denise cake

November in Vermont requires cake. Show of hands if you agree.

We need a little sweetness in life, for holidays and celebrations, for stretches of gray skies alike. But I’m not a baker, per se. I have a few go-to treats – the finally perfected cheesecake, forgiving tarts, pecan bars, toffee cookies. In truth, though, I prefer the stovetop over the oven and generally reserve tackling cakes for special occasions.

My mother had her fabled desserts, among them an aromatic pound cake, elegant cream puffs, sinful fudge truffles, and her spin on cheesecake, with its highlights of raspberry and almond. For birthdays she’d bake her version of Boston Cream pie: layers of yellow cake filled with a light Bavarian cream and topped with rich ganache. I came to think my mother could whip up those Boston Creams in her sleep. They became something of her signature cake.

Since I don’t whisk eggs and flour and sugar into airy, silken cake batters with regularity, I don’t have the same “feel” for baking as I do for cooking. When my color-coordinated Kitchen Aide coughed and jerked to an undignified end many years ago, I replaced it with an inexpensive hand mixer that met the infrequent tasks well enough. Even so, I’ve wondered, “Is it too late to create a ‘signature’ cake?”

Enter stage right, La Torta Settevelli, or Seven Veils cake. The ultimate birthday cake from Palermo, featuring layers of chocolate sponge, praline crunch, hazelnut, and chocolate Bavarian creams, chocolate mousse frosting, and a chocolate “mirror” glaze. I was determined to bake one.

“Why are you doing this to yourself?” my friend Marguerite asked as I recounted all the steps, which she noted totaled more than the number on the tallest ladder in her garage. But, an expert baker with specialties too many to list, she understood the challenge. Like Kilimanjaro to a climber, I just had to try.

Only right out of the gate, I crossed off the more egregious dictates. I would not bake Pailleté Feuilletine to add a layer of crunch nor bow to cream fillings that require gelatin to set. And nix on hazelnuts. I don’t like them. On that, my baking friend, of Piedmont heritage, said, “Some Italian you turned out to be!”

Torta Setteveli A Variation on a Theme

Luigi Biasetto, one of a team who created the Seven Veils cake and won the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie in the late 90s, would deem what follows sacrilege. If you search for recreations online, you might likely agree. But my goal was a cake I’d want to turn to for holidays and special occasions, not a marathon feat I’d never revisit. Hence the simplifications, with all due homage and acknowledgment.

For the cake: Simply for preference, I swapped out sponge cake for layers of denser, dark chocolate. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two springform pans by greasing well with butter and lining the bottoms with a circle of parchment paper. Grease the paper also. Cream 1 1/2 cups sugar with 1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) of room temperature butter. Beat in 3 large eggs, one at a time, on low speed until well blended. Set aside. In another large bowl, sift 1 1/2 cups self-rising flour, or all-purpose to which 1 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon each of baking soda and salt have been added. Set aside. Sift 2/3 cup dark Dutch processed cocoa into a small bowl. Bring 2/3 cup water to a boil and whisk into the cocoa until smooth. Add 2 teaspoons of instant coffee if desired. Stir 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract into 1 cup of whole milk. Starting and ending with flour, alternately add flour and milk to the egg and sugar mixture, beating until just incorporated. Beat in the cocoa mixture on low speed. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally throughout this process. Divide batter between the two pans and bake about 35 minutes, until the center is firm to the touch. A toothpick or skewer inserted into the center should come out clean. Remove from the oven and run a knife around the edge. Loosen the spring, remove the outer ring, and allow cakes to cool completely.

For the simple syrup: A necessary step to moisten sponge cake layers, optional for this traditional cake, though a nice touch, especially if you want to infuse with liqueur such as Amaretto. Place 1/3 cup each of sugar and water into a small saucepan. Heat over a medium flame until sugar dissolves completely. Remove from heat and cool. Use as-is or flavor with several tablespoons of liqueur if serving to an adult crowd. Sprinkle lightly over the cake layers.

