Puffed

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“Soufflér. That means to puff, or to breathe.”

The past participle of soufflér is soufflé. And that’s what we were making.

Most of the kids had eaten a savory version of a soufflé before; only one had not.

“It’s kind of fluffy.”

So we talked about how a soufflé becomes so fluffy or puffed up.

“What do you guys think? How do we get all that air in there?”

They had great responses:

“Yeast?”

“Baking soda and vinegar?”

“Baking powder!”

“A bicycle pump?”

I was incredibly happy they remembered that all those things, aside from the bicycle pump, were leavening agents.

“What about eggs?” I asked. “Remember when we made the meringue mushrooms? Or the chocolate cloud cake?”

“Oh yeah!”

“We were able to whip those egg whites until they were nice and fluffy, right? The proteins in the whites formed a network that trapped a lot of air. That is exactly what we’ll use to leaven our soufflés; all those air bubbles will expand in the heat of the oven and cause our soufflés to push up.”

But first, we needed to make the base. This one would be made with pastry cream and flavored with bananas.

They had made pastry cream once before.

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They combined the egg yolks with sugar, flour, and salt to form a kind of thick paste.

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Then they whisked in a bit of milk that we had heating on the stove.

“Do you guys remember why we don’t just dump everything into the pot of hot milk?”

“Because the eggs will get clumpy?”

“Right! So we introduce the heat gradually, that’s called tempering the eggs, then we cook everything together.”

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Once the mixture had thickened and come to a boil, they strained the resulting custard into a bowl.

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We set the pastry cream aside while we prepared the soufflé dishes.

“Straight-sided dishes are best because they will help the soufflé rise up, not out. And we need something for the soufflé base to cling to as it climbs the sides, so we’ll brush the insides of the ramekins with soft butter and coat them with sugar.”

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With the dishes ready, we turned our attention back to finishing the base.

Of bananas.

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They mashed the fruit into the pastry cream and added some vanilla.

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We inspected our egg whites.

“No goldfish, right?” Meaning there were no bits of yolk floating around in the whites. “The yolks contain fat, which would interfere with the whites’ ability to form that network we talked about — the one that traps the air. Any fat will make it difficult, or even impossible, for the whites to whip.”

We started whipping the whites, and when we could see that the whip was leaving trails as it passed through the egg whites, they began adding the sugar.

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It took only a few minutes for the meringue to reach a firm peak. Actually, we could have whipped it even less, we were just on the edge of being over whipped. A little dipping of the tip of meringue, like a soft serve ice cream cone, would have been better. 

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They took turns folding the meringue into the soufflé base.

“Remember, when you’re folding, down through the middle and up the sides.”

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“It’s better to have a little bit of whites still streaky through the base than having an overfolded soufflé. The more you fold it, the more air you knock out of it.”

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We portioned the mixture into the sugared ramekins, filling them to the brim.

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I leveled them off with a spatula so they would have a nice, flat top.

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“You can run your thumb around the inside of the dishes so that the mixture doesn’t stick on the edge as it’s baking and give you a lopsided soufflé.”

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We popped the tray into the hot oven, and after about 10 minutes I called everyone over to take a peek.

“That’s amazing!”

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Soufflés, especially those made from a starch or chocolate base, are not as temperamental as the movies would have you believe. You can even take one out of the oven, test it for doneness, and put it right back in.

These were ready though.

Everyone sat down and we passed out the soufflés. They had their choice of raspberry or chocolate sauce to pour in.

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Or both.

And they were eaten before they even started deflating.

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Banana Soufflés adapted from a recipe in Room For Dessert by David Lebovitz

Note: These can be made a few hours in advance and held, unbaked, in the refrigerator.

4 servings (can be easily doubled or tripled)

2 medium bananas (equal to about 1/2 cup mashed banana pulp)

2 t vanilla

1/2 t lemon juice

1/2 c pastry cream

4 large egg whites, at room temperature

pinch of cream of tartar

1/8 t fine sea salt

2 T sugar, plus more for coating the ramekins

Position the oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Butter the insides of four 4-ounce ramekins and coat with a fine layer of sugar. In a large bowl, mash the bananas into the pastry cream and add the lemon juice, vanilla, and salt. In the bowl of a standing mixer, whip the egg whites on medium speed until frothy then add the cream of tartar. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue whipping until soft peaks form. Begin adding the sugar and whip until the meringue forms a firm but not dry peak. Add about 1/3 of the meringue to the banana mixture and fold gently to lighten it. Fold in the remaining meringue until combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared dishes, filling them to the rim. Level the tops with a spatula and use your thumb to create a shallow indentation around the inside of the ramekin. Set the soufflés on a baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes or until the tops are nicely browned and the soufflés are firm but still slightly jiggly. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Pastry Cream  (makes about 1 cup)

1 cup whole milk

3 T flour

4 T sugar

1/8 t fine sea salt

3 large egg yolks

1/4 t vanilla

Warm the milk in a saucepan. Meanwhile whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and egg yolks. When the milk is hot, whisk about 1/3 of it into into the egg mixture. Pour everything back into the pot and cook over moderate heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thickened and just begins to boil. Remove from heat and strain into a bowl. Stir in the vanilla. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

 

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A Log By Any Other Name


“Boosh uh noelll!”

