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Mondrian Cake

Inspired by the Mondrian, this is an aspirational cake for advanced bakers who are up for a fun challenge.

Inspired by the Mondrian, this is an aspirational cake for advanced bakers who are up for a fun challenge.

Mondrian Cake

Makes one 16 by 3 by 3-inch cake, serving 15

Hands-on time: 6 hours

From start to finish: 2 days

During those first few weeks visiting SFMOMA to brainstorm dessert ideas for the café, I would pass the two Mondrian pieces on display and think to myself, “I really should do something with these, but what in the world could I do with a Mondrian?” It wasn’t until I was sitting with Leah at her kitchen table, browsing through a cookbook of Victorian cakes, that I had a breakthrough.

We were admiring the brilliant construction of the Battenberg cake, a traditional British cake that, when cut, looks like a pink and white checkerboard. It suddenly occurred to me that we could model a Mondrian cake on the Battenberg cake.

Note: This recipe is for the Mondrian cake exactly how we make it at SFMOMA, using the same pans, tools, and methods that Leah, Tess, and I use in our work kitchen. Because this cake is so rooted in mathematics, I chose not to alter the recipe from our original—I wanted to teach you to make a cake with exactly the same proportions as the Mondrian cakes we make every day at the museum.

You’ll need a few pieces of equipment to complete this recipe: a Pullman loaf pan, a cutting board at least 16 inches long, an 18 by 26-inch wire rack, an 18 by 26-inch rimmed baking sheet, a ruler, a sharp 12-inch serrated knife, a 13 by 18-inch wire rack, plastic wrap, parchment paper, and two 13 by 18-inch rimmed baking sheets.

Do ahead: The Mondrian cake is a multiday project that takes a bit of preparation before it can be assembled. The four cakes need to be baked and chilled for at least 3 hours before assembly, so consider making them a day or two ahead of time. They will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator or for up to 2 months in the freezer. The ganache is easiest to use when it is freshly made, but it can also be made ahead and easily rewarmed before using. It will keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator. To store leftover cake, press plastic wrap against the cut sides and store for up to 3 days at room temperature or for up to 1 week in the refrigerator. If refrigerated, bring to room temperature before serving.

Above and Beyond: If you’re making this cake, you’re already going above and beyond. But for absolute precision when slicing the cakes, at the caf. we rely on our Ateco adjustable dough divider (pictured below; see Resources, page 205). This tool helps us cut cake strips with perfectly straight edges and lines.

Rose’s White Velvet Cake

(see below; recipe doubled, see Variation)

Rose’s White Velvet Cake (see below; tinted blue)

Rose’s White Velvet Cake (see below; tinted yellow)

Rose’s White Velvet Cake (see below; tinted red)

Chocolate Ganache (page 90)

Step 1: Cutting the Cake

To cut the cake, place an 18 by 26-inch wire rack in an 18 by 26-inch rimmed baking sheet and set aside.

Set the white cake on its side on a large (at least 16-inch) cutting board. Using a sharp 12-inch serrated knife, very carefully shave off the browned bottom of the loaf, removing less than 1/8-inch, so that you have a flat, crustless side.

To cut off the top of the cake, spin the loaf 180 degrees so that the crustless bottom side is now facing the opposite direction. Measure 2 inches in from the bottom side and mark the measurement by scoring with the knife at the upper and lower edges of the loaf at both ends. Slice off the top of the cake, connecting the score marks and cutting as straight as possible. As the blade glides through the cake, make sure to slice straight down, not allowing the knife blade to veer off to the right or left.

Rotate the cake 90 degrees so that it’s resting on a cut side and shave off the browned crust just as you did on the bottom. Rotate the cake 180 degrees and shave off the remaining browned side; leave the short ends untrimmed. You should have a white, crustless loaf cake measuring 16 by 31/2 by 2 inches.

With the cake resting on a 31/2-inch side, measure 1 inch from the edge and score with the knife at the upper and lower edges of the loaf. Using the same technique that you used to cut off the top of the cake, slice as straight as possible, connecting the score marks. You will now have 2 strips: one measuring 16 by 1 by 2 inches and one measuring 16 by 21/2 by 2 inches. Flip the 1 by 2-inch strip onto a 2-inch side and cut it lengthwise in half, creating two 1 by 1-inch strips. Lay the strips across the wire rack, about an inch apart.

