Eight Is Too Much: Empire Torte

While I will often (okay, almost always) try out a new recipe whenever I need a celebration cake, I didn't want to take any chances with a 40th birthday cake for our friend Jim. So I did a cake test run a week ahead of time. Although Jim is a chocolate cake kind of guy, he has previously expressed interest in a vanilla seven-layer cake with chocolate frosting (like this one) and he mentioned the idea again when we were brainstorming birthday cake ideas.

It so happens that my vintage Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbook has a recipe that looked like it would be perfect, the Empire Torte that took second prize in the 1958 Bake-Off. It's an eight-layer sponge cake with "one of the best frostings you ever tasted," and the color photo in the cookbook is impressive.

The recipe is meant to be baked in two 10-inch by 15-inch pans, with each sheet cake then cut into four pieces to create eight layers total. I thought that the overall size of the cake would be a little small if I made it as written, so I decided to multiply the recipe by 1.5 and bake it in two 12-inch by 18-inch pans. To make the batter, you combine egg yolks, water, vanilla, and orange extract (I didn't have any extract, so I used half the amount of orange oil); add the wet ingredients to the sifted dry ingredients (flour, sugar, and baking powder); and then fold in egg whites that have been beaten with salt, cream of tartar, and sugar to stiff peaks.

I spread the batter into two parchment-lined pans, and after they were baked and cooled, I trimmed the cakes and cut them into eight equal rectangles. The frosting is a mixture of butter, melted unsweetened chocolate, vanilla, and powdered sugar (the recipe also calls for maple extract but I didn't have any and so I skipped it).

During the process of assembling the cake, I began to have some concerns. Each of the cake layers was long and skinny, and the assembled cake was taller than it was wide. The proportions looked a little screwy, and perhaps more importantly, I noticed that the cake began to list to one side as I was covering the entire thing in frosting. The cake looked odd and was not terribly attractive.

After I had chilled the cake for a bit to set the frosting, I tried to cut it, only to find that it was comically difficult. The sponge cake was very moist and springy (similar to angel food cake), and when I tried to use a chef's knife, the force of the knife's blade severely compressed the layers. I tried sawing back and forth with a serrated bread knife, and I still wasn't able to slice the cake without smushing it. Even though the cake would spring back to something close to its original shape, the frosting on the sides of the cake got crumpled and didn't fare so well (as you can see in the photo above).

I thought the cake tasted fantastic. The cake was moist, spongy, and had a lovely orange flavor. The frosting was amazing -- rich, smooth, decadent, and chocolate-y. The combination of the orange cake and chocolate frosting was perfect. Despite its homely looks, I would definitely make this cake again, although I would probably make only six cake layers so that the assembled cake wouldn't be so tall and the proportions would be more manageable.

But because the cake didn't look very polished, I didn't feel confident about serving it for Jim's birthday. I gave him a piece from the test cake and that sealed the deal -- he was not a fan of the orange cake.

So we talked about other cake options, and Jim settled on the Baked Sweet and Salty Cake, three layers of chocolate cake filled with salted caramel and a chocolate-caramel ganache. I've made the sweet and salty cake before and Jim has tasted it before, so I was relieved to be going with a proven winner for his big celebration. I also decided to make some salty caramel ice cream to go with the cake; the ice cream put the cake over the top.

Even though Jim was not a fan of the Empire Torte, I'm glad that his birthday gave me the opportunity to give it a try. And I think that Jim was happy with the final cake, which is all that really matters. Happy 40th birthday, Jim!!

Recipe: "Empire Torte" by Mrs. Louis Slavik of Bedford, Ohio, Senior Second Prize Winner in the 1958 Pillsbury Bake-Off. Recipe available in Pillsbury's Best 1000 Recipes: Best of the Bake-Off Collection.

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