When I wed years ago, the dress, the setting, and the food were of utmost importance, of course.
But what was absolutely paramount was the cake.
After all, with my enormous sweet tooth known far and wide, my family and friends fully expected a wedding cake to remember.
I am happy to report they were not disappointed in the least.
Just how unforgettable was this moist almond cake adorned with the silkiest Italian meringue? With nary an ounce of shame, many of the guests will attest that they indulged in not one, not two, but even three slices that evening.
Leftover cake? I was lucky to claim just the top tier as my own. Every other piece was devoured.
And if you think I tucked that top away for a year to languish in my freezer, forget about it. I took it to my parents’ house the very next day, where my family, new husband, and I demolished it with gusto. Moreover, when Mother’s Day rolled around the next year, I had the baker who made it recreate it in a smaller size to give to my mom because that’s just how good it is.
One for the ages, if there ever was one, this cake was made by professional baker Nancy Kux, who used to own Nancy’s Fancies in San Carlos. I had sampled quite a few cakes from other bakers. But none had us scraping the box for every last crumb and lick of frosting like hers did.
This is not a light, fluffy, airy cake, but one that has a little more heft to it. It is buttery, tender, and full of almond flavor. It stays moist for quite a while, too, whether you store it in the fridge for a couple of days or freeze for a couple of months. As one wedding guest swooned about its Italian meringue buttercream: “This is better than whipped cream!” Indeed, it is. When enjoyed at room temperature, it softens like butter on the tongue, leaving behind a caress of sweetness.
Nancy retired many years ago, though remains active in the Bakers Dozen San Francisco, a group of renowned Bay Area baking professionals.
Last year, during the pandemic, while everyone was occupied with tackling sourdough and focaccia, she was generous enough to send me the recipe for my wedding cake, knowing full well how much I love baking with almond paste.
It wasn’t until this month — my anniversary month, appropriately enough — that I found time to give it a whirl.
This is a simplified, scaled version of my four-tiered extravaganza of a wedding cake with its completely smooth frosted exterior, elegantly done up with fresh maroon and white flowers, along with tiny piped trios of dots.
This recipe instead makes a two-layer cake sized more appropriately for a regular family, rather than 100-plus guests. Owing to my own laziness, I also didn’t make the effort to do a smooth-as-glass finish, which would require a cake turntable and a few more steps. Fortunately, when I showed Nancy a photo of my finished cake, she agreed that my subtle swoops provided a perfectly appropriate homemade look.
The cake itself is quite easy to make. It’s a straightforward batter that includes a good dose of butter, eggs and almond paste.
The Italian meringue buttercream should be made a day ahead of time, as Nancy likes to let it rest in the refrigerator overnight to develop its flavor. The buttercream does takes a little more work. as you have to beat egg whites until firm, then slowly pour in a hot sugar syrup with the mixer running to create an almost marshmallow-y consistency.
Once the mixture cools down a bit, you slowly beat in butter. A lot of butter! I confess that when I first saw the amount of butter required, my jaw dropped — not to the floor, but two sub-basements below. It was 1.5 pounds or 6 sticks! No wonder this buttercream is so astoundingly smooth, and melts so devilishly when it hits the mouth.
Of course, it wasn’t until after I made the cake and showed a pic to Nancy that she realized she had inadvertently given me the buttercream ratio for a three-layer cake, not a two-layer one. So, I’ve included that revised recipe below. Oh, there’s still 1 pound of butter in it (4 sticks). So, believe you me, yours will still be plenty rich and indulgent tasting. However, your frosting layers won’t be quite as formidable as the ones in my photos. If you do want an extravagant amount of buttercream like on the cake I made, however, I’ve also included at the bottom of the buttercream recipe the amounts for making as much as I initially did.
It was a profound treat to enjoy this special cake all over again. But don’t just take my word for it. When the cake was completed, I cut two big ol’ slices, drove over to the house of my maid of honor, and presented them to her.