With the other piece resting on a 21/2-inch side, measure 1/2 inch from the edge and score with the knife at the upper and lower edges. Slice as straight as possible, connecting the score marks.

Flip the 1/2 by 2-inch strip onto a 2-inch side and cut lengthwise in half, creating two 1/2 by 1-inch strips. Place on the wire rack, about an inch apart, along with the 2 by 2-inch strip that remains.

Trim the edges off of the smaller blue cake, as instructed previously, then cut the cake into two  16 by 1 by 1-inch strips. Set one of these strips on the wire rack.

The remaining blue cake strip can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored in the freezer.

Repeat the same process with the yellow cake and the red cake, cutting them each into two 16 by 1 by 1-inch strips of each color. Cut one strip of each color in half lengthwise so that you have two yellow and two red 1/2 by 1-inch strips. Place one strip of each color on the wire rack, about an inch apart, along with the other strips of cake. The remaining yellow and red cake strips can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored in the freezer.

Step 2: Assembling the Cake

Before you begin assembly, review Tips for Mondrian Success (page 87).

So that you’ll be able to easily wrap up the cake and transport it to the refrigerator, place a 13 by 18-inch rimmed baking sheet on the work surface with the long side parallel with the cake pieces. Pull out a 24-inch length of plastic wrap and center it along the length of the baking sheet, but leave the plastic attached to the roll. Place the sheet of parchment paper over the plastic wrap in the prepared baking sheet.

Prepare the ganache or, if you’ve made the ganache in advance, warm it to a pourable consistency (see Working with Chocolate Ganache, page 91).

Slowly pour or ladle ganache along the length of a cake strip, generously covering the top side of the cake. Use an offset spatula to smooth and spread the ganache, making sure the 3 exposed sides are fully enrobed (the bottom will remain uncoated). Coat all the strips in the same fashion, taking note of which one is yellow; once enrobed, it can be hard to distinguish it from the white strips. (After the cake has been assembled, the ganache that has dripped into the baking sheet can be scraped out, poured through a sieve to remove particles of cake, and used for the final coating of ganache)

While the ganache is still fresh on the cake strips, begin assembling the cake. Carefully lift the 2 by 2-inch white cake strip, holding each end of the cake with your hands (this is the messy part!), and place it in the center of the prepared baking sheet with the uncoated side facing right. Place the blue cake strip to the left of the white cake strip, so that ganached sides of the two strips are touching. Gently but firmly use your hands to squeeze the pieces together along their length, and then spread ganache on any bare interior sides (the outside can remain bare, as the assembled cake will have a coating of ganache to finish).

Lay a 1 by 1-inch white cake strip on top of the blue strip so that ganached sides of the two strips are touching. Squeeze along the length of the cake to make sure the strips adhere, and then spread ganache on any bare interior sides.

Place the remaining 1 by 1-inch white cake strip on top of the 2 by 2-inch strip so that ganached sides of the two strips are touching, aligning it with the left edge of the 2 by 2-inch strip; it will be positioned directly in the center on top. Press firmly along the length of the cake to make sure the strips adhere, and then spread ganache on any bare interior sides.

Very carefully, as it is fragile, place the ganache-coated 1-inch side of the yellow cake strip against the left side of the uppermost 1 by 1-inch strip. Squeeze firmly along the length of the cake to make sure the strips adhere, and then spread ganache on any bare interior sides.

Again, using great care, place the ganache-coated 1-inch side of a 1/2 by 1-inch white strip against the left side of the yellow strip. Squeeze firmly along the length of the cake to make sure the strips adhere, and then spread ganache on any bare interior sides.

Carefully place the remaining 1/2 by 1-inch white strip on top of the 2 by 2-inch white strip, laying it flat and ganache side down to the right of the 1 by 1-inch strip. Squeeze firmly along the length of the cake to make sure the strips adhere, and then spread ganache on the bare side.

Carefully place the red strip on top of the 1/2 by 1-inch white strip, uncoated side facing up, in the last open space.

