttermilk
150 g (1 cup) canola oil
25 g (2 tbsp) vanilla extract
370 g (3 cups) cake flour (see note)
8 g (2 tsp) baking powder
8 g (2 tsp) kosher salt
1½ cups chocolate covered cacao nibs, divided

for the coffee frosting

230 g (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
80 g (½ cup) confectioners sugar (sift if it’s clumpy)
110 g (½ cup) whole milk
3 g (½ tbsp) instant espresso powder (I’ve used up to 1 scant tbsp)
1 g (¼ tsp) kosher salt


for the passion fruit syrup

In a medium saucepan, combine the pulp from 5 passion fruit, sugar, juice, and salt.  Heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture comes together, stirring occasionally (2 to 4 minutes; you should end up with a little more than ½ cup); stir in vanilla extract.  Refrigerate until ready to use. It will thicken slightly as it cools and should be the texture of runny marmalade. (This can be made well in advance; it can also be frozen: defrost before using.) 

for the passion fruit curd

In a food processor, add 1 cup passion fruit puree and the sugar and blend until the sugar granules have dissolved.  Add the eggs and blend until the mixture turns orange-yellow in color.  Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and clean the food processor.

Heat the passion fruit mixture over low heat, whisking regularly.  It will start to thicken (keep a close eye on it). Right before it starts to boil, bloom the gelatin in a small bowl by stirring in 1½ tbsp of cold water (it should only sit a minute or two).

Once the mixture boils, quickly add it to your food processor along with the gelatin and butter (be careful not to overcook the curd); blend in the food processor until it becomes shiny and smooth.  Place in an airtight container and refrigerate. (This can be made up to 1 week ahead.)

for the chocolate cookie crumbs

Set the oven to 300 degrees.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the flour, cornstarch, sugar, cocoa, and salt and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until combined.  With the mixer running, pour in the melted butter and mix until it starts to clump.

On a parchment-lined cookie sheet, spread the clumped chocolate mixture and bake for about 20 minutes.  The clumps should still be slightly moist (they will harden as they cool).  Break up any very large clumps.  Let cool and store in an airtight container. (They can be made up to 1 week ahead and stored at room temperature, or in the freezer for longer.)

for the vanilla cacao nib cake

Set the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter, line with parchment paper, and butter again three 9-inch cake pans.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugars with the paddle attachment on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes.  Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula and with the mixer running on low add the eggs one at a time.  Beat on medium-high for another 2 to 3 minutes.  Scrape down the sides.

On low speed, slowly pour in the milk, oil, and vanilla. Mix for 4 to 6 minutes on medium-high until the batter becomes white and almost doubles in volume.  Don’t skimp on time here.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. On low speed, add in the flour mixture until the batter just comes together.  Scrape down the sides and mix with the rubber spatula to ensure all the flour has been incorporated. 

Divide the batter among your three prepared pans.  Give each a quick whap on the countertop to help disperse the batter.  Sprinkle a heaping cup of the cacao nibs evenly among the top of the pans (reserving about ½ cup for the top of the frosted cake as a garnish).  Bake for about 30 minutes or until the cake tops turn golden and their middles are no longer jiggly (the edges should spring back slightly when gently poked). 

Cool completely on a wire rack.  Loosen each cake by running a knife along the edges and gently tapping the bottoms on the counter.  Gently invert the layers and store in the fridge wrapped in plastic wrap until ready to use. (They can be made up to 5 days in advance.)

for the coffee frosting and final assembly

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar with a paddle attachment on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes until fluffy and pale yellow.  Meanwhile, whisk together the milk, espresso powder, and salt.

Scrape down the sides of the stand mixer and on low speed, very slowly stream in the milk mixture.  The butter will clump up a bit when this happens, so only pour a few tbsp of liquid at a time.  Don’t add more until the liquid gets fully incorporated.  Be patient.  Use immediately.

For assembly, place three small pieces of parchment paper on top of a cake plate or serving platter; they should overlap slightly (you’ll remove them after you frost the cake; they are there to help reduce your mess).  Select which cake layer you want for your bottom layer (reserve your best layer for the top) and invert so that the top of the cake is turned over on the parchment paper, and the flat smooth bottom layer is facing up. 