Boldly, emphatically, and unequivocally.
Italian Meringue Buttercream
(Makes enough for a two-layer cake)
3 ounces of water (measured, not weighed)
12 ounces (1 cup plus 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoons) granulated sugar
6 ounces egg whites (about 3 egg whites)
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small pot over high heat, stir together water and sugar until dissolved. Let mixture come to a boil until it measures 240 degrees.
Meantime, pour egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until whites are fluffy and firm.
Continue heating sugar and water mixture until it reaches 255 degrees. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly pour the hot sugar syrup over the whites. Try not to get too much on the side of the bowl. Don’t worry if all the sugar syrup doesn’t pour out of the pot. Don’t scrape it out. Turn mixer on high and beat until the bowl cools down, about 12 minutes. Do not scrape the bowl down during this time.
Swap out the whisk for the paddle attachment. On low speed, start adding butter gradually. Once all the butter is combined, mix in the vanilla extract on low speed. Switch to high speed for a minute or two to thoroughly mix everything.
Cover the bowl, and refrigerate overnight.
Note: For those who desire an abundance of buttercream like that which covered my cake in these photos, use the following ingredient measurements: 1/2 cup water, 1 pound (2 1/4 cups) granulated sugar, 8 ounces of egg whites (measured, not weighed, about 4 egg whites); 1 1/2 pounds (6 sticks) unsalted butter; and 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract. The directions for making the buttercream remain the same.
(Makes one two-layer, 9-inch cake)
10 ounces of almond paste (Nancy Kux swears by the Blue Diamond brand)
1 1/2 cups (11 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon (4 ounces) cake flour
2/3 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
6 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Line two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans with parchment or wax paper.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Blend almond paste and sugar in a food processor until completely mixed.
In a medium-sized bowl, sift together cake flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter until soft. Gradually add the sugar and almond paste mixture to the butter in two or three additions, mixing on medium speed until combined each time. Beat well until mixture is lighter in color, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure everything is incorporated completely. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing on medium speed until combined each time. Beat in vanilla.
Add dry ingredients, and beat on low speed, then turn speed to low-medium for 1 minute to combine thoroughly. Remove the bowl from the mixer, and give the batter a final stir with a wooden spoon to make sure everything is combined.
Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans (no need to grease them beforehand). Bake for 18 to 25 minutes, rotating pans halfway through. The tops will brown, and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean or with just a few dry crumbs attached.
Allow to cool on a rack for about 12 minutes before turning out. Cool cake layers completely before frosting.
To frost the cake: If the perimeter of the cakes have browned too much, carefully shave off a thin layer all around. This is optional.
Uncover mixing bowl of buttercream. Heat a pot of water on the stovetop large enough to fit your mixing bowl of buttercream inside. You want the water to come up one-third to one-half way up the side of the mixing bowl. Bring the water to a boil. When about one third of the buttercream begins to melt, remove the bowl from the water bath and place on the mixer stand. Attach the paddle attachment. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel to prevent splashes. Beat on low speed until the mixture is smooth and the consistency of mayonnaise. If it is too stiff, warm it in the water bath again and repeat mixing. Keep air bubbles to a minimum by using only low speed.
Position one cake layer on a serving plate. Frost the top with the buttercream. Place second layer on top. Spread a thin coat of buttercream over the top and sides of the cake, then refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes or stick in the freezer for about 10 minutes. This is your crumb layer that will provide a clean foundation for the rest of the buttercream. If your bowl of buttercream starts to get too soft as your cake chills, just return it to the refrigerator for a few minutes. Stir again before using.
Once the crumb coat has set up, frost the top and sides of the cake with the rest of the buttercream.
Refrigerate the cake until serving. At least 30 to 40 minutes before you plan to serve it, let cake come to room temperature to enjoy the cake and buttercream at ideal texture.
This cake keeps well, covered in the refrigerator, for at least a couple days; or wrapped in the freezer for about 2 months.
From Nancy Kux