From a chocolate cake infused with Turkish coffee flavours to a three-tiered wonder inspired by a classic Latin American dessert, these statement bakes will make the quietest lockdown birthday feel like a celebration.
Cast your mind back to spring 2020, when lockdown birthdays were still a novelty. If you’re a Pisces, Aries or Taurus, you won’t have celebrated last year’s birthday with a house party or dinner at your favourite restaurant (we hope) – but your friends or family may have rallied around with a Zoom pub quiz, online murder mystery or virtual kitchen disco.
Now that almost one year has passed since the start of the first lockdown, however, you might have noticed a dip in people’s enthusiasm for virtual celebrations. Instead of organising weekly trips to The Corona Arms on Zoom, we’re largely getting through the current lockdown by hunkering down at home.
Which is fair enough – but where does that leave people who are celebrating birthdays during lockdown 3.0? How do you mark the occasion in a way that still feels special, but doesn’t involve a screen?
The answer, as with so many things, is dessert. Below, you’ll find four recipes for showstopping cakes and pies that would be the highlight of anyone’s birthday, lockdown or no lockdown. Not only that, they’ll provide you with an absorbing task to while away the hours when stuck at home.
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Sue Quinn’s layered recipe is inspired by the Middle East, blending the flavours of cardamom-infused Turkish coffee and Turkish delight into an intense chocolate cake with a rose-scented ganache. Hannah Miles’ recipe also involves rose, this time in the form of sugared petals atop a spectacular naked sponge cake.
A little more time-consuming is Petra Paredez’s New York-style Nesselrode pie, which combines chestnut custard, sour cherries and vanilla cream for a gorgeously unusual dessert. Elisabeth Prueitt’s recipe for pastel de tres leches (three milks cake) is similarly challenging yet equally satisfying. Based on a popular Latin American dish, this coconut version is filled with caramel cream for a truly beautiful bake.
None of these recipes are easy, exactly: they all take time, and some require equipment and ingredients that you might not already have lying around at home (think piping bags and gelatine). But if you’re on the hunt for a culinary challenge, they’re just the ticket. And whether you’re celebrating the birthday of your housemate, they’re sure to go down a treat. Happy baking.
Sue Quinn’s coffee chocolate layer cake with rose-scented ganache
- 90g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
- 250g plain flour
- 1 ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- ½ tsp fine sea salt
- ½ tsp finely ground cardamom seeds
- 200g dark chocolate (between 70–75% cocoa solids), grated or blitzed in a food processor
- 120ml vegetable oil
- 400g caster sugar
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 240ml strong hot espresso
For the ganache:
- 200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), chopped
- 250ml double cream
- 20g caster sugar
- ½ tsp rosewater
For the coffee buttercream:
- 150g soft unsalted butter, softened
- 300g icing sugar, sifted
- 1 tbsp instant coffee granules dissolved in 1 tbsp boiling water
To decorate (optional):
- edible rose petals and/or crystallized rose petals
Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas mark 4. Butter 2 × 20-cm round cake tins and line the bases with baking paper.
Using a fork or balloon whisk, whisk the flour, bicarbonate of soda, salt and cardamom seeds together in a bowl to combine and set aside.
Melt the chocolate, butter and oil together in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Stir to combine, then remove the pan from the heat.
Place the caster sugar in a mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, add the melted chocolate mixture and beat until well combined – it might turn a little grainy, but that’s fine.
Gradually beat in the eggs and vanilla to produce a smooth shiny batter. Beat in the flour mixture on low speed until just combined. Finally, beat in the hot coffee, giving a final stir with a spatula to make sure all the melted chocolate at the bottom of the bowl is mixed in.
Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake tins and bake for about 35 minutes – but start checking after 30 minutes – until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave in the tins for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
To make the ganache, place the chocolate in a heatproof mixing bowl. Heat the cream and caster sugar together in a small pan until almost boiling and the sugar has dissolved, stirring all the while so it doesn’t catch. Stir in the rosewater, then immediately pour over the chocolate, stirring constantly until all the chocolate has melted.
Leave to cool for 5 minutes, then whisk with a balloon whisk or electric beaters until thick and creamy. This can take a few minutes.
To make the coffee buttercream, beat the butter in a stand mixer or in a bowl with electric beaters until very pale and creamy, then add the icing sugar and coffee and beat until creamy.
To assemble, carefully cut each cake in half horizontally with a serrated knife.
Spread the tops of 3 of the cakes with buttercream, then set one on top of the other. Place the un-iced cake on top with its neatest side facing upwards.
