FOn his fourth birthday, I made my son an Incredible Hulk cake. His hope was for a 3D Hulk, an edible version of his favorite plastic toy. My plan was to have a fairly impressive Hulk head to compensate for the fact that he had no limbs or muscles. Even this limited release proved too difficult, however, and I ended up gluing a plastic model of the Incredible onto a round, green cake. After looking confused, Luca was surprisingly pleased with his hunched over Hulk, until a candle melted his plastic elbow.
There was also a birthday girl, so two sets of candles were lit, a happy birthday sung in two languages, and two sliced cakes. My green cake with foot marks remained mostly untouched, while the other disappeared square by square into small and large mouths. And for good reason: this second cake was what the other mother described as a torta versata with cream, which translates to a “poured cake”, but is best described as two light sponge cakes filled with pastry cream. At first I thought the topping was added after baking, but as I ate my second tender slice, she explained to me that after baking a layer of baked sponge cake, the custard is spread over it and the rest batter is poured over it, before the whole thing is baked again. Cake with a heart of pastry cream baked in the oven – words as soothing as pastry cream itself.
Some of my happiest moments have been in the presence of heavy cream or custard; sat in the old Patisserie Valerie with dad watching his delight as he ate a slice of custard and a breakfast of just-fried, cream-filled donuts at the Palermo port bar. The definition of pastry cream in Treccani Encyclopedia is soothing too – la crema pasticciera (pastry cream) is made with egg yolks, sugar, milk, flour, possibly vanilla or lemon, thickened while hot and used to garnish various pastries; the addition of chocolate or cocoa, or soluble coffee, produces cioccolato cream Where crema al caffè. Soothing, unless, like American journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce, you believe that pastry cream is “a detestable substance produced by a malevolent conspiracy of the chicken, the cow and the cook”.
Although I am not malicious, I have sometimes felt hostile towards the custard – and I have been afraid of all those yolks, which offer such a great possibility of something going wrong. That changed when I started adding flour or cornmeal, which I know not everyone approves of (and means it’s not really custard). But cornmeal is like bicycle stabilizers for a cook like me, reducing risk and providing thickness. A few lime leaves will give it a Hulk twist, but maybe not enough to win a four-year-old’s approval.
Sponge cake with lemon cream
Preperation 15 minutes
to cook 30 minutes
2 egg yolks
70g caster sugar
The zest of 2 lemons
600ml whole milk
For the sponge
120g caster sugar
90g melted butteror neutral oil
220g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
30ml of lemon juice
Icing sugarto dust off
Start with the pastry cream. Working directly into the pan, whisk the egg yolks and sugar, then add the cornstarch and the zest of one lemon, and stir again. Stir in 500ml milk, then place over medium heat and cook, whisking, until the milk comes to a boil and the mixture is as dense as heavy cream. Pour into a bowl and let cool.
Now prepare the sponge. Whisk the eggs and sugar for three minutes, then add 100ml milk, the melted butter (or oil), flour, baking powder and the zest of the second lemon, and whisk again until fluffy.
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4. Butter and flour a 30cm x 23cm cake tin. Divide the cake batter in half – either by eye or by weighing – pour half into the pan and use a spatula to spread it evenly. Bake for 10-12 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let stand for five minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the lemon juice into the now cold custard, then, working carefully, spread it over the top of the cake. Zigzag the rest of the cake batter on top, smooth the surface and bake for 15 minutes. Remove and let cool, then gently invert onto a plate. Dust the top with icing sugar and serve with cream.