Currant Caramel Cream Cake
Currently, my patience is lacking. I’ve started shaking in my chair, due to lack of inspiration, I guess. I’ve suffered; others have probably suffered. I’ve been a little too honest, a bit less nice, and a lot sarcastic.
But pluckin’ currants, or what I like to call, spiny little devils—now that’s a lesson in patience. That will slap the sarcasm right out of you. When faced with small 1/2-pint boxes of rubies and pearls and branches, I usually feel helpless before I start, like my fingers will be too weak for the task. Pulling out each thin stem feels a bit like plucking an eyebrow; the stem resists, releasing from the thick skin of the tiny, seed-filled berries with an inaudible pop. It usually comes out clean and whole but sometimes, it will leave behind a tiny fragment of itself. The process can be pleasant, though. Each of my plucks feels prodding and deliberate. It calms my nerves. I plucked the currants for this cake alone at 10pm in my 85-degree mid–heat wave kitchen, which I had lit dimly. I resisted the urge to play music or to check emails while plucking. I focused on just plucking. With each branch, I got faster and better; my plucks became cleaner and more graceful.
A cake can do a lot of things. It can celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, weddings (though I’m totally thinking pie), promotions, gigs, and babies. It can brighten up 3pm slumps at the office. It can acknowledge deaths (I’ve often been served cake at wakes). But a cake can’t save lives. It can’t move mountains. It’s food, but it can’t feed the hungry. It can be rich, but it can’t pad the pockets of the poor. It can be neither roof over head nor blanket for bed. But for me, this cake can restore patience. Or, at least it could temporarily restore it. I’ll take it.
It’s not complicated to make. It’s not intimidating. But it does take time. It has parts: There’s cake, there’s soaking syrup, there are two fillings, there’s a topping, there’s a garnish. There’s a lot of currant plucking. And for that I am grateful. The reward is a clear head and a damn good slice of cake. A light-as-a-feather, fluffy, flavorful but restrained slice of cake.
Do you know what the inspiration was behind this cake, before I knew that it would bolster my patience? When I saw that currants had made their much-anticipated arrival on the produce tables of a select few at the farmers’ market, I got an immediate taste in my mouth. Vanilla bean custard and currants. It’s kind of alarming when, in the middle of the street, you can just taste something even though you’re not eating anything. It was a sign of the good that was to come. (This reminds me of when a middle school teacher started flapping around the classroom, asking with a mad sense of urgency, “What is in my mouth, what is in my mouth?” and sticking out her tongue. What was in her mouth was her unswallowed pain relievers.)
I think that currants work most beautifully with eggy, vanilla-flavored things, which is why I got that sensation. The tartness shines through but is lightly tempered by smooth, rich pastry cream, making it a common tart topper. It doesn’t require a bunch of other flavorings, so sweet vanilla does the job. And that’s it. That’s how this cake was born. There’s little to say about this cake that isn’t simply captured in the description: Thin layers of my chiffon cake that I swear will never fail, Crème de Cassis syrup, currant caramel (yes, currant caramel), vanilla bean pastry cream, whipped cream, currants.
The currant flavor is pervasive but in different ways: The liquor in the syrup provides the warmth and spice of black currants, the dark caramel is bittersweet from deeply cooked sugar and tangy from vibrant red currant puree that is added with the cream, and the red and white currant garnish is popping with freshness. I can never figure out why fruit caramel sauces aren’t more popular. On this blog, I also have a peach caramel that I used for another cake, and I just love how the deep caramel notes mingle with fresh fruit and give any dessert a touch of sophistication.
I don’t provide a hard-and-fast amount of syrup for each layer; this chiffon is so naturally moist, fluffy, and delicious on its own, so you can use as much or as little as you like. If you want to “semi-stabilize” the whipped cream frosting, reserve ¼ cup of pastry cream filling and add it to the cream when you’re whipping it. This cake looks lovely when decorated with red and white currants still on their stems. I removed the stems from additional currants and served them in a bowl alongside the cake so guests can spoon them on top. You want to eat the cake with whole currants on top because their tartness and burst of freshness are integral to the final dessert.
