Food: Developing This Raspberry Cream Cake Almost Broke Me

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This is a story about cake. But it’s also a story about giving in without giving up, of lofty ideas and the pesky reality that intervenes, and eggs—lots and lots of eggs.

For our spring Travel Issue, my assignment was to create a cake that could teleport you to a certain place, even as you stood in your 150-square-foot NYC kitchen with the heat clanking in the background.

My last pre-pandemic trip was to Japan so naturally, nostalgic for the great Before, I settled on making an airy Japanese-style cream cake. These were in the basement of every famed department store, pretty and pristine, a masterpiece of velvety cake and whipped cream and disturbingly picturesque fruit.

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The first mistake I made was insisting the cake layers be pink. I had it in my head to make a cake concealed in stark white frosting, with a Barbie-colored surprise waiting inside. A glutton for punishment, I also wanted to do this without any assistance from food coloring.

My weapon of choice was crushed freeze-dried raspberries. Freeze-dried fruit is intensely flavorful and, without the excess moisture of its fresh counterpart, it doesn’t upset the liquid-to-dry ratio in baking as much. Once it was powdered, I figured it could replace some of the flour and that’s that. This did not go well.

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Cakes one, two, and three, were mauve, maroon, and puce (the color of steak tartare), decidedly not the bubblegum pink of my dreams. Baking destroyed the bright pigments of the raspberry powder. I tried making the batter more acidic, so the color would be more stable (or something). It was when I found myself Googling “where to buy ascorbic acid,” that I knew things had taken a dark turn.

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Defeated but undaunted, I settled for more traditional vanilla cake layers, deeming them easier. (Rule number one of recipe development: Never think something is going to be easy.) I started with a chiffon cake, much like the original inspiration. Baked in a tube pan, it turned out magnificent—lofty, light, springy. “But not everyone has tube pans at home,” said Chris Morocco, food director and unfailing realist. Valid. Then I can make this in a regular old 9" round pan, I thought. During the first attempt, my hope, like the cake in front of me, rapidly sank. My dad saw it and asked, “Oh, are you making a Dutch baby for breakfast?” No. No, I am not.

The tube pan conducted heat more evenly across the cake, cooking it from the outside as well as the inside edges, making it stable and less susceptible to sinking. Without it, the cake was unable to support itself as well. Still, I was determined that round cake pans were the only way forward.

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I tried every cake under the sun: butter cake (too rich and dense); angel food cake (too lean and sweet); sponge cake (“I’ve seen Swiss cheese with smaller holes,” my mother said); genoise (meh). Back to chiffon it was.

It took 4 dozen eggs, 5 pounds of sugar, and a deflated ego, but in the end it happened—the layers turned out puffy and golden, tight-crumbed and tender. The trick was manifold: using cream of tartar to stabilize the egg whites, smaller cake pans so the cakes cooked more evenly edge to edge, two temperature settings (higher to set the structure, then lower to bake through), and bleached cake flour for height. Tally these up and you get an extremely reliable cake. And who doesn't love reliable?

Adding the freeze-dried raspberries to the whipped cream was the real highlight. The powder was thirsty and sucked up so much moisture from the cream that it became thicker and sturdier, good to keep in the fridge for a few days without breaking down into a weepy mess like regular whipped cream is inclined to do. It was a fever dream of pink, and it tasted like victory.

I learned that stubbornness and persistence are two sides of the same coin and sometimes the only way out is through. Now go make the cake. I did everything wrong so you can make it right every time.

Raspberry Cake With Whipped Cream Filling

See recipe. © Photograph by Emma Fishman, food styling by Pearl Jones, prop styling by Summer Moore See recipe.

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