Finish by spreading the ganache over the top and sides – smoothly or in swirls, as you wish. It should spread very easily, so if it has hardened too much, beat well or melt a little over a pan of barely simmering water.
Decorate with edible and/or crystallized rose petals, if using.
From Cocoa: An Exploration Of Chocolate, With Recipes by Sue Quinn (£25, Quadrille), out now
Petra Paredez’s Nesselrode pies
Makes two 23cm pies
For the chestnut puree:
- 55g shelled, peeled chestnuts
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp rum
For the filling:
- 235g sugar
- 2 tbsp gelatine
- ½ tsp salt
- 6 eggs, separated
- 360ml double cream
- 600ml whole milk
- 3 tbsp dark rum
- 1 tsp vanilla
For the macerated cherries:
- 228g pitted sour cherries
- 133g granulated sugar
- 1 ½ tbsp dark rum
- 1 tbsp icing sugar
- 1 tbsp cornflour
For the vanilla whipped cream:
- 360ml double cream
- ½ tsp vanilla
- pinch of salt
- 40g icing sugar
For 2 butter pastry bottom pie crusts:
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 ¼ tsp salt
- 60ml boiling water
- 180g pastry flour, from the freezer
- 80g plain flour, from the freezer
- 2 sticks/225g cold unsalted butter, cut into 12mm pieces
- extra flour, for rolling
For the assembly:
- 65g chocolate shavings
Make the macerated cherries
In a large saucepan, combine the cherries, granulated sugar, and rum. Cook over medium-low heat for 45 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes, until the cherries are tender, and the syrup is thin and has the colour of red wine. Don’t let the mixture boil, but if it does, turn down the heat.
Preheat the oven to 90°C. Strain the cherries, saving both the syrup (for cocktails or to serve over ice cream) and the cherries. Transfer the cherries to a mixing bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together the icing sugar and cornflour. Sift the sugar mixture over the cherries, and toss to coat.
Place the cherries on a baking sheet and bake for 2 hours. The cherries will darken slightly in the oven and have a drier, stickier texture as some of the moisture evaporates. The cherries can be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, and the syrup can keep in the fridge for up to a month.
Make the dough
Stir the sugar, salt, and water together in a small bowl until the sugar and salt are fully dissolved. Place the bowl in the freezer – the liquid needs to be ice cold before it is added to the dough.
Put the flours in a large bowl and dump the butter into the flour. Toss to coat the butter in the flour.
Working quickly, use your thumbs and index fingers to squeeze each chunk of butter into a thin sheet, between 3 and 6mm thick. Shake the contents of the bowl to ensure the sheets are well-coated in flour.
Sprinkle the ice-cold sugar-salt solution over the butter and flour. Use your fingers to lightly toss the contents of the bowl around to disperse the liquid.
Squeeze the shaggy mess with your fists, repeatedly and quickly, until the chunks get bigger and more cohesive.
At first it will be crumbly and seem as if it won’t come together, but with continued compression, you can begin to make two mounds of dough of roughly equal size. Flatten your mounds into 2.5cm thick discs.
Roll the bottom crusts
Prepare a clean, dry, nonporous surface by sprinkling it with flour.
Place a disc of dough on top of the floured surface and sprinkle it with a little more flour. Place your rolling pin in the centre of the dough and roll away from yourself with firm, even pressure, but not enough force to squish the dough. As you approach the edge of the dough, use a little less pressure so that it doesn’t become too thin on the edges.
Rotate the dough about 45 degrees. Place the rolling pin at the centre of the disc and roll away from yourself once again.
Continue to rotate and roll, adding more flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the surface and/or the rolling pin, until you’ve rolled the dough to approximately 3mm thick. If the dough starts to split on the edges, you can gently press it back together before continuing to roll it out. The finished sheet of dough should be roughly 30.5cm in diameter.
Transfer the sheet of dough into a pie pan, centring it so that you have at least 2.5cm of extra dough all the way around the edges of the pan. While transferring, support the dough with your fingers spread out, in order to distribute the weight and prevent breakage.
Once the sheet of dough is in the pan, ease it into the corner where the base of the pan meets the sides. In order to do this without stretching or breaking the dough, lift the edge of the dough with one hand to allow it to fall into place while gently pressing it into the corner with the other.
Trim the crust by running a knife all the way around the outer edge of the pan.