For the white chocolate – cream cheese filling (makes enough for two layers): Beat 16 ounces of room temperature cream cheese until smooth. Beat in 2 tablespoons softened butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1 cup powdered sugar. Beat until smooth. Set aside. Melt 8 ounces good quality white baking chocolate in microwave according to package directions. Stir well until smooth and somewhat cooled. Beat in 1 cup of the cream cheese until smooth. Add this mixture to the cream cheese and beat until smooth. (Don’t have a microwave? Try grating the white chocolate into a small bowl. Carefully set that bowl into a larger bowl filled with boiling hot water, stir constantly, and the chocolate will melt in moments.) Should you like a lighter filling, fold in up to 1 cup of whipping or heavy cream whipped until soft peaks form.

For authenticity you might wish to divide the cream cheese and sugar mixture, fold 4 ounces of melted white chocolate into one half and flavor the other with hazelnut – either toasted and chopped nuts for added crunch or 1/2 cup of homemade or purchased hazelnut spread or Nutella.

For the milk chocolate mousse: Place 1 cup of good quality milk chocolate chips in a small bowl. Heat ½ cup whipping cream in a small saucepan just to the boil. Pour immediately over the chocolate chips. Stir until completely melted. In a separate bowl, whip an additional 1/2 cup whipping cream until it holds soft peaks. Beat in 1/2 to 1 cup powdered sugar (I used the greater amount, to stabilize for frosting the side of the cake). When chocolate mixture has cooled, pour into whipped cream and beat until smooth. Cover and refrigerate to ease spreading.

(Should you prefer a true ganache instead of the milk chocolate mousse: Stirring constantly, melt 9 ounces best-quality semi-sweet or milk chocolate chips with 1/2 cup heavy cream in a double boiler set over simmering water until mixture blends together. Remove from heat and continue to stir. Allow to cool. Whip to a frosting-like consistency.)

For the crunch: The original recipe calls for a crunchy layer featuring Feuilletines, light crepes broken into flakes, as a base of the cake. Some call for a layer of praline in the middle of the cake. I went with cake as a firm base, then added toffee bits as the final topping for crunch. Simple options: toasted almonds or hazelnuts, chopped and sprinkled over a layer of mousse, or mixed into mousse or ganache.

For the shiny glaze: Over a double boiler or in a small, heavy saucepan over low heat, combine 1/2 cup best-quality semisweet chocolate chips, 4 ounces butter, and 2 tablespoons corn syrup. Stir until melted together and smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool, stirring frequently.

Optional decoration: Chill a bar of good quality white or semi-sweet baking chocolate. Make curls by running a vegetable peeler down the flat, long edge. Separate curls on a plate and chill.

Now to assemble: Wash or wipe clean one of the springform rings and line with a cling wrap if desired. If too pronounced, slice the domes off the cake layers with a long, serrated knife. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of simple syrup on each layer if desired (I moistened, sparingly, focusing on the cake edges). Gently slide your fingers underneath one of the cake layers to make certain the parchment paper has not adhered to the base of the pan. Place the clean ring around this layer and snap the spring shut to secure it to the base.

Spread the bottom layer evenly with one-half of the white chocolate filling. Carefully release the second cake layer from its parchment and place it on top of the filling. Sprinkle lightly with the simple syrup, if desired. Spread with the remaining white chocolate filling. Cover and refrigerate.

Once the cake has set well, remove from the refrigerator. Release from the springform ring, and carefully set it on a serving platter. Remove the milk chocolate mousse from the refrigerator, give it a few stirs, and frost the top and side of the cake. Place the cake back in the refrigerator, uncovered, for 20 minutes or so to set the mousse.

Make the glaze when you’re nearing the time to take the cake out of the fridge. Increase the recipe by half if you’d like the glaze to cascade significantly down the sides. As is, this amount will create a dark ring that hardens for a satisfying bit of crunch for the top of the cake. Start at the middle and spoon the glaze on top out to the edge to form a thin coating. Drips that fall down the sides may be encouraged. Allow to set for a few minutes before topping with whatever layer of crunch you desire. One cup or so of chopped, toasted almonds or hazelnuts, toffee bits, or the readily available toffee bits mixed with milk chocolate (sifted to remove the “dust” and capture the larger pieces), will work very well. Finally, scatter with those chocolate curls, if you desire.

Cover the serving platter with a dome and return to the refrigerator to set. Cake must be kept refrigerated. To serve, warm a sharp or serrated knife in a glass of hot water. Wipe dry before slicing, of course. What was left of a test cake seemed to freeze well when wrapped and placed inside an airtight container.