Friday, April 15, 2011

The Thesis Cake

This week has seen a lot of endings in my life. Last Sunday was my final show with Brown University Gilbert and Sullivan, a group I've been involved with since my freshman year, although my involvement was pretty minimal this semester. Ahead is my last Brown Spring Weekend (and also my first - long story). On Thursday, my relationship of over seven months ended. But probably the most significant ending came on Monday, when I handed in my thesis. It's 130 pages and I've been working on it for two years, and particularly since September it has been a daily presence in my life. Dropping it off at the History Department was as close as I'll come to feeling like I dropped my kid off at college for a good long time. Pride in what I've produced, relief at having so much of my time freed up, trepidation over what's going to happen now that it's out of my hands, emptiness that something in which I've invested so much and that's been such a constant part of my life is gone.

So what do you do for a milestone such as this? Make a cake, duh. My birthday was a few weeks ago and my parents got me a Jacques Torres cookbook called Dessert Circus. As befits the former pastry chef of Le Cirque, a lot of the desserts are devilishly complicated, but this seemed like an occasion for which a devilishly complicated cake might be warranted. I wanted a cake that would reflect the substance of my thesis, which was about the dissolution of the monasteries in England from 1536-40 (if you've never heard of this, don't worry, you're not alone.) I flipped through it and saw a lovely photo of a tower made from alternating layers of chocolate cake and chocolate cream, topped with a roof made from four chocolate triangles. It's called The Manhattan and it's meant to resemble a skyscraper. Then it hit me: make my own version of The Manhattan, only in the shape of a cathedral! Perhaps I would call it The Canterbury?

This cake was super-time consuming but not as hard as it looks. Because the cake recipe calls for almond paste and that stuff is expensive, I made my own using this recipe. If you have a food processor it's very simple and much, much cheaper- the only trick is to stop yourself from eating it, it's so tasty! The cake tastes extremely light because of the chiffon, and it has stayed pleasingly moist after three days (I made the cake on Wednesday). The cream is also delicious, but next time I think I would use semisweet instead of bittersweet chocolate because you can definitely taste the bitterness. I don't understand why the recipe called for so much raspberry syrup, I only used about a quarter of it, but maybe I was not sufficiently soaking my layers, since I didn't taste the raspberry much at the end. Making the roof was probably the most annoying part of the recipe, but I made an additional, even more annoying part: the church steeple. In order to create this I used Martha Stewart's recipe for caramel-dipped hazelnuts, but I couldn't find any whole hazelnuts at the grocery store so I used macadamia nuts instead. I have no idea if there's something about hazelnuts that makes them more inclined to stay on the skewer, but my macadamia nuts were NOT interested in staying on the chopstick, so I ended up sticking them in the caramel and taking them out by hand, which was quite a painful proposition. Anyway, they looked very cool but I would not recommend it if you don't have a burning need to put a steeple on your creation.

Even though it took forever, this was definitely the coolest, most ambitious thing I've ever baked, and despite everything it was so satisfying and rewarding. Just replace "baked" with "written," and you'll get how I feel about my thesis.


  1. Congratulations on both your creations! How wonderful to finally turn in your thesis. I remember that feeling - the elation at being done, finally done, but also the emptiness because it has been such a huge part of your life for so long. Kudos for you for not sitting on your laurels and putting your energy to such a creative use! Your cake is so beautiful! Happy Belated Birthday, as well!

  2. Thanks, Elaine! I'll post the recipe soon but not until after Passover is done - no need to unduly tempt myself.


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