Of all the desserts dreamed up throughout the ages by a million cooks, the continuing preeminence of cake is baffling. From weddings, graduations and birthdays to Valentine’s day, Easter and Christmas, cakes—specifically classic sponge cakes layered with a flavored cream and coated with frosting—are an edible representation of so much that is special and celebratory in life.
Yet they are almost always the least satisfying of desserts. Give me a steaming slice of apple pie, a luscious scoop of vanilla ice cream, or a devilish orb of truffle over a wedge of cake any day. And although my knees might not wobble over a mediocre lemon tart, I generally succumb to temptation no matter the quality of the product. But when it comes to cake my resolve doesn’t falter; I can eye the most glamorous creation without a flicker of enthusiasm rustling my taste buds, because I have learned from a litany of disappointing experiences that a cake’s beauty is surface deep—they’re all image and no substance. Once, when I was more impressionable, I might have been seduced by the glitz of silken frosting—or by a certain Hungarian boy with a devilish smile and the body of a particularly athletic Greek god—but I soon learned my lesson. Consequently, I now approach all seemingly angelic cakes and cherubic faces with equal skepticism.
Even as a kid I remember a feeling a pang of disenchantment over many a birthday cake. First it arrives with promising fanfare—is there any other dessert that is regularly crowned with candles and marched to the table to a vigorous tune? Then it is reverently sliced. Anticipation grows as you pass around the wedges with each layer intriguingly revealed like the geological strata of a canyon wall. The individual levels promise a delectable combination of cream and crumb, sweet and tang, smooth and crunch. And then there is the proverbial icing, so shiny and promising you ache dip a finger into its glossiness, just to test. Finally everyone has a slice and you attack with abandon, hefting a sizable segment onto your fork and delivering it to your taste buds. Alas, disillusionment is immediate, as you discover that the crumb is dry, the cream cloying, and the flavors bland. A few experiences like this and you soon learn to shun cakes in favor of the less flashy virtues of a pie, souffle, or crumble.
However, there are certain exceptions to this rule, and over time I’ve come across a handful of cakes that deliver on the promise of a seductive exterior. They are few and far between, so when I find one it haunts me for ages. One such specimen was a cake I made several years ago for Christmas. I came across it in the October 2008 edition of Fine Cooking, an intriguing recipe for a “cinnamon caramel ganache layer cake.” It consisted of a cinnamon infused caramel chocolate filling, bittersweet chocolate sponge, and glossy ganache icing. . . I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and the result was well worth my faith. The sponge was delicate yet resonant with chocolate, the filling was warm and sweet with cinnamon, and the ganache had a refreshing bitter edge to it, balancing perfectly with the mellifluous layers beneath.
Yesterday I made this cake for a second time, so I can safely say that the first success wasn’t a fluke. It was a good as I’d remembered and well worth the slightly laborious preparation. I wouldn’t say this cake falls in the category of something you can simply whip up, in fact you really need to dedicate a whole afternoon to the endeavor, but it makes an utterly magnificent conclusion to any celebration.