Among those who know my friend Usha, having her bake you a cake is the equivalent of Beyonce writing you a song. So when she baked a cake for my son Remy’s fifth birthday, everyone knew it was a big deal. Remy knew as much after seeing her cake photos on Facebook (which I guess means that Facebook now has my son’s cake preferences in its database).
Luckily, we had plans to be in Hawaii during Remy’s birthday, and that is where Usha lives. In the months before the trip they corresponded about the flavors that Remy’s cake would contain, in what I call the “interview phase” of an Usha cake experience.
Hawaii works quite well for a February birthday. His cake interview, however, began much earlier. This part of the process is when Usha and the cake recipient figure out a baseline list of flavors for the cake-to-be. All additional goals that the honoree has for the cake, or the event it headlines, are explored as well. When these conceptual pieces are in place, Usha then designs the cake around them, custards, frostings, decorations and all. Her only hard fast rule is no money. There will be no reimbursement or compensation of any type, be it cash, trade, barter or subway tokens. The gift of cake exists outside of time, occasion, place and the economy.
Appropriately, Remy went with a tropical fruit theme: mango and liliquoi (“lily-quoy”), aka passionfruit. Mango season had just passed in Hawaii, but farmy folk like Usha have freezer bags full of frozen filets, among other fruits, including liliquoi. I’ve seen Usha bake cakes in a lot of places, from the peaks of Portland to the suburbs of Boston to the Vermont hills, and it was nice to see her do what she does with Hawai’ian ingredients.
The only ingredient in Remy’s cake that can be scarce on the mainland is the liliqoui. When perfectly ripe, passionfruit looks pretty bad, it’s yellow skin covered with sunken brown splotches. The edible part consists of extremely sour goop with seeds stuck in it, and must be strained and sweetened before use. If you can get ripe liliquoi or a suitable concentrate, by all means use it in this cake. Otherwise lemon is a good substitute.
There is just one more thing you will need if you want to make Remy’s cake. A copy of a book Usha had won in a law school baking contest in the years since the last time I’d watched her bake. It’s not just any book.[pullquote]Somewhere along the line that afternoon, Usha and Remy decided to add some frozen pineapple, by way of a bowl of vanilla custard that Usha happened to have prepared earlier, just in case. [/pullquote]
It was written by my first boss, ever: Judy Rosenberg, founder of Rosie’s Bakery in Somerville, Mass. I was hired on as a “Rosette” during the summer after my sophomore year in high school. My first day on the job was the morning after my first hickey.
Rosie’s was legendary in the Boston area, largely thanks to a frosted brownie called the Chocolate Orgasm. It was a fun summer.
I never met her, but I remember the importance carried by the word “Judy” in that summer of ’86. I don’t think I even knew her last name until I saw it on Usha’s copy of Rosie’s Bakery All-Butter Fresh Cream Sugar-Packed No-Holds-Barred Baking Book.
Never before has a book been so perfectly tailored to a reader’s interest than this book is to Usha’s. Or to Remy’s. Four different recipes from Judy’s book combine to make Remy’s birthday cake.
When we arrived at Usha’s house on the big day, she was making lemon custard, but substituting liliquoi juice ice cubes for lemon juice. Sweetened and creamed, the sour liliquoi creates a cantilevered, balanced flavor that is thrilling to consume. She could have just stopped right there, as far as I was concerned, and we could have just eaten custard all afternoon. But Usha was just getting started.
Using the recipe for Banana Cake, Usha measured a cup of chopped mango, instead of the bananas the recipe called for. She soaked the mango pieces in “…a cup plus 2 tablespoons” worth of buttermilk.
I’m just saying: You know that a recipe is serious when it gives quantities like, “…a cup plus two tablespoons.”
Remy worked the mango pieces hard into the buttermilk with his bare hands.
Somewhere along the line that afternoon, Usha and Remy decided to add some frozen pineapple, by way of a bowl of vanilla custard that Usha happened to have prepared earlier, just in case.
Remy found the greasing of a 9-inch baking pan with butter to be an intuitively easy task to learn. Usha then lay a circular piece of parchment paper over the butter on the bottom, then had Remy rub more butter on top of the parchment. Then she added flour to each pan, rolling it around for total coverage, before spooning in the batter.
That cake, in other words, would not be sticking to anything. Cake makers on Usha’s level have no time for that.
When tackling Judy’s recipes, it’s really nice if you have a cake mixer. Otherwise you’ll need quite a bit of elbow grease, or perhaps skip the Rosie’s Buttercream frosting (page 85), which took about five minutes in a food processor, followed by 20 minutes in a Kitchenaid mixer until in looked like lacquered taffy. Remy’s first Kitchenaid cleaning was a good one.
The buttermilk-mango cake batter, meanwhile, mixed relatively quickly, with a teaspoon of cinnamon powder from Usha’s tree.
After about 20 minutes at 350 degrees (preheated, center rack), Usha removed the cakes from the oven and palpated them. She was absorbing information through her fingertips like some kind of cake whisperer, channeling the situation at the cake’s core. She was feeling the degree to which the skin bounced back after being pushed down upon, in search of a near-but-not-quite-total recovery.
“You want it to spring back maybe 90 percent,” she estimated. If you’re at a loss, she added, insert a knife or toothpick to test if it’s done.
When personalizing a cake, the list of extra considerations is potentially long, beyond mere allergies and sensitivities and intolerances. If the cake is not being baked on-site, there is the issue of transport.
“I often travel with my cakes,” Usha says. Which, on the Kona coast of the Big Island, can mean lots of curves and G-forces and bumps. Thus, she prefers to deliver her cakes in pieces, and recommends having other people in the car to hold them.
Other, more fun problems to address include how to fit so many custards and creme and frostings into one cake. The answer, it turns out, is to slice the cakes in half along their horizontal planes, multiplying the surface areas from two discs into four. This allows more alternating layers of vanilla pineapple custard and liliquoi custards. A final consideration, specific to Remy’s fifth birthday: Should there be a school of five gummy fish swimming atop the buttercream frosting?
Ultimately the cake is a reflection of the recipient, by way of Usha’s talents. So yes. There were five blue gummy fish swimming amongst the candles atop Remy’s mango liliquoi custard vanilla pineapple custard buttercream frosted birthday cake. After a quick drizzle with some big puffs of Remy’s birthday spittle, we dove in.
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