I never need an excuse to eat chocolate, or really, to bake a cake (this is one of the many upsides of being a culinary professional - it's my duty to give into cake-baking urges in the name of....um, my job. Right.)
But when a holiday like Valentine's Day rolls around, the pressure is on, not just to make any old chocolate dessert, but to come up with something truly special.
A petite 6-inch layer cake fills the bill. It's large enough for you and your sweetie to gorge on for Valentine's Day dinner with leftovers for breakfast the next day (or two). But it's also small enough NOT to share. And it's downright adorable - like a miniature birthday cake, which it could be if you stuck a few candles in the top.
The only potentially sticking point to this recipe is getting (and then storing) the 6-inch cake pans. They are easy enough to order online, but you do need to plan ahead (be sure to check out the brand name on these.)
Then all you have to do is halve your favorite layer cake recipe (one that will yield two 9-inch layers), and bake that halved amount of batter in the two small pans. (You could also bake the batter in one 8 or 9-inch pan, but then you lose the cuteness and celebratory quality of a layer cake; a flat cake just isn't as special, even if you do try and pass it off as a torte.)
You can of course bake any flavor cake you like. But Valentine’s Day is all about chocolate, so I think it should feature prominently. (For a whole tour of easy chocolate goodness, check out my videos I recently made for the NY Times.) This said, I don't love chocolate-on-chocolate-on-chocolate confections. I like something to break up all that bittersweet monotony. So if I’m baking a chocolate cake, I’ll mix up a contrasting icing—maybe a boozy rum buttercream, or an airy raspberry whipped cream. But if I’m baking a white cake, nut cake or fruit cake, that’s when I pull out the big chocolate guns, and this fudgy glaze, sweetened with honey, packs some major choco-ammo for a very minimal amount of work.
This recipe is for a moist, fragrant almond cake, and it's pretty much my go-to layer cake. The best part is that it's really quick to bake, which was essential on this past Valentine's Day. You see, even though Daniel knew that I would be baking something for dessert, I wanted the actual cake to be a surprise. Which meant I had to bake and then hide the whole thing while he was out on a run. Luckily he's in marathon training mode, which meant I had a good 12 or so miles to work with. The only thing that threatened to foil my dastardly secret was the olfactory evidence; as this cake baked, the house was filled with the heady, warm aromas of almonds and butter. (Fortunately, Daniel actually zipped upstairs when he got home, distracted with concealing his own secret surprise, a Valentine's Day bouquet.)
A note about this recipe (and cake recipes in general). If your cake layers come out with peaked domes on top, just lop them off with a knife (and eat the trimmings, that's the cook's priviledge for goodness sake). You can see that I did that in the photo, below. In fact even if the top isn't so very domed, sometimes I like to trim the top off anyway. Just to maintain quality control of course.
As for a filling, there is enough frosting to spread between the layers. But instead I opted for a quick smear of tart cherry jam because cherries seem so red and Valentinesy. Then I iced the whole tower with chocolate honey glaze as my giddy three-year-old watched on (she got to lick the spatula). By the way, icing a cake is a cinch. I promise.
After the efforts I went to making and hiding the cake, I kept the rest of the meal simple. I splurged on a gorgeous rib eye that we paired with some perfectly, deliciously uncomplicated duck fat fried potatoes (boil fingerlings in salted water, drain, smash, fry in duck fat) and a pile of lemon and olive oil dressed watercress. And we opened a stupendous ’75 Grand Cru Pauillac, ‘cuz, you know, we had one in the basement (thanks Dad!).
I have to admit that the cake, as lovely and special as it was, did lose out a bit to the hoopla of the perfect, gorgeous, leathery-cherry-spicy-earthy wine. At least it did that night. But I can tell you it rocked for breakfast. And by then the wine was long gone. But not forgotten.
Wee Almond Layer Cake with Cherry Jam and Chocolate Honey Glaze
For the cake:
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature; more for greasing pans
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream or use a combo of plain yogurt and heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups cake flour
1/4 cup finely ground almonds
3/4 cup sugar
3/8 teaspoon baking powder
3/8 teaspoon baking soda
3/8 teaspoon salt
For the glaze:
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup honey
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 6-inch cake pans and line bottoms with parchment or waxed paper. Grease the paper. In a bowl, beat together the eggs, 1/4 of the sour cream, and vanilla.
2. In bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the all purpose flour, ground almonds, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Beat in butter and remaining 1/4 cup sour cream until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly beat in the egg mixture until fully combined.
3. Scrape batter into prepared pans. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center of a cake layer comes out clean. Let cake layers cool in pans on wire racks for 15 minutes, then invert onto racks and peel off paper. Let cool completely on racks.
4. While cakes cool, make the glaze. Bring cream and honey to simmer in medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. If all the chocolate doesn't quite melt, put the saucepan back on the heat and whisk constantly until it does.
6. To frost cake, place 1 layer on a cake plate, rounded side down, trimming if necessary so it lies flat (eat the trimmings, they are the best party). Spread cheery jam between layers, then glaze with chocolate.
...A gratuitous (and entirely adorable) photo of said three year-old, pre-spatula lick...