It was my sister's birthday last week. 21. It's been strange because it's her last one at home, the last in a chapter. As the younger sibling I think you watch the older one near the end of the last page. You see that for them home slowly becomes - claustrophobic, heavy, too small. There's a sudden shift and they're ready for new cities, big adventures, different people. And maybe that's what you wonder the most. You wonder what more they're going to learn, where they're going to go, and with whom they're going to do it all.
Layla, remember that pink bedroom in the house on Burlingham Drive? Our first 'big girl' bedroom. We spent hours trawling the paint aisles of the hardware store with dad, looking for that shade of pink. We had those 3 lamps above the bed, the heart, the moon and the star. There were the paintings - ponies for you, piggies for me. Frames on the walls, with our drawings. We'd sit on the blonde wood floor and you'd teach me to draw people, all with crazy curls and round noses. There was our huge bookshelf and we'd sit cocooned in quilts in the bed on dark November evenings and you'd read me a book. I could read fine by then, but you could read better, and you'd read me the longer books, I liked to listen to your voice. There'd be a glow from those three lamps, hazy twilight outside. We'd play in the garden too, on those cold but crisp autumn days, in our corner sandwiched between the red brick walls of the house and the wooden fencing over which the holly grew. You taught me to spot the footprints of different animals in the mud; the night time cats and morning robins, you'd seen it on a wildlife program. We'd go out into our street, the quiet cul-de-sac, where our house was next to the little woods full of holly and big trees. Sometimes there were horses in the field that bordered the forest. You showed me how to climb the five bar gate to be right up close to the horses and taught me how to hold the sugar cubes so that only his velvety muzzle would touch my palm. In a way I'm not that surprised you want to be a teacher, you've always been teaching someone.
Do you remember how we used to take those trips back to Holland, on the ferry? And how at first it ways always dad who mum sent to take us out on deck, or to see the magic show, or wherever. But there came a time when it was just us. I remember us standing, totally windswept, on the deck; that was when we were older, once we'd moved out of the pink bedroom. The last few years in Malaysia, when we started to wish that we'd each had a non-pink room of our own. I was still a childish ten year old wearing sports shorts and Nike t-shirts but you'd somehow moved on to dark jeans and beaded sandals. You went to your first non-pool party, at the Hard Rock Hotel, in the evening. I remember thinking you looked so grown up . I'm not sure whether or not you wore eyeliner because you're lucky with those big dark eyes but I just thought you looked so fancy, I wanted to be like you. On that ferry, too, I wished that I could be like you, I was lost on that big ship, but you could somehow steer us back to the table where mum and dad were sitting. We went to the shiny duty free shop, you gave me sunglasses to try and you told me which ones you and your friends were wearing. We were looking at the maps of Europe and you knew where we'd be going, you told me places that we'd maybe go when we were older.
I caught up somewhere. Do you remember that cross country race - the home race, on a blistering hot Belgian summer's day? When for the first time, I left you behind, because I could go and you couldn't. I felt like I cheated you. You were the older one, always forging the path for me. But sometimes we stumble on the path; it was your turn to stumble and mine to overtake. I was suddenly more like you. It was me who was showing you the joys of shopping at Urban Outfitters, it was me who had tumblr and suddenly it was me who was calling the shots between us. Not as well as you did, but I figured it out.
Remember Latitude last summer? How we were the only ones at that boho festival not in hipster shorts and Docs? And then how we managed to lose the car and wander around in those hot fields all afternoon. People looked us at oddly, in our presentable sweaters and me with my camera. I'll always think of us, the warm sun, zipping through golden wheat and bucolic Suffolk countryside. Next somehow you brought us back from Newmarket, after midnight. Your first time driving on a proper motorway, the roads pitch black and only a few trucks for company. How during the concert we'd stood in a quiet corner of the stands watching the revellers go wild; how someone threw champagne over us and the crowd in general so the two good clean kids we are could drive home reeking of booze anyway. How we sang to old hits from circa 2013 and started a little rave of our own in the front seats of your Mini.