“Actually, it’s Bûche de Noël, honey.”

“BOOOSH UH NOELLLLL!”

Aww, never mind. My son was having the grandest time with the name.

“A Bûche de Noël is a traditional French cake made to resemble a yule log.”

“A log?”

They looked incredulous; it did seem a bit silly. Even the sound of the word — log, lawwg, l-o-g — is heavy to the ear, and the opposite of what one would presumably want in a cake. But once I showed them some photos, and gave them a little historical context, they were on board.

(Before we go any further, I’ve got to point out that this project was our most ambitious yet. Meringue mushrooms and a cake in the shape of a log? Thus, we took an hour or so to make the meringues, then two days later we spent the afternoon baking and assembling the cake.)

So, we have — Day 1: Mushrooming

They had made meringue before, so we just jumped right in.

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Once the meringue was silky smooth and held a stiff peak, we loaded it into pastry bags fitted with piping tips.

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The kids took turns piping the mushroom stems by making small cone shapes, squeezing the meringue out onto the parchment while gently pulling up on the bag.  They were tickled by this whole process. Some stems drooped or fell over, but the kids kept going. And going. And going.

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“Guys, we still have to pipe out the mushroom caps.”

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The caps were a little easier; they were just like piping cream puffs.

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Little points on the caps were smoothed over with a barely damp finger.

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While the meringues baked, the kids played, and the moms chatted. All was right with the world.

Day 2: Zee bûche

Oh look, we’re making meringue again!

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The other ingredients for the cake were mixed and sat waiting for the egg whites and sugar to whip to a stiff peak.

We folded a third of the billowy meringue into the cake batter to lighten it.

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Then we quickly incorporated the rest.

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The resulting mixture was placed into a half-sheetpan and we popped it into the oven.

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Making filling and frosting with this crew, on top of everything else, sounded impossible, so I opted to have a batch of plain buttercream and a batch of ganache ready to go.

We wanted to flavor the buttercream though. I suggested a little melted chocolate, (just enough to contrast with the cake), and to build on our last lesson, some caramel powder. Gilding the lily? Maybe. But we wanted this to be an epic log. Also, tasty.

“I made caramel, just like we did for our apple crêpes, but instead of adding butter and cream, I just poured the cooked sugar out onto a piece of foil where it hardened.”

“It’s like glass!”

They picked it up and gazed through it.

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Then squealed as I smashed it to pieces.

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We used a food processor to grind the pieces into a fine powder.

“It’s like sand!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure.”

This would be the start of sampling sugar in several different forms.

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We mixed the chocolate and caramel powder into the buttercream and turned our attention to assembling the meringue mushrooms.

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They trimmed the pointy tips off the stems and dipped the bottoms of the caps in melted chocolate before attaching the two pieces.

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“They’re so cute!”

“Can we taste them?”

“Sure.”

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We were still waiting for the cake to bake, so we decided to make some woodland creatures for the log.

Marzipan is the traditional medium for log decor, but I had some fondant leftover from a birthday cake, so that’s what we used.

“It looks like clay!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?”

I was beginning to worry about answering to one of the dads, a dentist.

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But oh my! They dove right in.

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So much focus and creativity.

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Flora and fauna.

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And proud artists.

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The cake was done. It was time to fill.

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I showed them how to spread an even layer of buttercream over the cooled cake, leaving about an inch, at the topmost long edge, bare.

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Starting from that place, I began rolling the cake onto itself.

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I reassured them that any cracks on the roulade would be covered with frosting and hidden from view.

Using the parchment to help keep the cake from sticking to my hands, I continued rolling the buttercream covered chiffon sheet.

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“Eventually it becomes easy to use the parchment to pull the cake toward you.”

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“It looks like a log already!”

“Yeah, you could leave it as is, but we are going to make some stumpy parts and attach them with frosting.”

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I cut the ends off the roll on a slight diagonal.

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“Where shall we put them?”

They each offered an opinion on placement before we came to a consensus.