Make the chestnut puree
In a food processor, pulse to combine the chestnuts and sugar. With the machine running, add the rum and process for about 2 minutes, or until the puree is no longer grainy, stopping every 30 seconds to scrape down the sides.
Alternatively, use a mortar and pestle to grind the chestnuts and sugar together, then add the rum and grind into a smooth puree.
Make the filling
Place a medium mixing bowl in the freezer.
In a large saucepan, combine 100g of the sugar, the gelatine, and the salt. Whisk in the egg yolks, followed by the chestnut puree. Gradually whisk in the cream, then whisk in the milk.
Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan with a rubber spatula, until the mixture reaches 82°C on a candy thermometer.
Remove from the heat and immediately pour the mixture into the chilled bowl. Stir in the rum.
Refrigerate, stirring every 10 minutes, until chilled and thickened, about 40 minutes.
Once the custard has chilled and thickened, in a saucepan, combine the remaining 135g sugar and 3 tbsp water. Cook over medium heat, stirring with a rubber spatula until the sugar has dissolved and the syrup starts to bubble. Turn off the heat.
Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl with a hand-held mixer, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. With the mixer running, pour the hot sugar syrup in a stream into the foamy egg whites, followed by the vanilla. Stop when the meringue holds medium-stiff peaks but is still silky, not foamy.
Transfer most of the meringue from the mixer into a separate bowl, leaving about one-quarter of the meringue on the whisk attachment or in the bowl.
Pour the chestnut custard into the mixer bowl and beat it with the residual meringue until smooth. Remove the bowl from the mixer and gently fold the remaining meringue into the mixture.
Start assembling the pies
Pile a heaping cup of filling into each of the pie shells, using a spatula to spread it around the bottoms.
Gently fold about two-thirds of the macerated cherries into the remaining filling and divide it into the two pie shells, making sure to scrape the entire contents from the sides of the bowl into the pie, spreading to the edges of the crust and mounding slightly in the centre.
Refrigerate the pies for 4 hours, or until set.
Make the vanilla cream
In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the cream, vanilla, and salt. Sift in the icing sugar. Using a hand-held mixer or the whisk attachment, beat on high until the cream is voluminous and still holds its shape but is smooth.
Continue assembling the pies
If topping with chocolate shavings, sprinkle the tops of the pies with them, then dollop the surface of each with whipped cream and the remaining cherries.
Transfer the whipped cream to a pastry bag fitted with a round tip and pipe the whipped cream around the edge of each pie. Top with the remaining cherries.
To serve, slice with a hot, wet knife to avoid dragging the chiffon. Nesselrode pie is best enjoyed right away, but it will keep for up to 2 days, covered, in the fridge.
Edited extract from Pie For Everyone: Recipes and Stories from Petee’s Pie, New York’s Best Pie Shop by Petra Paredez (£21.99, Abrams), out now
Elisabeth Prueitt’s pastel de tres leches
Makes one 25cm cake; 12 to 16 servings
For the Génoise cake, divided into 3 layers:
- 75g unsalted butter
- 185g plain flour
- 1 tbsp cornflour
- 6 large eggs
- 210g sugar
- pinch of salt
For the coconut syrup:
- 240ml unsweetened coconut milk
- 75g sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- pinch of salt
For the filling:
- 1 ½ tsp unflavoured gelatine
- 2 tbsp water
- 600ml pastry cream (see below)
- 240ml double cream, very cold
- 120ml caramel sauce (see below)
For the pastry cream:
- 480ml whole milk
- ½ vanilla bean
- ¼ tsp salt
- 115g sugar
- 30g cornflour
- 2 large eggs
- 60g unsalted butter
For the caramel sauce (makes about 360ml, so you’ll have some left over):
- 160ml double cream
- ¼ vanilla bean
- 250g sugar
- 60ml water
- 2 tbsp golden syrup
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¾ tsp lemon juice
- 60g unsalted butter
For the topping:
- 300ml double cream, very cold
- 4 tsp sugar
Make the Génoise cake
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line the bottom of a 25cm springform pan with 7.5cm sides with parchment paper cut to fit exactly. Do not butter the sides of the pan.
In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat, remove from the heat, and keep warm. Sift together the flour and cornflour into a bowl and set aside.
Pour water to a depth of about 5cm into a saucepan, place over medium heat, and bring to a simmer. Combine the eggs, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer that will rest securely on the rim of the saucepan over, but not touching, the water.
Whisk together and then place over the saucepan and continue to whisk until the mixture is hot to the touch (50°C), 5 to 7 minutes.