It's the countdown now. It's gone scarily fast, no? Maybe you feel like you're standing on that shaky bridge between curious excitement and the unknown. I'm supposed to be the younger one so I can't say much to help you. There'll be a new page, shiny cities, different people. But in your growing, you've done a lot of it before. The winning, the losing, the raves, the love, the loss, the teaching, the learning. You'll finish it with others but you won't forget, will you, that you did it first with me?
“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.” - Anais Nin
Happy birthday Layla, this year is yours xx
Layla didn't want a big celebration for her birthday. Just our mum, us, and the doggies. What Layla had asked me for, was a cake. Something like the fairy cakes of childhood birthdays - typically a simple, soft vanilla sponge, a layer of jam for the sandwich, and a vanilla frosting. Layla can be sensitive to gluten so I set about making a gluten free, whole grain version of a super airy sponge cake, which isn't so easy considering whole grain cakes tend to lean towards the 'hearty' side, and gluten free cakes are usually loaded with starches that aren't great either. So, almond meal! Almond meal cakes are often seen as the 'healthy' variety because they're grain free but tbh that's weird because most recipes then call for 5-7 eggs (!!!!!) and a few sticks of butter... does that sound very healthy to you? Anyway, to combat the dryness I just use yogurt, revelation. And 2 eggs which find themselves separated; beating the egg whites to firm peaks means the cakes turn out super light, airy and fairy-like. The cake is actually very simple to make - the instructions are very long because I give a lot of detail for beating egg whites, in case you've not done it before, I do it often because it's fun for pancakes etc. so I thought I'd help the newbies out, just skim over it, and the assembly part too if you make fancy cakes often (also because I'm a pretty rubbish cake decorator. no patience). to bore you further, I wanted a simple & light but not coconut-based frosting, hence ricotta cheese which is very mild and cheese-sensitive types usually take it fine, but feel free to use something diary free if that's an issue for you. Last thing - I almost broke a cake taking it out of the pan, so let them cool for a bit because they're fragile. and then freeze them before you decorate to stop crumb problems. and use two pans exactly the same size, so unlike me, you do not have to go at them with a knife (which is why they look uneven in the photos, yours will be fine). Also, do use vanilla beans - I know they're not cheap but worth it for the beautiful flecks and the smell. Oh and you can also totally use a good, natural sort of store-bought jam/preserves (and any flavor you like) if making it yourself seems OTT. Only the best for my sistah though. Ok I know you didn't come here for me to talk and talk, so here's to little layer cakes and big birthdays.
Almond vanilla bean layer cake with raspberry preserves & whipped ricotta
makes 1, 2 layer 6 inch round cake + enough preserves/frosting for the cake
// for the almond-vanilla bean cake
1 1/2 cups (150g) almond meal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons (45ml) extra virgin coconut oil, melted and cooled
2 free range eggs, separated
1/2 cup (50g) coconut sugar or light muscavado sugar
3/4 cup (180ml) plain/natural yogurt (plant based or any type)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
seeds scraped from one vanilla bean (or 1 more teaspoon pure vanilla extract)
// for the raspberry preserves (or feel free to use about 1/4 cup/60ml store bought nice tasting preserves without too many fillers)
1 cup (130g) raspberries, fresh or frozen
zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
2 tablespoons honey
1 vanilla bean (empty – the one from the cake)
// for the whipped ricotta
125g / 4oz nice ricotta cheese (thats about half a standard tub. Eat the rest or feed it to your begging dog that is supposed to be on a diet )
1/2 cup (60g) powdered cane sugar*
Seeds of 1/2 vanilla bean or 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
raspberries to garnish (if you like)
Start with the cake. Preheat the oven to 180’C (350’F) and oil + line 2 6inch/15cm round cake pans, dust a little flour and set them aside.
In a large bowl, combine the almond meal, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
Separate the eggs – if you have a stand mixer, crack the whites into the bowl; otherwise crack them into a large metal/glass bowl, check the bowl is very clean which helps them fluff up.
