When I was 8 years old my family visited Pisa, Italy. We saw the Leaning Tower and my sister and father actually went all the way up (I don't know if they even allow people on it anymore). I was terrified of slipping, sliding, and falling off the edge, so my feet stayed firmly on the level ground, but the sight was impressive enough from terra firma. How could something so tall lean so precariously without toppling over?
I was reminded of that sight when I made my daughter's birthday cake. She'd selected the Maple Walnut cake from Sky High - Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes, my new go-to cake book. On the day of her birthday I made the cake and all the layers turned out beautifully, releasing nicely from their pans. I let them cool while I put together dinner. Everyone enjoyed the dinner and then started hovering around the cake prep area, as if their presence would aid in the cake construction.
As I put together the frosting I knew trouble was ahead. I had a very soft, whipped cream cheese base, to which I was to add melted butter and maple syrup. Maybe it would magically firm up as I added the butter? Maybe?? No. Common sense was right - it was very thin and drippy.
Looking at the frosting I was fairly sure that it would set up if I chilled it. But I had the birthday girl giving me hungry Bambi eyes. She didn't want to wait till the day after her birthday for her birthday cake. So, against the wisdom of common sense, I went ahead and slathered the cake with the runny frosting and piled up the layers. I tried to get a quick photo of the cake before cutting it, but it wouldn't cooperate. The layers were slipping and sliding over each other like a dog on roller skates. I kept turning the cake plate, trying to find one angle that didn't look disastrous. The whole thing was leaning, leaning, leaning. I gave up and sliced up pieces, the top layer breaking in half with the strain.
Was the birthday girl saddened? Not at all. The cake was delicious. We all marveled that a cake with a cup of chopped nuts in it could be so light, fluffy, and moist. And, I was right. The next morning, the extra frosting I'd put in the fridge was just right.
The moral of the story? As always, it's all about the timing. Don't leave it till the last minute. And if it tilts at an alarming angle, just remember - who would be able to recall that tower in Pisa if it wasn't leaning?
Leaning Tower of Maple Walnut Deliciousness
- adapted from Sky High - Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes
1-1/3 cup walnut halves (make sure they're fresh!)
3 cups cake flour
1-1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
2-1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1-3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1-1/2 sticks (6 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups pure maple syrup, preferably light amber
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 cup milk
Maple Cream Frosting (recipe follows)
1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Butter three 8-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of each with a round of parchment paper and butter the paper. Set the pans aside.
2- Spread the walnuts out on a small baking sheet and toast in the oven until fragrant and lightly toasted, 7 to 10 minutes. Let them cool. Leave the oven on. When the nuts are cool, set aside 1/3 cup pretty halves for garnish and finely chop the remaining 1 cup.
3- In a large mixer bowl, combine the chopped walnuts, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low, blend well. Add the butter and maple syrup and beat until blended. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
4- In a medium bowl, whisk together the whole egg, egg yolk, and milk. Add this milk mixture to the batter in 2 or 3 additions. Add at low speed to avoid spattering, then increase to medium speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Beat until well blended.
5- Divide the batter among the three prepared pans. Bake for 32 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let he cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks, gently peel off the parchment paper, and let cool completely.
6- To assemble the cake, place one cake layer, flat side up, on a cake stand or serving plate. Spread about 2/3 cup of frosting over the layer, spreading it evenly right to the edge. Repeat with the second layer and another 2/3 cup frosting. Set the third layer on top and frost the top and sides with the remaining frosting, swirling the frosting decoratively with an offset palette knife or the back of a spoon. Garnish with the reserved toasted walnut halves.
Maple Cream Frosting
- (makes about 4 cups)
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup maple syrup
12 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
6 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted after measuring
1- Place the butter in a wide medium saucepan and melt over low heat. Add the maple syrup, raise the heat to medium-low, and boil for 5 minutes, stirring frequently so the syrup does not burn.
2- Pour the hot maple butter into a heatproof bowl and let cool to room temperature.
3- Place the cream cheese in a large mixing bowl and beat will with an electric mixer to lighten. Gradually add the confectioners' sugar and beat until smooth. Scrape down the bowl well and continue to beat until light and fluffy. Add the maple butter and mix until completely blended. If the frosting is not stiff enough, you can either add more powdered sugar, or chill it in the fridge for 2 hours.
* The photo of the Leaning Tower is from the Wikepedia post about it.