“No, no, it tastes delicious,” our guest generously lied, taking another timid bite. I knew he was just being polite, and I tried desperately to convince him and his wife that it was not necessary to soldier on. After all, I was eating the same dessert, my beloved Basque Cake. I was tasting the same rich, luscious pastry cream sandwiched between two thick rounds of sweet cake. Only unlike our dinner guests, I was not in denial that every other bite was bastardized by the rum extract I had used in the pastry cream. It was my fault, I had cut corners and used rum extract instead of rum. As a result, instead of lightly flavoring the pastry cream, the extract hid, like tiny land mines of bootlegger’s sweat, waiting to explode in a cruel assault on innocent taste buds. If we were lucky, the next bite would provide the sweet refuge that a proper pastry cream should.
I could not believe this was happening. It was the same recipe I had followed countless of times before. I was a pro at Basque Cake, and it was always a crowd-pleaser. That said, it was a natural choice to make the cake for the small dinner party Nick and I were hosting. Living in Florence, Italy, was an amazing adventure, but sometimes lonely, and we were eager to bond with a pair of newfound, fellow ex-pats. My intentions had been pure: I would solidify our friendship with cake. And so I went to great lengths to execute the Basque Cake in my foreign home, knowing my efforts would be rewarded with an increased social circle.
Upon reflection, I should have seen the omens leading up to the offending moment. Not having traveled with my cookbooks, I called home to ask my mother to scan and email my trusty recipe. I should have known better. Now, combining my mother and technology is usually fine. But throw in the nine-hour time difference between Italy and California, and you have a woman scanning recipes in the wee hours of her morning. But my mother is a loving, gracious woman, and used to my antics. So she obliged, and out of bed to send me the recipe.
With step one seemingly successful, I scoured the Italian markets for the slightly more obscure and expensive ingredients in the cake: rum and cake flour. I procured the cake flour, but the rum was way too expensive for my English tutor budget. So I opted for the much more affordable option of rum extract. What could go wrong, I reasoned while admiring the cute little bottle and it’s two euro price tag. Satisfied by my fiscal ingenuity, I headed get back to my apartment.
In the apartment and using poached wi-fi to look up the recipe from my mom, crisis struck: only half of the recipe had been scanned. One tear-choked and slightly hysterical phone call to California later, and the complete recipe was in my inbox. My mother should be canonized for putting up with me.
Shaken but not deterred, I moved on to fumble my way through our minuscule kitchen, blow an electrical fuse and take another dip in the pool of hysteria. I was convinced the night would be a disaster; but ever the eternal optimist, I soldiered on and popped my masterpiece in the oven.
When my beautiful, golden cake emerged from the oven, a tidal wave of relief washed over me and I knew the world would continue to spin. The cake looked amazing, and I could already taste its perfection. The night would no longer be a disaster, and I envisioned the glorious moments of cake-eating that would ensue. After tonight, we would have new, lifelong friends. Thank you, Basque Cake.
But that’s not what the Italian gods had in store for me. Nay, of all the trials and tribulations faced leading up to my moment of grandeur, it was the seemingly innocuous decision to use rum extract instead of rum that brought my victory to its knees. With a single, heavy-handed pour, I had discovered a way to ruin a cake born in an age when forks were a novelty and the average life expectancy was 38 years old. When Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” even she, in all of her political obtuseness, did not mean this one,
That night I learned that the moment you realize you have assaulted your guests is quickly followed by one’s fight or flight response. Thankfully I had enough where with-all to understand that bolting from the apartment would only make the matter worse and more awkward. Instead, with Nick’s assistance, I distracted our guests with more wine and cleared the plates with as much stealth and grace as I could muster.
Despite the burn of fake rum still singeing our tongues, plans were made for another dinner party. We even set a date for me to visit the couple in Barcelona when they moved the following month. The night had not gone perfectly, but I had survived. Best of all, our friendship was seemingly intact.
That sense of victory, not unlike what I felt when I pulled the cake from the oven, was false and short-lived. Once our friends moved, they disappeared, never to be heard from again. Phone calls and emails went unanswered. I found myself stranded in Barcelona, scrambling to find something safer than a park bench on which to sleep.
Where they went, and what happened to our friends will always be one of the great unanswered questions for me and Nick. Was it us, was it something we said? Having settled on the self-inflated notion that we are much too delightful to so drastically run off new friends, we have come to the agreement that they were undercover spies. Or secret drug runners, evading the law. But every now and then, Nick will bring up the Basque Cake and the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it all could have turned out differently…
Basque Cake Recipe
(the one that doesn't assault your guests' tastebuds)
Recipe is courtesy of Chef Doug Basegio and The Professional Pastry Chef
This cake, when made without disgusting fake rum, is a true delight. It's not too sweet, and the luscious pastry cream is contrasted nicely by the crunch provided by the almonds and golden crust. It's perfect for brunch and dinner parties alike.
For the pastry cream:
1. Prepare a baking sheet with a long piece of saran wrap laid out lengthwise. Place another piece horizontally. Set aside. You will be pouring the pastry cream out onto the saran wrap and wrapping it up to cool - this will prevent a skin from forming.
2. In a heavy bottom saucepan, warm the milk, 1 measurement of the sugar. and vanilla. The milk should be hot but not boiling.
3. While the milk/sugar/vanilla is heating, whisk the eggs, 2nd measurement of sugar and cornstarch in a separate bowl.
4. When the milk is hot, pour 1/3 of the liquid into the eggs, whisking constantly. Seriously. Do. Not. Stop. Whisking. Lack of diligence and commitment to whisking will result in scrambled eggs. Woof.
5. With the saucepan of milk back on the stove top, pour the tempered eggs into the milk. Again whisk constantly, making sure to move the whisk throughout the pan - you don't want any egg chunks in your pastry cream!
6. Whisk until the pastry cream just comes to a boil. Turn off the heat.
7. Pour the REAL rum and drop the butter into the pastry cream. Whisk until the butter is melted.
8. Pour the pastry cream in to the prepared baking sheet. Wrap the pastry cream in the saran wrap and pop it into the refrigerator to cool.
For the cake:
1. Butter and flour the bottom and sides of a 10-inch cake pan.
2. Using a standing mixer and the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add one egg at a time, scraping down the bowl in between additions. Add the vanilla.
3. Sift the cake flour, baking powder and salt.
4. With the mixer on low, slowly add the sifted dry ingredients. MIx until just combined.
5. Spread half of the batter into the bottom of the prepared cake pan. In culinary school and per the cookbook, we did this by piping the batter into a spiral as shown on the right. If you promise not to overwork the batter, you could probably just spread it with an offset spatula.
6. Pipe a ring of batter on top of the bottom layer of batter, on the outer edge. This creates a dam to keep your pastry cream from oozing out.
7. Grab your pastry cream from the fridge and give it a quick whisk in a bowl.
8. Pour the pastry cream onto the bottom layer of batter. Note: you don't have to use all of the pastry cream you made. I did this time, but you may like a little less!
8. Pipe the remaining batter onto the pastry cream. Again, if you promise not to overwork the batter, you could use an offset spatula. But really, please don't over work the cake. This is a fluffy tea cake, not a brick.
9. Sprinkle slivered almonds on top.
10. Pop your beautiful cake into the oven, and bake for 50 minutes.
11. The cake is done when it is a nice golden brown on top. You can also do the toothpick test, but remember the pastry cream inside might make it seem like the cake is not done.
12. Once baked, allow the cake to cool in the pan. Remove by running a knife or offset spatula around the sides.