Remove the bowl from over the water and place on the stand mixer. Fit the mixer with the whisk attachment and mix on medium-high speed until the batter is pale yellow, has tripled in volume, and falls from the beater in a wide ribbon that folds back on itself and slowly dissolves on the surface, 3 to 5 minutes.
Using a rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture in three batches, making sure you reach all the way down to the bottom of the bowl where the flour likes to sink, and pulling it all the way to the top.
Scoop out a small portion of the batter into a small bowl and whisk in the warm melted butter. Gently and quickly fold the butter mixture into the batter, being careful not to deflate the batter.
Pour the batter immediately into the prepared cake pan. Bake until the top springs back when lightly touched, 40 to 45 minutes.
Let cool in the pan (the sides of the pan will help hold the structure of the cake as it cools) on a wire rack.
To unmould, run a small, thin knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake and then release and lift off the pan sides. Invert the cake and peel off the parchment. It will keep, well wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month.
Split the cake into 3 layers
The easiest way to divide the cake into layers is to use a long, thin, serrated knife. Place the cake on a flat surface and mark the desired thickness all the way around the cake.
Work from the top to the bottom of the cake. Holding the knife parallel to the work surface and using a sawing motion, cut through the cake, checking that the tip end and handle end of the knife are level and slicing where you marked.
Take off the first layer and set it aside before you begin to cut the next layer. If you aren’t using the layers right away, cover with clingfilm so they don’t dry out.
Line the sides of the 25cm springform pan with 7.5cm sides with clingfilm, allowing enough overhang to cover the top of the cake completely when it is assembled. Leave the bottom of the pan unlined.
Make the coconut syrup
In a small bowl, stir together the coconut milk, sugar, vanilla, and salt until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.
Make the pastry cream
Have a bowl ready for cooling the pastry cream with a fine-mesh sieve resting on the rim.
Pour the milk into a heavy saucepan. Split the half vanilla bean in half lengthwise and use the tip of a sharp knife to scrape the seeds from the pod into the milk.
Add the salt, place over medium-high heat, and bring to just under a boil, stirring occasionally and making sure that the milk solids are not sticking to the bottom of the pan. The larger the batch, the more careful you need to be.
Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar and cornflour. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth.
When the milk is ready, slowly ladle about one-third of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the egg-milk mixture back into the hot milk and continue whisking over medium heat until the custard is as thick as lightly whipped cream, about 2 minutes.
In order for the cornflour to cook and thicken fully, the mixture must come just to the boiling point. You want to see a few slow bubbles. However, if the cream is allowed to boil vigorously, you will curdle the pastry cream.
Remove from the heat and immediately pour through the sieve into the bowl. (If the custard stays in the hot pot, it will continue to cook.) Let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to release the heat and prevent a skin from forming on top.
Cut the butter into four pieces. When the pastry cream is ready (it should be about 60°C), whisk the butter into the pastry cream one piece at a time, always whisking until smooth before adding the next piece.
To cool the cream, cover the bowl with clingfilm, pressing the wrap directly onto the top of the cream (the clingfilm prevents a skin from forming on the surface).
To cool it very quickly, place it in a shallow dish and press clingfilm directly on top. Be careful whisking the cream once it is cold. Overmixing will break down the starch and thin the cream.
Pastry cream will keep, well covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Make the filling
Sprinkle the gelatine over the water in a small bowl and let stand for a few minutes to soften.
If using freshly made pastry cream and it is still hot, whisk the gelatine into the entire amount, then place the bowl in an ice bath (a large bowl filled with ice cubes and water) and let the pastry cream cool before continuing.
If using pastry cream that is cold, pour water to a depth of about 5cm into a saucepan, place over medium heat, and bring to a simmer.
Place 120ml of the pastry cream in a stainless-steel bowl that will rest securely on the rim of the saucepan over, but not touching, the water. Heat the pastry cream, whisking often, until it is very hot to the touch, 4 to 5 minutes.
Whisk in the softened gelatine until smooth. Remove from the double boiler. Whisk half of the remaining cold pastry cream into the hot mixture, then whisk in the rest.
Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or a whisk, whip the cream until it holds medium-soft peaks. Working quickly, gently fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream mixture with a rubber spatula.
Make the caramel sauce
Pour the cream into a small, heavy saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and use the tip of a sharp knife to scrape the seeds from the pod halves into the milk. Place over medium-high heat and bring to just under a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low to keep the cream warm.
In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, water, golden syrup, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Then cook, without stirring, until the mixture is amber coloured, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.