Using a pastry brush, spread about ½ the passion fruit syrup over the bottom layer.  Then top with a healthy dosing of the passion fruit curd.  It will slide a bit. Use your judgment on how much you’d like for the bottom layer (you’ll repeat this again with the next layer), you should have plenty to work with.  Sprinkle a thin layer of cookie crumbs over the top.  Then spread one-third of the coffee frosting on top (this won’t be easy, just do the best you can). 

Place the second layer on top of the frosting, again inverted so the smooth bottom is facing up.  Spread the remaining passion fruit syrup on top.  Add another healthy dose of passion fruit curd.  Sprinkle with cookie crumbs.  (You can also reserve some cookie crumbs for the top layer, if you wish.) Top with remaining cake layer (this can either be inverted or with the top facing right side up, your preference; inverted will be flat and more smooth while the top facing up will yield a slightly more rustic effect).

Using an offset spatula, frost the top with the remaining coffee frosting. (Dip the offset spatula occasionally in hot water to help ensure the top gets smooth.)  You can fill in the side crevices with any leftover curd and/or frosting and smooth using the spatula.  Garnish with the remaining cacao nibs.  Any leftover cookie crumbs will work well here too. Remove the parchment paper.

Transfer the cake to the freezer for an hour or so (long enough so that the layers will set).  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to five days (or store for up to 2 weeks in the freezer).  Let the cake warm up for at least an hour before serving.

Serves 12 to 16 people

-You can buy the passion fruit puree (see here on some tips for where to find it), but I like to make mine.  To do this, you’ll need top whirl the pulp from about 8 passion fruit in a food processor for about 15 seconds (the pulp is easily removed by slicing open the passion fruit, discard the outer shell).  Measure out 1 cup for the curd and any remaining pulp can be frozen.  In total, for this cake you’ll need about 12 to 15 passion fruit (or a little less than 2 cups passion fruit puree, divided).

-You’ll have extra of the passion fruit curd, which I did at the recommendation from Katie, of butter tree.  My favorite way to eat it was with a banana, some pineapple, and yogurt.  You won’t regret having extra, so I’ve worked a little surplus into the recipe (which I usually don't like doing, but if you are going through all this trouble you might as well enjoy the leftover bits ...).

-If you don’t have cake flour you can use 2 cups plus ½ cup plus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour and ¼ cup plus 2 tbsp cornstarch.  (The ratio is 2 tbsp cornstarch for every 1 cup flour, replacing 2 tbsp flour.)

-Everything can be made ahead of time, except for the coffee frosting.

-I’ve used whole milk with a little plain yogurt mixed in, in place of the buttermilk in a pinch.

-Have leftovers?  They can be frozen.


Carrot Salad with Mint and Dates, and Old Man Guavaberry

Carrot salad is something you’ve probably had with redundancy.  Likely alongside picnic potato salad or waffle fries.  Often upstaged by something piggy.  Hardly deserving of a special introduction.

Unless it’s good enough to voluntarily make three times in a week.  Especially if two of those times occur on vacation.  Then it might be worthy of a little discussion. 

I first made this salad out of arguable necessity on the island of Sint Maarten.  There we drank a lot of mojitos and Caribs, and ate chicken and rib platters saddled with four starch sides at a “lolo” called Sky’s the Limit, because a man named Elvis said so. 

Hot damn Elvis was right. 

It was the best thing we ate on the island.  You probably know where I am going with our second best.  We were lucky to have a small kitchen in our room and access to a grocery store that stocked carrots as big as hammers. 

We also had mint, leftover from the mojito-making.  And dates, leftover from Christmas that my mother thriftily packed in her suitcase.  And orange juice, with a little booze in it, leftover from my plane ride to the island.  Because I do not like to fly.

Throw in some lime, because it’s a crime to go without it when drinking Carib beer.  And some mayo, because eating a tuna sandwich with a little sand in it is pretty much a necessity on any beach vacation.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

When we weren’t gushing about our good fortune of Creole chicken plates and Elvis, we were eating this salad.  Because it is very, very good.  The dates add a caramel depth that the more traditional raisin addition leaves out. The citrus punches up the carrot, while the mint adds a peppery, grassy edge. 

