Whereas I grew up eating celebratory cakes purchased from a French bakery or Baskin Robbins, The Astronomer’s family always made theirs from scratch. Four years ago, when The Astronomer turned 21, he had to whip up his own birthday cake because I didn’t know how to preheat an oven or cream together butter and sugar. Much has changed these past couple of years…
To celebrate The Astronomer’s 25th birthday, I wanted to make an extravagant layer cake with berries galore and crunchy meringues. Since there wasn’t one recipe that encompassed all of the elements I desired, I drew inspiration from a number of different sources. The sponge cake base came courtesy of Martha Stewart—I added fresh lemon zest to brighten up the flavor profile. The strawberry mousse filling and whipped cream frosting recipes came from Andrea Nguyen of Viet World Kitchen and Asian Dumpling Tips. The idea to dot the cake’s insides and outsides with itty bitty meringue cookies came from the Berry Blossom Cake of Susina Bakery in Beverly Hills.
For sponge cake
- Unsalted butter, for pan
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
- 1 cup cornstarch
- 8 large eggs, separated
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cup sugar
- Pinch of salt
- Zest of two lemons
- 1/2 cup orange liqueur (Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or Triple Sec)
- 1 1/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
- 1 pint strawberries
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup heavy cream, chilled
- Berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
- Vanilla meringues (I used Trader Joe’s Very Mini Vanilla Meringues)
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, chilled
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Make sponge cake
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch-round baking pans. Line the pans with parchment paper, and spread butter over the parchment paper. Flour the pans and set aside. In a small bowl, sift together the flour and cornstarch; set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg yolks, vanilla, lemon zest, and 1 cup sugar on high speed until thick and pale, about 5 minutes. Transfer the egg-yolk mixture to a large bowl. Wash and dry the mixer bowl and the whisk attachment.
Combine egg whites and salt in the mixer bowl, and beat on medium speed until whites hold soft peaks, about three minutes. With mixer running, slowly add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Continue beating until stiff and glossy, about 2 minutes.
Fold the egg-white mixture into the egg-yolk mixture. In three additions, fold the reserved flour mixture into this new mixture. Transfer the batter to prepared pans, and smooth the top with an offset spatula. Bake until a cake tester inserted into middle comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool; turn out cake, and wrap it in plastic wrap until ready to use.
Make filling (strawberry mousse)
Pour two tablespoons of orange liqueur in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Set aside.
Wash and pat the strawberries dry with a dish towel. Hull and cut the berries into small pieces about the size of your thumbnail–enough to make a brimming cup. Set aside the remaining strawberries for garnish.
Put the strawberries in a small skillet and add the sugar, stirring to combine. Heat over medium heat, stirring just until the sugar has melted. Remove from the heat and add the liquor, stirring, until the gelatin has dissolved. Pour into a mixing bowl and set aside to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
While the strawberry mixture cools, whip the 1/2 cup cream using a stand mixer or hand-held mixer until soft peaks form. Refrigerate until ready to use.
For the frosting, combine the 1 1/2 cups cream, sugar and vanilla in a bowl. Then whip using a stand mixer or hand-held mixer until just shy of stiff. Lift up the beaters and nice peaks should form, clinging onto the beaters nicely. Refrigerate the cream until ready to use.
Assembling the cake
Finish the strawberry mousse by combining the strawberry mixture with the 1/2 cup of whipped cream; a rubber spatula is a great tool to use.
Place one of the cakes on a cake stand or platter and brush with three tablespoons of orange liqueur. Then spread the strawberry mousse on top.
Add additional berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries) and meringues in between mousse.
Place the second layer on top and brush with orange liquor. Then frost the cake with the 1 1/2 cups of whipped cream. Use an offset spatula to help you achieve nice straight/level surfaces. Decorate with berries and meringues.
When satisfied, refrigerate the cake for 10 to 15 minutes. The cake can be decorated up to three hours in advance. Serve with the remaining berries on the side.
Happy birthday Vernon! To many, many more.
And just for kicks, check out how we celebrated The Astronomer’s 24th in Vietnam.