Give the cake a good squeeze up and down its length and width, using your hands and offset spatula as needed to form the cake into a perfect 3 by 3 by 16-inch loaf.

Pull the parchment paper tightly up and around the sides of the cake, squeezing the sides together. Wrap the parchment up and over the top. Pull the plastic wrap up and over the top of the cake and wrap tightly.

Refrigerate on the baking sheet for at least 2 hours, but preferably overnight.

Using a rubber spatula, scrape the ganache from the baking sheet and strain through a fine-mesh strainer and refrigerate until needed.

Step 3: Finishing the Cake

Remove the cake from the refrigerator, unwrap it from the parchment paper and plastic wrap, and set it on the large cutting board. Using the serrated knife, trim and square off 1 side, making the surface level and flat. Rotate the cake 90 degrees and repeat with the 3 other sides. Set a 13 by 18-inch wire rack in a 13 by 18-inch rimmed baking sheet. Place the cake lengthwise on the rack.

Warm the ganache once again to a pourable consistency (see Working with Chocolate Ganache, page 91) in a 2-cup liquid measuring cup if you plan to pour it instead of ladle it.

The ganache should be smooth, shiny, and absolutely free of lumps. Pour or ladle a generous layer of ganache over the top of the cake, letting it run down the sides. Lightly tap the baking sheet to help distribute the ganache, using an offset spatula to help smooth the sides of the cake. Transfer the rack to a clean baking sheet, scrape up the ganache that dripped onto the baking sheet, and strain it through the sieve to use again.

Refrigerate the cake, uncovered, until the ganache is firm, at least 2 hours.

Remove the cake from the refrigerator and cut a piece of parchment paper exactly the size of the top of the cake. Place it on the cake and, if needed, trim any overhanging edges with scissors. Grabbing the cake by the short ends, flip it over so that the parchment paper is on the bottom, and set it on the wire rack.

Apply another coat of ganache in the same manner as the first. Refrigerate the cake, uncovered, for at least 2 hours or up to 1 week.

Remove the cake from the refrigerator and transfer it to the large cutting board. Using the serrated knife, trim about 1/4 inch off of the end to reveal the Mondrian design. Cut the cake into 1-inch slices and serve at room temperature.

Rose’s White Velvet Cake:

Makes one loaf cake

Hands-on time: 15 minutes

From start to finish: 11 / 4 hours

When teaching myself to bake, The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum was my textbook.

In the tiny kitchen of my first studio apartment, I pored through the pages, and Rose’s fail-safe recipes, fun stories, and scientific approach laid the groundwork for my future career. For my twenty-fourth birthday, I threw myself a party, inviting my friends over to serve them all of my favorite cakes from my new bible. By far, the most crowd-pleasing one was Rose’s White Velvet Cake with dark chocolate ganache poured over the top.

Nine years later, I was designing the Mondrian Cake for the SFMOMA café and needed a pure white cake that was both sturdy enough to be cut into thin strips and delicious enough to warrant the eight dollars I would have to charge for a slice of this labor-intensive cake. My mind went back to my early baking days and I knew there was only one cake that would fit the bill: Rose’s White Velvet Cake. Indeed, it’s the perfect cake, and the Mondrian Cake has become the most iconic dessert at our museum café. Just like my twenty-fourth birthday cake, it’s paired with chocolate ganache and pleases crowds . . . only it’s slightly more complicated to make.

Note: This recipe is for baking a loaf cake to make the Mondrian Cake. To make a standard round cake, you can bake the batter in an 8 by 3-inch round cake; the baking time will be 55 to 60 minutes.

Do Ahead: Wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, the cake will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator or up to 2 months in the freezer.