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Now for the chocolate “bark.”

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They used an icing spatula to fill in cracks and crevices with the soft ganache.

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The point where the pieces met proved the most challenging, but I assured them that it was supposed to look rough, like a knobby old piece of wood.

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When everyone had had a turn, they used a fork to add texture to the wood.

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“Time to add the decorations!”

They didn’t need to be told twice. The kids pounced on the cake, decorations in hand. They were so excited to bring it to life.

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They encouraged each other and moved things around to accommodate another child’s favorite piece.

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When they had placed the last figure on the cake, we stood back to take a look.

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There were gnomes, and insects, and birds, and foliage.

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We spied colorful flowers and several rocks. There was even a mini-log on the log.

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They were so pleased and proud.

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“Can we eat it?!”

“Sure.”

Just like that, without hesitation or concern for all the work they had put into it, they happily devoured the cake, creatures and all.

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And yes, it was sweet, but not only because of the sugar.

 

Bûche de Noël      (serves about 16 – 18)

You could make this as elaborate a production as you want, or as minimal. Either way, there are several components, but they can all be made in advance so that the actual assembly moves a lot quicker.

Chocolate Chiffon Sheet

Have ready a half-sheetpan (11″ x 17″), ungreased and lined with parchment

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

2 1/3 c  (8 1/4 oz) cake flour

2/3 c (2 3/4 oz) cocoa powder

2 c (14 oz) granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c (3 1/2 oz)

1 T baking powder

3/4 t fine sea salt

6 large eggs, separated

3/4 c water

1/4 c neutral flavored cooking oil

1 t vanilla

Sift all the dry ingredients, except the reserved sugar, together and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks with the water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the dry ingredients into the yolk mixture until combined. Whip egg whites with the reserved sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the cocoa mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining meringue, until completely combined. Pour into prepared sheet pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake until the cake springs back to the touch, about 15 minutes. Let cake cool on a rack for 5 minutes before loosening the edges with a knife. Invert on to a cooling rack and remove parchment. Let cool completely before filling.

Buttercream Filling

You will need about 2 1/2 cups, flavored as you like. We used melted chocolate to taste and caramel powder (see above and here).

I like this recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream. Make just 1/2 of a batch for this cake.

You can make this several days in advance. Refrigerate and let come to room temperature before re-whipping.

Ganache Frosting

You will need about  1 1/2 times this ganache recipe. You probably won’t use it all, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Use leftovers for hot chocolate!

This can also be made in advance, (see above recipe for softening cold ganache), but it’s so quick and easy to make as needed, I prefer to do that.

Meringue Mushrooms

Here is a good recipe for the mushrooms. You don’t need superfine sugar, regular works fine, just make sure you add it slowly and that you whip it until it is no longer gritty. The mushroom caps and stems can be made in advance, and stored in an airtight container in a dry spot for several days. Attach the caps to the stems with chocolate just before you assemble the cake.

Other items you might want:

Marzipan to mold into figures, leaves, etc. This can be tinted with food coloring.

If you are going for a more natural looking log, (not ours), rosemary branches or other unsprayed foliage.

Sugared cranberries. So pretty!

Google some examples. The sky is the limit. Have fun. And have a happy and peaceful holiday season!

 

 

 

 

Spring Strawberries, Fractions, and Harry Baker

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“Careful, those are sharp.”

I had just passed my six-year old son a handful of steak knives to distribute to the other kids. Don’t worry, they’ve had a class in knife skills.

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They made short work of the strawberries while we talked about what we’d be baking.

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“Chiffon…what is that?”

They were happy to hear that it was a kind of cake, and even happier to hear that we would be topping the cake with the lovely strawberries they were preparing.

I tossed the berries with some vanilla sugar and set them aside to macerate.

Me: “Prior to 1948, cakes were traditionally classified as either butter cakes or sponge cakes. Chiffon cake is neither. In fact, a chiffon cake is its own special thing, somewhat of a hybrid of the two.”

“Hybrid, you mean like a hybrid car?”

Me: “Exactly!”

I reminded them how we creamed butter with sugar to make a butter cake. But we were using oil for this cake. We all agreed that the oil wouldn’t be able to trap air the same way that butter would.

Me: “What other ingredient do we have that could trap air?”

“Eggs?”

Enter the sponge cake component of our hybrid: whipped eggs, specifically whites.

We turned our attention to the recipe.

Me: “This recipe makes way more cake than we need, so we’ll have to cut it in half. It calls for 11 ounces of cake flour…”

“So we need 5 1/2 ounces!”