The splash of rum is really a tribute to Old Man Guavaberry, the distillery on the island.  I brought a bottle home because, well, who can resist something like that?

To be sure it wasn’t the ocean—or our special island hammer carrots—I made the salad again this week.  It was just as good as it was in the Caribbean at happy hour.  The view isn’t quite as nice now, which you can clearly see below.  

But it's not so bad seeing carrot salad and a bottle of Old Man Guava at home, either.

Carrot Salad with Mint and Dates


1 bunch of carrots (about 5 large or 7 to 8 small), peeled and shredded
juice of ½ a lime
1 to 2 tbsp orange juice
4 to 5 tbsp of mayo
splash of rum, bourbon, etc. (about a tsp or two)
1 to 2 sprigs of mint, leaves taken off and roughly chopped
8 to 10 pitted dates, roughly chopped
pinch or two of red pepper flakes
salt, to taste


Place the shredded carrots in a bowl and add remaining ingredients; stir well.  Taste and adjust seasoning. (For the ingredients given in ranges, start with the smaller amount and add more as needed.)

Pair with obligatory rum cocktail.

Makes about ¾ quart

-There is a link above explaining a “lolo,” but essentially it is a small roadside BBQ joint.  I highly suggest reading about Sky’s the Limit too.

-This is definitely a salad with a carefree island attitude; it’s easily adjustable.  The hardest part is the shredding.

-I’m sure you can leave off the booze.  But it’s fun to add a little vacation in.


Butterscotch Pots de Crème, a Peace Offering

Let’s see.  Where to begin?  

Much has happened since we last left off.  I’ve moved, suffered a terribly sad breakup, a gladiatorial chest-rattling ailment, and a two-hour midterm on microbes.

Instead of feeling incredibly weepy for myself, I come here today with an offering of pots de crème for the universe.  Essentially, this is pudding.  But pudding so good it has silenced rooms.  And I’ve yet to see it last longer than a minute or two in any human’s presence.

I’ve made the recipe a few times—once with muscovado and later on with plain old brown sugar.  If you do not have the former do not be dissuaded.  In either case, it’s well worth the pint of cream.

The result is more custardy than you might expect—heavy cream and egg yolks will do that.  It’s not tooth-achingly sweet either, as some butterscotch desserts can be.  I also highly recommend leaving the cloud of whipped cream on top unsweetened.  It wonderfully balances the rich, toasty caramel that lies beneath.

The recipe conveniently makes four dinner guest-sized portions.  Except when you are only having two dinner guests.  Then you conveniently have a double ration for the cook.  Or perhaps you walk the ancillary portion down to your friends at the neighborhood wine shop? Who devour it instantaneously in your presence.  And might even swear a little.

The point is, no one who has seen the likes of these pots de crème has been able to resist them.  Nothing but praise.  Dishes scraped clean.  So tuck this recipe away for a day when you’ll need a little extra oomph. 

Because all is fair in love, war, and pudding.

Butterscotch Pots de Crème
Adapted from Orangette and Gourmet


2 cups (1 pint) heavy cream, divided
6 tbsp dark muscovado sugar or dark brown sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 tbsp demerara sugar
4 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract


Set your oven to 300 degrees and make sure you have a rack positioned on the middle level.  In a small saucepan, combine 1½ cups of heavy cream with the muscovado (or brown sugar) and salt.  Bring to barely a simmer on medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.  Remove from the heat.

In a medium saucepan, combine 6 tbsp of water with the demerara sugar over medium heat, swirling the pan occasionally, until the sugar gets browned and bubbly (it helps if you don’t use a dark-colored pan, so you can easily check the hue).  You’ll want it almost chestnut in color (this should take about 5 minutes).

Remove the browned sugar liquid from the heat and slowly add in the cream mixture, whisking to combine.  In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and vanilla and then add the hot cream mixture in a slow, thin stream, continuously whisking until combined. 

Set a fine-mesh sieve over a glass measuring cup and pour the custard through (you’ll need a 1-quart size or you’ll have to pour it in batches).  Skim off any foam with a spoon.

Select a baking dish that is large enough to hold four ramekins (or other oven-proof containers) without touching.  Fold a dishtowel to line the bottom of the dish.  Place your ramekins in the pan and divide your mixture among them.  Place a piece of aluminum foil over the top of each to help prevent a skin from forming.