 4 1/2 large egg whites (5 oz / 135 g), at room temperature

1 cup (8.6 oz / 242 g) milk, at room temperature

2 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 1/3 cup (10.7 oz / 299 g) cake flour

1 1/2 cups (10.6 oz / 300 g) sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

12 tablespoons (6 oz / 170 g) unsalted butter, cut into pieces and at room temperature

Red, yellow, and blue food coloring

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour the sides of a 16 by 4 by 4-inch loaf pan (also called a Pullman loaf pan) and line the bottom with a parchment paper rectangle that has been cut to fit.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg whites, 1/2 cup (4.3 oz / 121 g) of the milk, and the vanilla.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on low speed for 30 seconds. Add the remaining ½ cup

(4.3 oz / 121 g) of milk and mix on low speed until moistened, about 15 seconds. Add the butter and beat on medium speed for 11/2 minutes or until smooth and aerated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the egg mixture in 3 batches, mixing on medium speed for 20 seconds and then scraping down the bowl after each addition.

This is the point at which to add the food coloring; add enough to tint the batter vivid red, yellow, or blue (the color doesn’t change during baking). Mix on low speed for 20 seconds, scrape down the bowl, and then mix for 20 seconds longer to fully incorporate the coloring.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and smooth the surface with an offset spatula.

Bake, rotating the pan midway through baking, until the cake springs back when gently pressed in the center, 45 to 50 minutes (11/4 hours if the recipe is doubled). You can also test for doneness by listening to the cake: Remove the pan from the oven, set it on a wire rack, lower your ear to the cake, and listen. If you hear the cake snap, crackle, and pop, it needs a few more minutes in the oven. If it’s quiet, it’s done.

Let the cake cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes, and then run an offset spatula around the inside of the pan. Invert the cake onto the wire rack, lift off the pan, and remove the parchment. When the cake is cool enough to handle, after about 20 minutes, reinvert it so the top is facing up. Let cool completely, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours before cutting.

Variation

For the white Mondrian loaf, double the recipe and omit the food coloring. Increase the baking time to about 11/4 hours.

Chocolate Ganache

Makes 5 2 / 3 cups (51.4 oz/1438 g)

Hands-on Time: 10 minutes

From Start to Finish: 10 minutes

The key to perfect ganache is high-quality chocolate and the thorough emulsification of the ingredients. I like to use an immersion blender (see page 23) to create a smooth, silky texture, but a food processor works, too.

Do Ahead: Stored in an airtight container, the ganache will keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator. See Working with Chocolate Ganache, opposite, for reheating instructions.

24 ounces (672 g) high-quality bittersweet chocolate (62% to 70% cacao), finely chopped

3 cups (25 oz / 696 g) heavy cream

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3.2 oz / 90 g) hot water (180 degrees F to 190 degreesF)

Put the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl.

In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the cream, stirring occasionally, until it registers 180°F to 190°F on a digital thermometer and bubbles start to form around the edges. (Alternatively, put the cream into a microwavable liquid measuring cup or bowl and microwave at full power for about 60 seconds.)

Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and, using a rubber spatula, stir until the chocolate is mostly melted. Add the hot water and blend with an immersion blender or transfer to a food processor and process until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth and shiny. (Alternatively, set the bowl over a saucepan of just simmered water and whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.)

Working with Chocolate Ganache:

Chocolate ganache is a simple combination of chocolate and heavy cream, milk, and/or water. When warm, it’s a shiny, pourable liquid; room temperature, it’s a deliciously spreadable frosting; or chilled, it can be rolled into balls and made into truffles. The key to working successfully with ganache lies in the temperature: heating it, cooling it, or letting it stand at room temperature until it’s the perfect consistency for the specific dessert you’re making. Ganache can be kept for up to 1 week in the refrigerator, and is very easy to rewarm to a pourable consistency with the help of a microwave.

Working in intervals of 10 to 20 seconds and stirring often, heat the ganache until it is free of lumps but not so hot that the edges start to burn. Reheating ganache is much harder without a microwave. Without a microwave, to keep ganache warm during use, put it into a glass liquid measuring cup and rest the cup in a bowl of warm water (110 degrees F to 120 degrees F).

There is no quick way to get chocolate ganache to room temperature (for the Kudless S’mores, page 111, for example), it just takes a little advance planning. Ganache must be made 3 to 4 hours ahead of time and left at room temperature until it is the smooth and spreadable texture of soft butter. Alternatively, it can be made ahead, refrigerated, and then left out at room temperature for about 4 hours to come to temperature.

Reprinted with permission from Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art, by Caitlin Freeman, copyright (c) 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

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