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They took turns weighing and measuring the dry ingredients, helping each other with the appropriate calculations. Some were harder to figure out, half of 3/4 teaspoon or half of a tablespoon for example.

I pointed out that they needed to reserve some of the sugar, 1/2 cup for a full recipe. They recalculated.

“This is kind of like a math lesson too.”

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The dry ingredients were sifted together into a large bowl.

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The wet ingredients minus the egg whites would go into another.

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As they finished scaling out the ingredients, I laid some cake trivia on them.

Me: “So this kind of cake was developed in the 1920’s by a guy named Harry Baker. He worked on the recipe and kept it secret for 20 years! Then he sold it to General Mills so they could market it and make a bunch of money.”

They found this funny.

Me: “What do you think this guy did as a profession?”

“Was he a baker?”

I thought they’d guess that. I also thought they might say scientist or something of that nature.

Me: “He was an insurance salesman.”

They knew nothing of insurance. This resulted in so.many.questions. I promised we would revisit the topic…but first, back to cake!

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I explained why chiffon cake was such a hit when it came out. People liked them because they were very moist due to the oil in the batter, and since oil is liquid even at cooler temperatures, chiffon cakes do not tend to harden or dry out as traditional butter cakes might. This makes them better choices for fillings that need to be kept refrigerated, like cream or mousse, or even frozen, like ice cream.

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Wet ingredient were added to dry ingredients and whisked together until smooth.

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Then we whipped up the egg whites with the reserved sugar.

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They remembered the different stages of whipped egg whites, and helped keep an eye on them as the mixer did its thing.

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We checked the meringue to make sure we were at a nearly stiff peak.

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We used about a third of it to lighten the batter in the bowl, then gently folded in the rest.

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About 30 minutes later…

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Once the cake had cooled, we added our sweetened strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream. I’m pretty sure Harry Baker would have approved.

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As I said, this recipe makes enough for two tall 9″ layers, or one large tube pan. (We used a 10″ round by 2″ tall pan to make our single layer, which gave us twelve slices) Do not grease your pan, the batter needs to cling to the sides to rise properly. If you are making layers, simply line the bottoms with parchment.

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Orange Chiffon Cake

11 oz    cake flour

2 c        granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c

1 T        aluminum-free baking powder

3/4 t      fine sea salt

6           large eggs, separated

1           orange, zested and juiced

3/4 c     liquid, (juice from the orange plus enough water to make 3/4 cup)

1/4 c     neutral tasting oil like safflower

1 1/2 t   vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Fit a round of parchment into the bottom of a cake pan. Do not grease the pan.

Sift dry ingredients together into a large bowl. Combine egg yolks with the zest, juice and water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the egg mixture into the dry ingredients until smooth. Whip the egg whites with the reserved 1/2 c sugar to a nearly stiff peak. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining meringue. Place batter in pan and gently smooth the top. Bake for about 30 – 35 minutes or until the cake takes on a light gold color and springs back when pressed in the center. Cool completely before using a thin knife or spatula to release the cake from the sides.

Fluffy White (and One Chocolate!) Clouds

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“Is that it?”

My son was concerned about the minimal ingredients I had placed on the table to use for our baking project.

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Butter, chocolate, sugar, eggs. Do you ever really need more than that?

I pointed to the photo of a Chocolate Cloud Cake.

“Ooooh!”

All concerns went right out the window.

We made sure the oven was heating and cut out a circle of parchment for the bottom of our cake pan.

The next step was to separate the egg yolks from the whites.

“Does anyone remember what ‘leaven’ means?”

I could see the wheels turning. And finally…

“To put air into something?”

“Yeah, kinda! It means to lighten something. Like when we lightened our pizza dough with yeast. Or a cake with baking powder and/or baking soda. What else? What about our cream puffs? What did we use to leaven those?”

“Eggs?”

“Yep, we added eggs, which in the hot hot oven, created the steam that provided lift to our cream puff dough. So we’ve used yeast, chemical reactions, steam, and now…foam.”

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They had separated eggs once before, and needed little encouragement to jump in again.

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I recommended that they crack the eggs on the table instead of the side of the bowl, so that any wayward shells would land on the table instead of in their egg whites.

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Each kid separated their egg over a small bowl and then combined that white with the rest of the whites needed for the recipe, thus avoiding ruining a whole batch of egg whites with one broken yolk.

For example…

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“Those are what we call goldfish. We want to keep those bits of yolk out of the whites.”

Fat, as in the case of the egg yolks, would keep our egg whites from foaming. For this reason, we would also make sure our whisks were very clean and would avoid using plastic bowls.

It was a good thing we had plenty of eggs on hand.

But back to this foam-as-leavening idea.

