My buddy Usha baked my son Remy a cake for his 5th birthday. Among those who know Usha, having her bake you a cake is the equivalent of Beyoncé writing you a song.
Each cake, usually a birthday cake, is decadent in its own way. Almost always, the cake headlines some kind of party, all of which add up to a sweet and creamy reflection of the honoree. After viewing her cakes on Facebook, Remy wanted one for his birthday.
Luckily, we had plans to be in Hawaii during Remy’s birthday, and that is where Usha lives. In the months before the trip they corresponded about the flavors that Remy’s cake would contain, in what I call the “interview phase” of an Usha cake experience.
During the interview, a baseline list of flavors is established, and any additional goals the honoree may have are explored. When these pieces are in place, Usha then builds the cake around them — custards, frostings, decorations and all.
Appropriately, Remy went with a tropical fruit theme: mango and passion fruit, or liliquoi (“lily-quoy”), as they call it in Hawaii.
Mango season had just passed, but farmy folk like Usha have freezer-bags full of frozen filets, among other fruits.
Even if Usha’s freezer was bare it wouldn’t matter. She can bake a cake anywhere, with whatever cake-able ingredients she sniffs out. Maple syrup in Vermont, blackberries in the Cascades, strawberries in Santa Cruz, apples in the Palouse. With her process you can do the same wherever you are.
Usha’s only hard and fast rule is no money: no reimbursement or compensation of any type, be it money, trade, barter, even subway tokens. Maybe clam shells. But otherwise the gift of cake exists outside of time, occasion, place and the economy.
The only ingredient in Remy’s cake that can be scarce on the mainland is the liliquoi. When perfectly ripe, passion fruit needs to look pretty bad, with sunken brown splotches in the round yellow orbs. The edible part consists of extremely sour goop with seeds stuck inside, and needs to be strained and sweetened before being consumed. If you can get ripe liliquoi or a suitable concentrate, by all means use it in this cake. Otherwise lemon, per the original custard recipe, works lovely.
There is just one more thing you will need if you want to make Remy’s cake. A copy of a certain book that Usha had acquired in Portland.
The book was written by my first boss, of my first real employment ever: Judy Rosenberg, founder of Rosie’s Bakery in Somerville, Massachusetts. My retail position at Rosie’s during the summer after my sophomore years was my first job ever. Rosie’s was legendary in the Boston area, largely on the back of a frosted brownie called the Chocolate Orgasm.
I never met Judy, but I remember her presence, and the gravitas her name carried. Now, 30 years later, I see her name on the book that Usha won at a law school baking contest 20 years ago. As it happens, never before has a cookbook been so perfectly relevant to Usha’s interest than Rosie’s Bakery All-Butter Fresh Cream Sugar-Packed No-Holds-Barred Baking Book.
Four different recipes from the book, which has become Usha’s go-to recipe-source, combine to make Remy’s birthday cake.
When we arrived at Usha’s house, she was making lemon custard (page 88), but with liliquoi juice ice cubes instead of lemon juice. Sweetened and creamed, the sour liliquoi creates a cantilevered, balanced flavor that is thrilling to consume. She could have just stopped right there, as far as I was concerned, and we could have just eaten that custard all afternoon. But Usha was just getting started.
Using the recipe for Banana Cake (page 56), she measured out a cup of chopped mango instead of bananas (which, mind you, were in no short supply as well), and soaked the pieces in “… a cup plus 2 tablespoons” worth of buttermilk.
You know a recipe is serious when it gives quantities like, “a cup plus two tablespoons.”
Remy worked the mango pieces hard into the buttermilk with his bare hands, pausing to observe, “I’m crushing it.”
During the course of the afternoon at Usha’s, she and Remy decided to add some frozen pineapple. They minced and stirred the pineapple pieces into a bowl of vanilla custard that Usha had prepared earlier, just in case (page 87). Then Remy reminded Usha they had at one point in their correspondence discussed cinnamon.
It was time to start baking. Remy greased a 9-inch baking pan with butter, then lay a circular piece of parchment paper over the butter on the bottom, then more butter, smearing in the parchment paper like goop on a layer of paper mache. Usha then added flour to each pan, rolling it around for total coverage, before spooning in the batter. That cake would not be sticking to anything.
These recipes, as noted, aren’t for novices. If you don’t have a cake mixer, you’ll need elbow grease. Rosie’s buttercream frosting (page 85), for example, took about five minutes in a food processor, followed by 20 minutes in a KitchenAid mixer until in looked like lacquered taffy.
The buttermilk mango cake batter, meanwhile, had mixed relatively quickly, with a teaspoon of cinnamon powder from the tree next to Usha’s yurt.
After about 20 minutes at 350 degrees (preheated, center rack), she took the cakes from the oven and palpated them, absorbing information through her fingertips like a cake whisperer or something. She was trying to grok the situation at the cake’s core, feeling the degree to which the skin bounced back after being pushed down upon. She was looking for a near-but-not-quite-total recovery.
“You want it to spring back maybe 90 percent,” she estimated. If you’re at a loss, she added, insert a knife or toothpick to test if it’s done.
When personalizing a cake, the list of extra considerations is potentially long, beyond mere allergies and sensitivities and intolerances. For example, how do you get the cake where it needs to be.
“I often travel with my cakes,” Usha says. Which, on the Kona coast, that can mean lots of curves and bumps. She prefers to deliver her cakes in pieces, and recommends having other people in the car to hold them.
Other considerations: should the cakes be sliced in half along their horizontal planes, multiplying the surface areas from two discs into four, in order to allow more alternating layers of vanilla pineapple custard and liliquoi custards? (Yes.) And, should there be a school of gummy fish swimming atop the buttercream frosting? (Yes.)
And that, in a nutshell, is Usha’s cake method.
When the night is done, Usha brings home her bowls of frosting and custard and her frosting tools, and everything else, but with one exception. The pie pan to which the leftovers are plastered is the one dish that the birthday (boy) was allowed to wash. Other than the mixing bowls and spoons, of course.