Four people are sitting around a kitchen table. It’s the fourth of July. It’s raining. There’s prosciutto and capicola with some salty cheeses, sour cherry jam, and a rosé (a Lagrein sturdy enough to handle the charcuterie aggression). It’s a primer for what’s coming.
Chickpeas are tossed in the first pesto of the summer with local beans sautéed in Pernod. There’s also a tomato basil salad with peaches and mozzarella, drizzled in balsamic vinegar and a grassy olive oil.
Plus homemade fettuccini made earlier in the company of warm rain. Rain that canceled the scheduled fireworks. So the freshly made nests of pasta will have to do. Boom.
They are served with spicy tomato oil littered with dried peppers and sweetened with a spoonful of honey. By the pasta course, another rosé has been taken down and most of another bottle of red is gone. The evening has begun its descent towards an Amarone assigned to cover dessert.
And dessert does come. By this time the votives are flickering their final breaths and Frank Sinatra’s crooning has mellowed full bellies. Laugher is louder. Opinions with hearty conviction take hold. All this is preparation for the pleasant destruction that follows.
A salty vanilla bean cake with pastry cream insides. It’s dense and unapologetically onerous. Slightly mellowed by a sidecar of summer berries tossed in Saba, balsamic, black pepper, and a spoonful of strawberry jam. A dessert that isn’t for the timid, yet is pretty much incapable of being disliked by anyone.
A dessert that causes body parts to puff. There is a whole tablespoon of salt hidden in the cake, mind you. But the wine and salty accoutrement do little to help the cause. Feet swell a whole shoe size. So much so that it becomes difficult to put rain boots back on. Cake feet, as they are quickly nicknamed in response.
But the cake. Oh, the cake. Its thick slices have soft, creamy middles. The dessert could easily stand on its own; in fact, it becomes forked at later in the evening by sated guests who still can’t stop. But the berries add a spark of summer, and so they come highly recommended.
The night crackles. Everyone rumbles home. Slightly banged up, and fully satisfied.
Salty Vanilla Bean Cake with Black Pepper Balsamic Berries
pastry cream (makes extra)
4 cups whole milk
½ cup (100g) granulated sugar, divided
pinch kosher salt
¼ cup cornstarch
9 large egg yolks
2 ounces (55g) cold butter, cubed
3 tbsp vanilla paste
16 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
16 ounces (450g) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla paste
3 large eggs, room temperature
13 ounces cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 cup blueberries
2 cups cherries, pitted
½ cup currants
splash saba (grape must)
splash balsamic vinegar
few cracks of fresh ground black pepper
1 tbsp strawberry jam
pinch of salt
For the pastry cream, place a medium bowl inside a larger bowl filled with ice; set aside.
In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, ¼ cup sugar, and salt and set on medium heat. In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and remaining ¼ cup sugar. When the milk has come to a boil, reduce the heat to low (watch the milk and turn it off if it starts to bubble). Whisk the yolks into the cornstarch mixture.
Slowly whisk a little (about ¼ cup at a time) of the hot mixture into the yolk mixture; continue to mix in a little hot liquid in small amounts until the yolks become warm to the touch. Whisking constantly, slowly pour the warmed yolk mixture into the saucepan with the remaining milk. Cook over low heat, stirring, until it thickens (stay close by to prevent the eggs from getting too hot and scrambling).
Remove from heat and whisk in the butter and vanilla bean paste. Transfer the pastry cream to the prepared ice bath. Cover with plastic wrap pressed to the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Allow to cool slightly and then place in the fridge to completely chill.
Once the pastry cream has chilled and you are ready to make the cake, set the oven to 325 degrees. Butter one or multiple springform pans (see notes for sizing), line with parchment paper, and butter the parchment and sides. Flour the pan, tap out the excess flour, and set aside.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, scrapping down the sides of the bowl every minute or so. Add in the vanilla paste and then the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape the bowl and then add the dry ingredients on low speed until just combined.
In two pint glasses, place a pastry bag or ziplock bag and open each wide so batter can be filled in one of the bags and pastry cream in the other. Smooth down the cake batter so it fills the bottom of the bag (clip a small corner of the bag if you are using a ziplock) and pipe a ring of batter in the bottom of your prepared pan, starting at the outer edges of the pan and slowly working in towards the center so that the entire bottom is covered. Then pipe another ring along the inside perimeter of the pan on top of the first layer (see here for pictures). This will hold the pastry cream inside.
Fill the pastry cream bag, again ensuring the liquid collects in the bottom (clip a corner of the bag, if necessary) and pipe pastry cream along the inner ring, inside the space created with the batter. Essentially, the batter will hold the pastry cream. (You will not use all the pastry cream.) Pipe another layer of batter on top, keeping it level with the ring of batter and sealing in the pastry cream. (You may have extra batter.) With moistened hands, gently smooth down the top of the cake. Repeat with the second pan, if using.
Place a baking sheet under the cake pan(s) to collect any dripping batter. Bake the cake for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the top is deep golden brown and set. Avoid opening the oven door for at least 50 minutes; try to rely on your oven light as necessary.
Allow to cool to room temperature before unmolding. While cooling, combine all ingredients for the berries and chill until ready to serve.
Serves about 12
-You can easily cut the pastry cream recipe in half. I served extra with the cake and made the remainder into popsicles. I’d advise making the cream ahead of time (it will keep at least 2 days).
- I used an 8-inch springform and had enough batter leftover for a scant fill of a 6-inch springform pan, as well. I didn’t have any issue baking the smaller cake and leaving it in the oven for as long as I did the 8-inch. (The pastry cream and high percentage of fat helps to keep everything nice and moist.) Of note, the cake really rises so you’ll want the pans to be at least 2½ to 3 inches high.
-Any cake leftovers can easily hang in the fridge for a few days, or can be stored longer in the freezer.
-I mail-ordered vanilla paste (which is essentially vanilla bean plus sugar and thickener). Theoretically, you can substitute one 1 vanilla bean pod per tbsp of the paste, though I’m not sure how this would affect the texture.