I explained that egg whites are mostly water, 90% to be exact.

“Can we make a foam with just water?”

They each tried whisking a bowl of plain water. We got some bubbles, but as expected, no foam.

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Then we tried whisking one egg white.

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That was more successful.

So besides water, what was in an egg white that could create a foam? We looked at it at and agreed that it was definitely thicker than water. Vocabulary word for the day: viscous.

I pulled out some bits of string and coiled them up to represent the remaining 10% of an egg white: protein.

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“So these protein molecules are usually all wound up. When you guys whisk the egg white, the proteins unfold. One end likes the water, the other likes the air; they continue to open as they are exposed to the air you are incorporating with that whisk, and they trap it like so…”

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“But they also like to stick to each other. So you end up with this network of many little bubbles. The more you whip, the stronger the network gets…to a point.”

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We continued whipping by hand so that they could see the egg white go through the different stages.

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At soft peak the whites will just start to hold shape, but will melt back into themselves after a second…

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At medium peak or firm peak, the whites will form more distinct ridges but the tip will fold back onto itself. I like to think of a soft serve ice cream cone…

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And at stiff peak the point will stand up proudly…

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The trickiest part to whipping egg whites is taking them to the correct stage; too little whipping results in poor volume or collapse of the foam, while too much looks…

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grainy, curdled, not smooth. The whites take on a dry appearance as the network gets tightened up so much that the water is essentially squeezed out.

Now that we were clear on the different stages of whipped egg whites, we could start mixing our cake.

Chopped chocolate was gently melted in a bowl set in a pan of barely simmering water.

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We added soft butter to the chocolate and…

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Well, just trust me that we mixed in the butter.

The kids whisked the whole eggs and yolks together with half of the sugar…

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…some salt…

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and added the chocolate and butter mixture.

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They were pretty much ready to eat it as is, but I convinced them that the cake would be so. much. better.

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The kids had had enough whipping by hand, so we chose to use the mixer to make our meringue. We waited until the egg whites were foamy, then began slowly adding the sugar.

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Once it had thickened and began showing streaky paths from the beater, we pulled the attachment off to check…

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Not quite ready yet. Back on for a sec…

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Bingo.

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They were tickled that, once whipped to a stiff peak, we could turn the whole bowl of egg whites upside down.

I lightened the chocolate mixture by folding in about a quarter of the meringue. They reminded each other how to fold as they took turns mixing in the rest.

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The batter went into our parchment-lined pan and I slid it into the oven.

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Like sharks I tell you. Sharks.

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About 35 minutes later we had our chocolate cloud.

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Ahh, but we had to wait for it to cool!

We used the time to whip up another cloud, this time with very cold cream, a pinch of sugar, and a splash of vanilla.

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I explained that the stages of whipping cream were similar to those when whipping egg whites.

Me: “What do you think we would get if we over whipped this cream?”

“Butter?”

Yep. Still delicious, but not what we wanted to top our cake.

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After it had cooled a bit, the middle of the cake had sunk in just enough to leave us with the perfect place to cradle some cream.

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A little white cloud of cream on top of slightly warm chocolate. Best thing ever.

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Chocolate Cloud Cake adapted slightly from Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts

Makes one 8-inch single-layer cake; serves 8 to 12

Cake

8 oz best-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (we used 72%)

1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

6 large eggs at room temperature: 2 whole, 4 separated

1 cup sugar

1/4 tsp fine sea salt

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Whipped Cream Topping

1 1/2 cups heavy cream, well chilled

sugar to taste

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan with a round of parchment paper; do not butter the pan. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set in a pan of barely simmering water. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter until melted; set aside.

In a bowl, whisk the 2 whole eggs and the 4 egg yolks with 1/2 cup of the sugar just until blended. Whisk in the salt and vanilla. Whisk in the warm chocolate mixture.

Using a standing mixer with the whip attachment, or in a bowl with an electric mixer, beat the 4 egg whites until foamy. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until the whites form firm to stiff but not dry peaks. Fold about 1/4 of the meringue into the chocolate mixture to lighten it; gently fold in the remaining whites. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top.

Bake until the top of the cake is puffed and cracked and the center is no longer wobbly, about 35 – 40 minutes. Do not overbake.

Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack; it will sink as it cools forming a crater with high sides.

At serving time whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until not quite stiff. Run the tip of a knife around the edges of the cake and carefully remove the sides of the pan. You can choose to fill the crater of the cake with the whipped cream, pushing it gently to the edges; it looks very pretty that way. Or, if you are fighting off a crowd of impatient children, cut it into slices and top each piece with cream as it is running by.