The mixture will continue to cook off the heat and become darker, so make sure to have your cream close by. Carefully and slowly add the cream to the sugar syrup. The mixture will boil vigorously at first.
Let the mixture simmer down, and then whisk until smooth. Add the lemon juice. Let cool for about 10 minutes.
Cut the butter into 2.5cm chunks and add them to the caramel one at a time, whisking constantly after each addition. Then whisk the caramel periodically as it continues to cool.
The caramel will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Assemble the cake
Place one cake layer in the bottom of the prepared springform pan. Using a pastry brush, moisten the layer evenly with one-third of the coconut syrup.
Drizzle half of the caramel over the cake layer. Pour half of the filling over the layer and spread it evenly (the back of a large spoon works well).
Place the second cake layer over the filling, pressing down gently with even pressure. Moisten this layer with half of the remaining coconut syrup, and then drizzle over the remaining caramel.
Pour the remaining filling over the second layer.
Place the third cake layer on top and moisten it with the rest of the coconut syrup. The top layer should come right up to the rim of the cake pan or go a little over.
Fold the overhanging clingfilm over the top of the cake, covering it completely. Place something flat, such as a flat plate or a baking sheet, over the cake, and press down gently to level the cake layers. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight.
When you are ready to finish the cake, release and lift off the pan sides and peel away the clingfilm. Using a wide metal spatula, transfer the cake to a serving plate, if using, or leave it on the cake pan base.
Make the topping
Using the mixer or a whisk, whip the cream until thickened. Add the sugar and whip until the cream holds soft peaks. Using an offset spatula, frost the top of the cake.
The cake can be served immediately or kept cold in the refrigerator until ready to serve. It will keep for up to 5 days.
Edited extract from Tartine: A Classic Revisited: 68 All-New Recipes + 55 Updated Favourites by Elisabeth M Prueitt and Chad Robertson (£29, Chronicle Books), out now
Hannah Miles’ rose petal cake
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- edible dried rose petals, to decorate
For the petals:
- pesticide-free, edible rose petals
- 1 egg white
- 1 tsp rosewater
- caster sugar, for sprinkling
For the cake batter:
- 340g butter, softened
- 340g caster sugar
- 6 eggs
- 340g self-raising flour, sifted
- 3 tsp baking powder
- 3 tbsp buttermilk or sour cream
For the filling:
- a handful of pesticide-free, edible rose petals
- 1 tbsp rose syrup
- 1 tbsp icing sugar
- 400ml double cream
- rose petal jam
Begin by preparing the crystallized rose petals, as they need to dry overnight. Whisk together the egg white and rosewater until very foamy.
Using a paint brush, paint the egg white on both the front and the back of the petals and sprinkle with sugar. This is best done by holding the sugar just above the flower and sprinkling. Have a plate below to catch the excess sugar.
Repeat with all the petals, covering them one at a time, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Leave in a warm place to dry overnight. Once dried, stored the petals in an airtight container until you are ready to serve.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4.
To make the cake batter, use an electric whisk to mix the butter and sugar in a bowl until light and creamy. Add the eggs and whisk again.
Fold in the flour, baking powder and buttermilk or sour cream using a spatula, until incorporated.
Fold the vanilla into the cake batter and divide the mixture equally between the prepared cake pans. Bake for 20–30 minutes, until the cakes are golden brown and spring back to the touch and a knife inserted into the centre of each cake comes out clean.
Let cool in the pans for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
For the filling, put the rose petals in a food processor with the rose syrup and icing sugar and blitz to a smooth paste. Put the rose petal paste and cream in a large bowl and whisk to stiff peaks using a mixer. Transfer to a piping/pastry bag fitted with a star nozzle/tip.
Place one of the cakes on a serving plate and pipe one-third of the rose cream on top. Spoon over some of the rose petal jam.
Place a second cake on top and cover with half of the remaining cream and more rose petal jam.
Place the final cake on top. Spread the rest of the rose cream on top using a palette knife or metal spatula, then decorate with the crystallized rose petals in the middle and a ring of edible dried rose petals around the edge.
Serve straight away or store in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve. As the cake contains fresh cream, it is best eaten on the day it is made, although it will keep for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
From Naked Cakes: Simply Stunning Cakes by Hannah Miles (£14.99, Ryland Peters & Small), out now
Photography: Steve Painter © Ryland Peters & Small; © Yuki Sugiura; © 2020 Victor Garzon; © 2019 Gentl + Hyers