I apologize for the lack of posts this past week but it was my sister’s birthday and she had a special request that prevented me from blogging.
If you remember, last year I ordered a special chestnut layer cake for her from Red Leaf (Yeh’s) Bakery in Flushing. She loved it but I was not going to pay $32 for an 8″ diameter cake this year, especially one that I thought was a little dry. I decided to try making the cake myself, and I’ve spent the past few days leading up to my sister’s birthday making a whole lot of cakes in an attempt to capture the same flavor as Red Leaf’s chestnut cake but with a lighter, moister crumb.
The chestnut filling that goes in between the layer cake was the least intimidating part of the recipe. I was pretty certain that it’s just chestnuts, vanilla extract, and liquid (milk, cream or water) pureed to a smooth consistency, so I focused my attention on getting the actual cake right.
My biggest challenge was determining the right kind of cake recipe to use: white cake, yellow cake, sponge cake, or chiffon cake. I crossed white cake and yellow cake off of my list right away. White cake wastes too many egg whites and yellow cake wouldn’t give me the right color cake (too yellow obviously).
I decided to make my first cake using a sponge cake which I thought would be dense enough and strong enough to hold multiple layers of chestnut puree and whipped cream on top of it. Since I was only in experimentation mode and I knew I would be making A LOT of trial cakes before the presenting real deal to my sister, I knew I didn’t want to use the chestnut filling right away. Who wants to eat a week of the exact same cake? At first I was going to make a pure peach filling but I ended up not having enough peaches on hand so I had to throw in a bag of frozen mixed berries (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries). Here’s a photo of attempt #1:
Although the filling isn’t too pretty, the mixed fruit filling actually tasted very good. Sponge cake, however, was definitely the wrong cake to use. It was much too heavy and dense for the cake I wanted. I needed something lighter and fluffier. Also for the whipped cream, since I wanted something that wouldn’t deflate or compress with all the added weight of the cake and fruit, I decided to use an idea from Cook’s Illustrated magazine which is to blend a stick of cream cheese in with the heavy cream to act as a stabilizer. The cream cheese held up the whipped cream very nicely but there was too much of a cream cheese flavor. I knew that I had to decrease the cream cheese the next time.
I forgot to take photos of attempts #2 and #3 but they were a different sponge cake recipe with a lemon curd filling and a chiffon cake with a strawberry filling. After tasting the strawberry cream cake I knew that I needed to use a chiffon cake recipe for sure.
And, finally, here’s my last and final cake attempt…the chiffon layer cake with chestnut filling and whipped cream:
As you can see, I don’t own a proper cake stand. I had to improvise with a pizza pan I got from Dollar Tree. But it’s not how it looks, it’s all about how it tastes. And once the cake’s sliced and on a plate, no one’s going to know that it ever sat on a pizza pan.
I think my cake turned out a lot better than the one from Red Leaf Bakery! The bottom layer of my cake is a little off center but that’s okay 😛 It’s still a lot more moist and fluffy compared to theirs. The only big difference is the height of my layers. Red Leaf had taller layers but their cake was 8″ in diameter; I only own a 10″ diameter spring form pan which explains my shorter layers. If I had used a smaller diameter pan I’d have had taller layers. Another minor difference is Red Leaf’s cake was lemon scented. I used a combo of vanilla and almond extract for my layer cake which I think complements the chestnut puree better.
Here’s a closer look at the final cake as a work in progress. You can see the chestnut layer more clearly here. It’s simply 1-pound of chestnuts pureed with some sugar, vanilla extract, milk, and cream. I think chestnut layer cake is mostly an Chinese or Asian thing; I’ve never seen it in non-Asian bakeries. I pretty much had to go by touch and taste on this one since I couldn’t find a good English recipe for chestnut filling. I didn’t want the filling to be too sweet and I needed it to be creamy enough to spread but neither too firm nor too wet. I also didn’t want the chestnut puree to be completely smooth, so I added sugar and liquids by the tablespoonful until I achieved the sweetness and consistency I wanted. I left the filling a tiny bit chunky so people could still tell they were eating chestnuts and not some taupe-colored mystery cream.
For the whipped cream I used 1 pint (2 cups) of cold heavy cream, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, 1/8 teaspoon of salt, and only 4 oz. (half a stick) of softened room-temperature cream cheese. The amount of cream cheese stabilized the heavy cream and helped it to stand up against all the weight of cream and chestnut filling but it didn’t have a lot of cheesy flavor so you could still taste the heavy cream.
I used Cooks Illustrated’s recipe for chiffon cake:
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/3 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
7 large eggs , 2 left whole, 5 separated
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1. Adjust rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Whisk sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt together in large bowl (at least 4-quart size). Whisk in two whole eggs, five egg yolks (reserve whites), water, oil, and extracts until batter is just smooth.
2. Pour reserved egg whites into large bowl; beat at medium speed with electric mixer until foamy, about 1 minute. Add cream of tartar, increase speed to medium-high, then beat whites until very thick and stiff, just short of dry, 9 to 10 minutes with hand-held mixer and 5 to 7 minutes in KitchenAid or other standing mixer. With large rubber spatula, fold whites into batter, smearing in any blobs of white that resist blending with flat side of spatula.
3. Pour batter into large tube pan (9-inch diameter, 16-cup capacity). Rap pan against countertop five times to rupture any large air pockets. If using two-piece pan, grasp on both sides with your hands while firmly pressing down on the tube with thumbs to keep batter from seeping underneath pan during this rapping process. Wipe off any batter that may have dripped or splashed onto inside walls of pan with paper towel.
4. Bake cake until wire cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, 55 to 65 minutes. Immediately turn cake upside down to cool. If pan does not have prongs around rim for elevating cake, invert pan over bottle or funnel, inserted through tube. Let cake hang until completely cold, about 2 hours.
5. To unmold, turn pan upright. Run frosting spatula or thin knife around pan’s circumference between cake and pan wall, always pressing against the pan. Use cake tester to loosen cake from tube. For one-piece pan, bang it on counter several times, then invert over serving plate. For two-piece pan, grasp tube and lift cake out of pan. If glazing the cake, use a fork or a paring knife to gently scrape all the crust off the cake. Loosen cake from pan bottom with spatula or knife, then invert cake onto plate. (Can be wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature 2 days or refrigerated 4 days.)
As you can see, the recipe requires the use of a tube pan but for the cake I was imagining I didn’t want a hole in the center. Using a spring form pan to make a proper chiffon cake was the trickiest part of the recipe because usually with a chiffon cake, to ensure that it doesn’t deflate while it cools due to gravity, you want to hang it upside down (cake pan and all) as it cools. I couldn’t do that, though, with a spring form pan. I ended up popping the cake into the freezer to rapidly cool, and I flipped the cake (still in its pan) over every 5 minutes to prevent it from sinking/deflating.
To create the layers, I simply sliced the cake horizontally into thirds using a serrated knife.
In the end the cake was a hit with both my sister, her friends and my parents (who can be quite picky about desserts). The homemade cake ended up being a lot cheaper, too. I already had most of the ingredients in my pantry (eggs, vanilla, sugar, salt). The only things I needed to buy special for the cake were cake flour (2-lb. box for $4), heavy cream (1 pint for $2) and chestnuts (1-lb for $3, already peeled from the supermarket freezer section). And, if I wanted to, I still have plenty of cake flour left over to make at least three more cakes. Now that I know the right cake recipe to use and how to make a stable whipped cream, I can use these techniques to make layer cakes with all sorts of fillings.