Several years ago, I got stopped at airport security. "Where are you traveling to?", the security lady asked me. "Florence", I told her. "Are you traveling alone?" I answered that I was. "How old are you?" I told her my age. While she was obviously trying to conceal it, I saw the lady glance at her colleague and chuckle. What she'd wanted to know, I gathered, was whether or not I was over 18, so as to make sure that she was allowed to frisk me. I was 26 at the time.
I have always been annoyed by people underestimating my age. I celebrated my 31st birthday last week and I'm probably coming closer to the point where it's flattering rather than frustrating, but it still makes me feel like I'm not being taken seriously. Yet, if I'm being perfectly honest, part of me doesn't believe that I'm 31 either.
I - like many of you, I guess - grew up thinking that life was a straight path. That we were working towards something and that that something was adulthood. Throughout my childhood - and most of my teenage years, really - 28 seemed to be the magic number. By 28, I believed, I would be settled. I would have the perfect job, a house, a husband and a baby. I would be an adult. I started to see how wrong and scary that idea actually was when I was in my early twenties, but somehow the notion that adulthood is synonymous with these kinds of commitments and responsibilities, with 'having things figured out', seems to have stuck. It's so deeply embedded in my thinking that I figure I will never feel like an adult.
I am forever learning and growing, and I'm definitely not one to settle. This past year in particular, I've spent a lot of time thinking about my life and my path and my future. I have stepped away from a career that I worked 6 years to build and friendships that go even further back, but I did so with confidence and honesty, because I knew it was time. I do not regret investing time and effort in them when I did and I do not feel like I wasted my time, but things - I - changed. There is no reason to believe that things won't continue to change, even when I actually do have a husband and a house and a baby.
Looking back, my path has always been a meandering one, yet I have never felt like I made a mistake. There have been hard times, for sure, but every big decision I ever made was made for good reason. Every experience has taught me valuable lessons and has helped shape the person who I am now. (I like who I am now.) As I find myself searching today, still trying to figure out which path to walk, this is what I remember. There is no end goal and I don't have to strive for the big solution. All I can do is try to live my life in a way that feels right in this moment. I will always figure it out, but I'll never have things figured out. And that's a good thing.
• The cake is slightly simplified version of an almond genoise cake, which has a delicate and relatively dry crumb that works perfectly with the heavier buttercream frosting. The butter for the cake is infused with earl grey tea, which not only adds a subtle earl grey flavor, but also highlights the beautiful almond notes of the cake.
• This recipe makes a three layer 20 cm (8 inch) or a two layer 24 cm (9 inch) cake. The cake layers have to be completely cooled before assembly, so they are best made the night before. For the best results, try refrigerating or even freezing your cake layers (well-wrapped!) prior to assembly.
• Because I'm not a big fan of giant amounts of frosting, I made a naked cake. The recipe for the buttercream makes enough for a full-on frosted cake, though, so feel free to go all out. Linda Lomelino has a good guide on how to frost a cake and Michelle Lopez recently did a post on cake decorating techniques.
• I used Sarah Kieffer's recipe for Brown Butter Buttercream, but forgot to add the vanilla extract. Since I didn't miss it, I decided to just leave it out of this recipe, too. The buttercream is best used immediately after making, but it can also be made in advance. Cover and store in the refrigerator, but be sure to let it come to room temperature before using.
• If left out too long, the praline might get sticky from the humidity. Cover it as soon as it has cooled and keep in an airtight container once it's been processed.
31st birthday cake
earl grey almond cake w/ brown butter buttercream, almond praline & roasted grapes
makes a 3 layer 20 cm (8 inch) cake or a 2 layer 24 cm (9 inch) cake
for the cake
270 g unsalted butter
2 tsp loose-leaf earl grey tea
6 large eggs
330 g granulated sugar
180 g almond flour
225 g cake flour
1 + 1/2 tsp baking powder
for the praline
110 g caster sugar
1 tbsp water
100 g almonds, very roughly chopped
for the buttercream
454 g unsalted butter, divided and room temperature
57 g cream cheese, room temperature
60 ml heavy cream
1/2 tsp salt
452 g powdered sugar
for the roasted grapes
1 bunch of blue grapes (I used Muscat), ca. 300 grams
1 tbsp honey
for the cake
1. Preheat oven to 160°C. Grease three 20 cm (8 inch) or two 24 cm (9 inch) cake tins with butter or cooking spray and line the bottom of each with parchment paper.
2. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter with the tea. Remove from heat and allow to infuse while you prepare the rest of the cake.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine eggs and sugar. Beat on high speed until very thick and pale, ca. 10 minutes.
4. Sift almond flour, cake flour and baking powder over the sugar-egg mixture and use a spatula to fold it in by hand.
5. With a fine mesh sieve set over a medium bowl, strain melted butter and discard the tea. Measure out 225 g of melted butter and add that to the rest of the batter. Gently fold it in until fully combined.
6. Evenly divide the batter over the cake tins and bake for 40-50 minutes, until golden and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool on a wire rack for 15-30 minutes, remove cakes from their molds and allow to cool completely.
for the almond praline
1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
2. In a small saucepan, combine sugar and water. Try to moisten all the sugar granules, but don't stir the mixture. Heat the mixture over medium-low heat until it has a deep amber color. Again, don't stir the mixture. If the caramel doesn't brown evenly, just shake the pan a little.
3. When the caramel has a deep amber color, remove from the heat and quickly stir in the roughly chopped nuts. Pour everything onto the prepared baking sheet, spread it out and allow to cool completely.
4. Once cool, break praline into shards. Pulse in the food processor until finely ground. Keep some shards whole for decorating (or snacking) purposes. Store praline in an airtight container until ready to use.
for the brown butter buttercream
1. In a medium, light-colored, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt 227 g of butter over medium-low heat. Continue to cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until the bubbling and crackling has subsided and little brown flecks have started to appear on the bottom of the pan. Swirl the pan more often, now, until the flecks are a deep amber color, but not yet black. (The line between perfectly browned and burned is thin, so keep an eye on it!) Remove pan from the heat and immediately transfer butter and flecks to a heatproof and freezer-safe bowl. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then transfer to the freezer until solid but not frozen, ca. 30 minutes. (Alternatively, place in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours.)
2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat solidified brown butter, together with the remaining 227 g of butter, on medium-high until smooth. Add the cream cheese and continue to beat until smooth and creamy. Scrape down the bowl, lower the speed and add heavy cream and salt.
3. With the mixer running on low, slowly add the powdered sugar and beat until combined. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, 6 to 8 minutes. Scrape down the bowl as necessary. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator (but be sure to let it come to room temperature before using).
for the roasted grapes
1. Preheat oven to 200˚C.
2. Place grapes in a small baking dish and pour over honey. Roast until the grape skins are starting to break, around 10 minutes.
1. Make sure your cake layers are even and straight. If cake tops are domed, use a serrated knife to cut off the rounded bumps and discard the crumbs.
2. Place first cake layer, top side up, on a rotating cake stand, on a cardboard cutout or immediately on your serving platter. Place a small cup's worth of buttercream onto the first layer and use an offset spatula to even it out. Add a sprinkle of the almond praline and top with a second layer of cake. If making a two layer cake, make sure to place the cake top side down. If making a three layer cake, add another layer of buttercream and praline on top and finish with the third cake layer, top side down. Make sure all cake layers are evenly aligned.
3. Use an offset spatula to apply a thin layer of buttercream all along the sides of the cake. Make sure all gaps between the cakes are filled, but allow some of the crumb to peek through. Add another cup's worth of buttercream onto the top of the cake and use the offset spatula to even it out. Keeping your offset spatula in 45˚ degree angle to the cake, run it all the way around the sides of the cake to remove excess buttercream and smooth out the surface.
4. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
5. To finish, top the cake with almond praline and serve with roasted grapes.