1 recipe Crème de Cassis Syrup (see below)
1 recipe Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream (see below)
1 recipe Chiffon Cake (link)
1 recipe Currant Caramel (see below)
1 recipe Whipped Cream (see below)
Currants, for garnish
To Assemble the Cake: Cut circle of parchment paper to fit bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Slice Chiffon Cake horizontally into three even layers. Place bottom layer in prepared springform pan. Using pastry brush, soak cake layer to your liking with Crème de Cassis Syrup. Spread 80 grams (about 1/4 cup plus 1 heaping tablespoon) Currant Caramel evenly over layer. Spread half of Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream over caramel. Top pastry cream with second cake layer. Repeat soaking and topping. Top with third cake layer. Wrap cake tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 8 hours. When ready to serve, unmold cake, transfer to serving platter, and frost with Whipped Cream. Decorate with currants
Crème de Cassis Syrup
76 grams (1/3 cup) water
56 grams (1/4 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon) sugar
2-3 tablespoons crème de cassis
Bring water and sugar to boil and cook, swirling pan occasionally, until sugar has dissolved and syrup has thickened ever-so slightly. Off heat, stir in desired amount of crème de cassis. (Syrup can be refrigerated for up to 7 days.)
Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream
A spinoff on Dorie Greenspan’s wonderful Pastry Cream in Baking: From My Home to Yours
½ vanilla bean
460 grams (2 cups) whole milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 large egg yolks
100 grams (1/2 cup) sugar
36 grams (1/3 cup) cornstarch, sifted
49 grams (3 1/2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces, room temperature
Scrape seeds from vanilla bean. Bring milk, vanilla bean seeds and pod, and salt to boil in small saucepan. Remove from heat, cover saucepan, and let sit for at least 10 minutes and up to 1 hour to infuse with vanilla flavor.
Reheat milk mixture. Vigorously whisk egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch in medium saucepan until completely smooth and thick. Whisk about 1/4 cup milk mixture into egg yolks to temper. Whisking constantly, pour remaining milk mixture into yolk mixture. Place saucepan over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until custard thickens, boils, and registers 200 degrees. (Pastry Cream can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)
Because of the high level of pectin in currants, the caramel takes on an almost jamlike consistency, which is lovely for spreading it between the cake layers. Leftover currant purée is tart and vibrant and wonderful stirred into yogurt or drizzled over ice cream. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 7 days.
10 ounces (about 2 1/2 cups or 1 1/4 pints) red currants
250 grams (1 1/4 cups) plus 1 tablespoon sugar
58 grams (1/4 cup) plus 1 tablespoon water
38 grams (about 2 tablespoons) corn syrup
½ teaspoon kosher salt
58 grams (1/4 cup) heavy cream
28 grams (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
Combine currants, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 1 tablespoon water in small saucepan and stir to coat currants in sugar. Bring mixture to boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until currants have broken down, about 10 minutes. Strain currant mixture through fine-mesh strainer, pressing on seeds and skins to extract liquid; set currant purée aside.
Combine corn syrup, salt, remaining 250 grams (1 1/4 cups) sugar, and remaining 58 grams (1/4 cup) water in medium saucepan. Place saucepan over medium-high heat and stir until sugar is mostly dissolved. Cook without stirring until mixture is very dark amber (I prefer it dangerously dark to counteract the sweetness of the dessert). Off heat, carefully whisk in heavy cream and 75 grams (about 1/3 cup) currant purée until combined. Whisk in 14 grams (1 tablespoon) butter until completely melted; repeat with remaining butter. Transfer currant caramel to bowl or container, stir in 1 1/2 tablespoons more currant purée, and let cool completely. (Caramel can be refrigerated for up to 1 days before using on cake. Leftover caramel can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.)
460 grams (2 cups) heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
28 grams (1/4 cup) confectioners’ sugar
Using mixer (fitted with whisk attachment if using a stand mixer), whip cream, vanilla, and salt together on medium-high speed until cream begins to thicken. Sift sugar over cream and continue to whip until stiff peaks just begin to form.