Soon after my parents were married my father asked my mother to reproduce the birthday cake his late mother, a child of the Austro-Hungarian empire, used to make. There was no recipe, great discussions took place (“No, it wasn’t a Doboschtorte”), and only after a number of trial bakes did my mother arrive at the adjacent confection, which was known in the 30s and 40s, probably at the prodding of this writer, to reach ten layers.
Even with seven you’ll find your kitchen overrun by cake pans, but any amount of inconvenience is justified in this instance.
I especially remember my father’s last birthday, and cake, in 1962. Our son John was only three years old and had been properly packed off to bed long before the grownups would reach the cake stage in their three-course festival meal. Well, you would know, of course, that John materialized from his place of repose at precisely the moment the seven layer wonder appeared in the dining room. And this was not the only time in his early years he managed this proto-Houdinian feat: he was positively telepathic about yummy desserts.
I like to eat these “old country” layers very slowly, to the tune of a Chopin nocturne gliding off a CD by my cake-baking grandmother’s first cousin, the magical Moriz Rosenthal.
And speaking of Moriz . . . there he was, tiny and mustachioed, living in a pullman car suite at the Great Northern hotel next to Carnegie Hall, his wife Hedwig teaching piano at one end and Moriz, to a more select batch of students, at the other. Hedwig, I guess, wasn’t too much of a cook or was so busy shepherding her charges up and down the keyboard that my teenage cousin Evelyn was commissioned to sizzle up lamb chops on a hot plate. She’d also run to the Automat for Moriz’ oysters.
Moriz was known for his devilish wit (you may know his quip about Artur Schnabel failing his Army physical because of “no fingers”) but Evelyn feels, and I concur, that all this heavy joking was nothing more than an impish acceptance of the fact he was considered a wit. The jokes may have sounded a little mean now and then, but the musicologist Charles Rosen who was a pupil of Moriz says he was an unfailingly sympathetic mentor.
Rather than shouting, “That’s not good,” to Rosen, Moriz would ask him if perhaps he’d like to try that passage like this . . .
Take 7 or more 9″ round cake pans, grease them with vegetable oil or butter, line them with wax paper and grease them again, then flour them.
Make a “1-2-3-4 Cake” (see below) and spread the batter evenly among the pans. Bake at 350-375° for 12 to 15 minutes, then remove the layers from the pans, taking off the wax paper, and replace the layers on the same wax paper to cool. Do not stack. Choose a nice-looking layer for the top, and using the back of a spoon, spread the remaining layers with currant jelly. Assemble the cake on a plate one layer at a time, icing each as you proceed with Hungarian Chocolate Frosting (see below) — don’t stint! Ice the sides and top, and let the cake stand to harden before serving (unless you absolutely cannot wait!)
Beat 1 cup of butter until soft, add gradually 2 cups of sugar and blend until light and creamy, then beat in 4 egg yolks, one at a time, and add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract.
Sift 2-1/2 cups of flour with 2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Add these sifted ingredients to the butter/sugar/yolks/vanilla in three parts, alternating with thirds of 1 cup of milk, beating the batter until smooth after each addition.
Now whip until stiff but not dry 4 egg whites with 1/4 teaspoon of salt; fold lightly into the batter.
Hungarian Chocolate Frosting:
Melt 6 ounces of unsweetened baking chocolate in a double boiler. Using a portable electric beater, gradually add, in this order, some sugar, egg, sugar, egg, sugar, and water as necessary, until you use up about 1 pound of sifted confectioner’s sugar, 2 whole eggs or 3 yolks, and up to 1/2 cup of hot water. There will come a point in this process when all seems lost: the mixture suddenly turns solid. Fear not, just add more water and go on beating. Finally, add 6 to 8 tablespoons of butter. Quantities should be juggled to achieve the most spreadable texture — “Tinker with it,” Gigi used to say. As you spread the frosting, keep it over hot water.