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Seven Layer Cake for Passover

Monday is the beginning of Passover. I love this holiday for the ritual, the gathering of wonderful people and the challenge to come up with new desserts worthy of the day. This cake was inspired by a conversation I had with Deb Perelman about Dobos Tortes, which is a cake made up of many layers (7 to be exact) of sponge cake, separated with chocolate buttercream and topped with a layer of caramel. It is a style of cake that is claimed by many cultures, each with a different name depending on heritage or the state you are standing in. Dobos Torte (Hungarian), Doberge Cake (New Orleans), and Seven-Layer (which I think of as a Jewish cake from New York, but as soon as I write this, I’m sure I’ll hear from folks who will correct me).

My cake is a bit of a twist on the theme, because I thought the poppy seeds would be a fantastic match for the layers of orange scented sponge cake and chocolate buttercream. It is also stunning to cut into the cake and see the speckled icing. I replaced the caramel with curls of chocolate on top of the cake.

Seven Layer Cake for Passover

Serves: 12
Makes: 4 x 12-inch cake
Prep time: 90 minutes
Bake time: 20 minutes
Skill: Easy, but many steps

Matzo sponge cake:

(you will need to make this sponge recipe twice to get a large cake. It is too much to do in a 5-quart mixer all at once. Make one layer, then repeat with the second. The layers can be made and frozen if you want to make them ahead)

3/4 cup matzo cake meal (not to be confused with regular matzo meal)
1/3 cup potato starch (not to be confused with potato flour)
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange zest

Soaking syrup:

1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon orange zest

Buttercream:

3 large eggs, room temperature
3 large yolks, room temperature
2 1/3 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 pounds (6 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature (You can use an unsalted non-dairy butter-substitute if you want to make this a parve recipe)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup poppy seed paste (1/2 cup poppy seeds mixed with 1 tablespoon corn syrup, allow to sit together at least 15 minutes)
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
Bar of chocolate for shavings

To make the sponge:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare two baking sheets by greasing them and lining with parchment.

Sift the matzo cake meal, potato starch and salt together, set aside. In a mixer whip the eggs and sugar, for about 8 minutes.

The eggs should be very light in color and a thick foam. At the very end, add the vanilla and zest.

Sift the dry ingredients over the egg foam.

Very gently, but thoroughly, fold the dry ingredients into the egg foam.

Pour the batter into one of the prepared pans and spread evenly with a spatula.

Bake the cake for about 18 minutes or until golden and dry when poked with a cake tester. Repeat with the second cake layer.

To make the buttercream:

In a small pot, fitted with a candy thermometer, heat 2 cups sugar, water and cream of tartar to 242°F. This will take several minutes, so get your eggs started.

Whisk together the eggs, yolks and 1/3 cup sugar.

Beat the eggs on medium high speed until light in color and thick.

Once the sugar has reached 242°F, add it very carefully and slowly to the eggs, while the beater is going on slow speed. Be sure to pour the syrup along the edge of the bowl, not directly onto the beater or it will splatter. Continue beating the egg mixture on medium-high speed until the eggs have cooled, about 8 minutes.

Once the eggs are cooled, add the butter 2 tablespoons at a time. The mixture will go through a stage when it looks soupy and curdled, but keep adding the butter and it will come together. After all the butter is added, mix in the vanilla.

The buttercream will be smooth and glossy.

Divide 1/3 of the buttercream into a separate bowl and add the poppy seed paste.

To the remaining buttercream, add the melted chocolate.

If you are not going to use the buttercream right away, cover it and leave it at room temperature for up to 24 hours. When you are ready to use it, give it a good stirring or put it back in the mixer and beat with the paddle attachment until smooth.

To make the soaking syrup:

In a small sauce pan heat the sugar, water and zest over medium heat until the sugar has fully dissolved.

Cut each sheet of cake into 4 equal pieces (they will be about 4-inches-wide and 12-inches-long)

Lay the first layer of cake on the serving platter and brush with the soaking syrup. You want to dab the syrup on, but don’t overly saturate the cake or it will be soggy.

Spread a thin layer of the poppy seed buttercream over the soaked layer.

Repeat with 5 more layers and then finish with the 7th layer of cake. This will leave you with one extra. Since my cake is not traditional anyway, you should feel free to use up that last layer. If you want to keep it to seven layers, then I suggest you use that lonely extra layer as a snack.

If your layers need squaring up, just trim them with a sharp serrated bread knife.

Stir the chocolate buttercream to make sure it is smooth and cover the entire cake in a nice even layer.

It is okay if it isn’t perfectly smooth, because we’re going to add some rough stripes to the outside.

Take a small blob of buttercream on the end of your spatula,

and starting at the end of the cake, on the bottom, spread that blob in a stripe along the cake. Repeat over and over again, but alternate which side you start on. Repeat this on the top as well.

You will end up with rough stripes all over the cake, which gives the cake some texture.

Using a sharp chef’s knife, scrape the smooth side of a bar of chocolate with the blade, so that the chocolate curls up. If the chocolate is very cold and brittle, try sitting it in the sun for a few minutes and the curls will come more easily. Cover the top with the chocolate shavings.

Happy Passover!

Zoë François, author of Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day and Artisan Pizza and Flatbreads in 5 Minutes a Day, studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She now calls Minneapolis her home, where she has worked with some of the top talent in the culinary world — Steven Brown, Andrew Zimmern and many chefs at the D’Amico company. In addition to writing, Zoë teaches baking classes and consults at restaurants. You can find her writing and recipe creations on Devour, on her baking blog, zoebakes.com and on the site, www.breadin5.com.

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