Slide the baking dish into the oven and pour hot tap water into the dish until it is halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  Bake until the custard is set around the edges but still slightly jiggles in the middle when shaken (about 40 minutes).

Carefully remove the ramekins (they will be hot) and let cool on a wire rack (discard the foil).  The custard will continue to set as it cools.  Meanwhile, whip the remaining ½ cup of heavy cream until soft peaks form (you can do this by hand or with a stand mixer).  Refrigerate both the cooled pudding and the whipped cream for a few hours.

Divide the whipped cream among the puddings and serve.

Makes 4

-These are best the day they are made.

-I don’t have any tried-and-true suggestions for a demerara sugar substitution.  You might try using the Sugar In The Raw packets you see at coffee shops.  This is turbinado sugar and isn’t as deeply molasses-flavored but may be a good last-ditch effort.  


The Cesar. It Hits You Right in the Skull.

As a present, my little brother recently gave me a glass skull shot glass and a blank composition book titled, “People I Want to Punch in the Face.”  We Gelsomins are not a violent bunch.  But we do have a sick sense of humor.

I mention this because I finally had the chance to use my new morbid barware last Sunday.  Turns out, one and a half ounces of vodka fills up to the skull’s would-be procerus—the booze hits right underneath the eyebrows.

But right.  I am not here to talk faux-skull anatomy.  No.  I am here to discuss a better Bloody Mary.  A lighter, more whimsical Bloody Mary.  If you allow my use of whimsy and blood in the same sentence. 

To complicate matters a tad, this cocktail is technically called a César.  (And I will henceforth leave figures with murderous undertones out of this.) The drink is essentially a Canadian version of the standard aforementioned brunch cocktail. 

This recipe comes from the brains behind Joe Beef and Liverpool House, Frédéric Morin and David McMillan.  Brilliant men.  The two have mastered the art of fanciful, nostalgic food.

They do things like serve Hot Oysters on the Radio.  (Or on bags of sugar, erotic novels, albums, whatever.)  They’ve been known to bring their own foie gras on train trips.  And their own vintage glassware when ice fishing.

They also subscribe to extreme cocktail garnishing.  Which is fine by me.  A mutiny of accoutrement is precisely what I’m after.

I recommend a lemon and lime slice for starters.  The obligatory celery stalk, of course.  Perhaps a pickle, an olive or two, and preferably at least one type of shellfish.  Dave and I decided a plump oyster crown would do.

The cocktail is spicy, savory, and skillfully employs Clamato juice as a vodka transporter of sorts.

And they go down easy.  So watch it.  You don’t want to end up on anyone’s face-punching list.
The César
Adapted from The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts by Frédéric Morin, David McMillan, and Meredith Erickson


Old Bay seasoning (for garnish) (or you could try this)
1½ ounces of vodka (up to the eyebrows in a skull shot glass, or one shot)
dash of Worcestershire
few dashes of Tabasco
½ tsp grated horseradish, or to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
4 to 6 ounces Clamato juice
at least one lemon and lime wedge or slice
2 olives
1 pickle spear
1 celery stalk
1 raw oyster


Place the Old Bay or seasoning mixture on a plate.  Dip the edge of a pint glass into water or rub it with the wedge of a lemon.  Turn the glass upside down and press the edge into the seasoning, moving it gently in a circular motion to help the spices stick.

Fill the glass at least halfway with ice.  Add the vodka, Worcestershire, Tabasco, horseradish, and a pinch of salt and pepper.  Fill the glass up with Clamato to the top (allowing a little room for garnish displacement).  Stir, taste, and adjust the seasoning, as needed.

Add in the citrus, olives, pickle spear, and celery.  Top with an opened oyster, or seafood garnish of your choice.

Makes one cocktail.

-In a pinch, I used ground piment d’Espelette and a little salt in place of the Old Bay.

-A lobster claw would be a keen addition.  Other pickled vegetables, such as dilly beans, would be wonderful here, as well.

-You can see both the subtle skull shot glass and Bostonian Bully Boy vodka bottle in the background.  This is just an aside.

-Don't have Clamato?  Try one part tomato juice to two parts clam juice, as suggested here.