As I grow older, my idea of birthday fun varies greatly.
When I was 1, it was all about the cake. When I was 23, it was all about partying. Now that I’m 54, it’s pretty much about cake again.
That’s why I took a day off from work for my birthday recently to devote an entire day to baking a cake. My boss had told me about the famed Burnt Almond Torte, invented by Prantl’s Bakery in Pittsburgh and dubbed by the Huffington Post as “the greatest cake America has to offer.”
Tens of thousands of Prantl devotees love this cake so much that they will pay $49.95 a pop to have it shipped to them. In fact, if you laid all the Prantl almond tortes ever mailed end-to-end, they would form a bridge to the moon and back, which you would want to cross repeatedly so you could lick the decadent Swiss buttercream off your feet.
I was intrigued by this decadent dessert, described as a light-as-air cake filled with layers of not-too-sweet almond cream and topped with the lightest and silkiest of buttercreams. As a final crunchy garnish, it is sprinkled with candied, toasted almonds. Every part of that description sounded divine, but $50 for one small cake seemed steep. Fortunately, there are bunches of copycat recipes online, so I decided to try making my own.
I would soon learn that this torte isn’t just a project; it’s a vocation. Most versions of the “from-scratch” cake said it would take five and a half hours to complete. Even I am not that obsessed with cake, so I cheated by doctoring up a cake mix. Heck, if I could devote the better part of October to making fancy meringue frosting, who was to judge if I called on Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines to help me with the heavy lifting?
For the cake, I used a Duncan Hines yellow cake mix (white would work too), because I read somewhere that it was the least artificial-tasting of the major brands. I mixed it according to the directions on the box but swapped out the water with an equal amount of buttermilk.
In efforts to camouflage the artificial vanillin flavor that plagues most cake mixes, I also spiked the batter with 2 teaspoons of Mexican vanilla. The doctored-up cake mix was surprisingly fluffy and moist, courtesy of the added dairy.
The Swiss buttercream was worth the extra work: beautiful to work with, fluffy, silky, glossy and not as cloyingly sweet as American buttercream. The almond brittle was a little over-the-top for me and made the end result way too sweet. I would recommend simply topping it with toasted almonds.
The real star of this show was the almond pastry cream. It was incredible — not too sweet, but rich and intensely almond-flavored. I liked it so much that I would happily make this cream as a stand-alone dessert. In retrospect, this cake was incredible, although I don’t know if my version could hold up to the Prantl version, which the rhapsodic Huff Post blogger described as “stuffing a cloud into your mouth.”
My “Re-torte” isn’t so much a cloud as a tsunami of dairy and deliciousness.
Tammy's Burnt Almond Re-Torte Cake
Cake directions: Prepare 1 box of your favorite white or yellow cake mix as directed on the box, but swap out the water with an equal amount of buttermilk. Don’t have buttermilk? You can quickly make your own by adding 1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice to a cup of milk and letting it curdle for 5 minutes or so. Also stir in 1 to 2 teaspoons of real vanilla extract before pouring into pans. The original Prantl’s cake is square and multi-layered, but I simplified it by baking in two 8-inch rounds, lined with 8-inch rounds of parchment paper to avoid sticking. Once cakes are removed from pan and cooled, top 1 with chilled pastry cream and place the other cake atop that.
Almond Pastry Cream
Adapted from The Spruce
1 1/3 cups whole milk or heavy cream
3 egg yolks
½ cup sugar
1/8 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch (+ 2 additional teaspoons)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 2 pieces
1 teaspoon almond extract
Dash of salt (optional)
In a small saucepan, warm the milk or cream over low heat until it is just hot enough to steam. While the milk is warming, whisk together the yolks, sugar, flour and cornstarch until the mixture is completely smooth.
Once the milk is steaming, slowly add half of it, whisking constantly, to the egg mixture. Add the milk-and-egg mixture back into the remaining hot milk and continue stirring. Heat it, stirring constantly, until the custard reaches 170 degrees on a digital thermometer and is very thick. Remove from heat and stir in almond extract and a dash of salt. Place pastry cream in refrigerator to chill, covering surface of cream with plastic wrap to prevent it from forming one of those unappetizing “skins.”
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from Natasha’s Kitchen
7 large egg whites
2 cups granulated sugar
1 ½ cups unsalted butter, softened (see note)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon non-iodized fine sea salt
Note: Butter should be softened at room temperature about 1 hour (more or less depending on your room temperature). It should be slightly cool to the touch and not overly soft or warm.
In a medium pot, add at least 1 inch of water and bring to simmer. Thoroughly wash and dry the stainless-steel mixing bowl from your stand mixer (you don't want grease touching meringue). Add 7 egg whites and 2 cups sugar and whisk together.
Place mixing bowl over pot of barely simmering water, creating a seal over the pot (bowl should be over the steam, not touching water). Whisk constantly until mixture reaches 160 degrees. Sugar should be fully dissolved (you should not feel any sugar granules when rubbing mixture between fingertips).
Wipe water from bottom of mixing bowl and transfer bowl to stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form (about 15-20 minutes) and bottom of the bowl is completely room temperature. (This is important: warm meringue will melt the butter.)
Now switch to the paddle attachment, reduce to medium speed and add butter 1 tablespoon at a time, adding it just as fast as it is absorbed by meringue. Once all butter is in, scrape down the bowl and continue beating until it reaches a thick whipped consistency. If it looks lumpy at all, keep beating until smooth, thick and whipped.
Add extracts and salt; mix until incorporated. Frost cake and garnish with toasted almond slices.
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at email@example.com.