Add the egg yellows to a large bowl/liquid measuring jug with the oil and sugar, beat with a wire whisk till the sugar is moistened. Add the yogurt, vanilla bean seeds and extract (or just extract) and beat again till pale, light and creamy.
Time to whip the egg whites. Make sure they’re not cold (start with room temp. eggs – if they’re kept in the fridge, take them out 1/2 an hour before you start) and with the beater attachment of a stand mixer, or a hand held electric beater, beat the whites till they form firm peaks. The best way to do this is to start with the beater on a low speed, and slowly increase it to high speed. Keep beating till the whites start to hold shape, but you don’t want them to be too stiff or they won’t incorporate. check every now and then on the consistency, especially if this isn’t something you do often. Hold the beaters up horizontally: if the egg white just holds its shape without flopping into a curve and without being all stiff and shiny, that’s correct.
If you overbeat the whites they will go grainy and liquid and aren’t easy to salvage, so err on the side of soft peaks**
Retrieve the sugar-yolk mix and the dry mix. Fold the wet into the dry till just combined and smooth, then very delicately fold in the egg whites so not to deflate them. They should be thoroughly mixed through but not flat – be gentle but assertive, like you’re walking a very nervous gundog. Anyway. Once there are no more white streaks, stop mixing.
Split the batter evenly between the prepared pans (I would recommend using a scale; weigh your bowl before starting then you can weigh once the batter is ready, weigh one of the cake pans) and smooth it gently – the batter is not very thin. Drop the pan gently on the counter a few times to level it out (muffle the sound with a towel if you have x2 nervous gundogs) and so that it’s not too airy.
Bake for 25-28 minutes, till golden on top and when a skewer inserted into the center comes out without crumbs. Allow to cool in the pan first, then carefully invert and allow to cool completely on a rack. The cakes are fairly fragile and I broke mine quite badly (can’t tell though can ya) so take it slowly. Wrap with plastic and freeze till you need to assemble.
// for the preserves
This too can be prepped a bit in advance and kept in the fridge, or you can do it while the cake is baking.
In a small metal pan, add the zest and juice of the 1/2 lemon, the berries, honey and vanilla bean. Add 2-3 tablespoons water so the whole thing is moist then place on a burner on high heat.
Once the liquid starts to bubble enthusiastically turn the heat down to a simmer and smush the berries when you stir, every couple of minutes so the pulp doesn’t stick. Continue cooking for 15 – 20 minutes, till the mixture is thickened and reduced. When it’s done, take off the heat and immediately pour into a small glass jar. Leave to cool without the lid – the preserves will thicken as they cool, so if they’re not very firm, don’t worry. Once cool, fish out the vanilla bean and discard. Keeps in the fridge for about a week.
// The day of assembly
Make the frosting.
Combine the ricotta, vanilla and powdered cane sugar and using an electric beater or stand mixer, beat till light and fluffy. (or use a non-dairy frosting of your choice)
Depending on the texture of your cheese you may need to add a few tablespoons of milk or sugar – we are looking for a consistency of cake batter, no looser. Refrigerate for a few minutes.
Take the frozen wrapped cakes out of the freezer. Cut three rectangles from parchment paper or kitchen towel.
Put a small dollop of whipped ricotta onto your cake stand or serving plate, then place one cake layer, flat side down (this is to stop it sliding around).
Place the 3 pieces of parchment under the base, to catch crumbs.
Spread about 3 tablespoons of the ricotta onto the top of the first cake layer.
Retrieve your preserves. Dollop about 1/4 cup or 4 tablespoons (this is pretty much all the jam, if you made it yourself) into the middle of the riccotta layer and spread the preserves, leaving a gap before the edges so it doesn’t smush out. It’s ok if the jam and frosting blend a bit.
Place the second layer on top, give it a little squeeze so it is secured in place. Now for a crumb coat (so crumbs don’t color the final coat).
Take a small amount of frosting – about 4 tablespoons – and pile it on top of the upper layer. Using an offset spatula or small knife, push the frosting over onto the sides and around the sides. It’s ok if there are some crumbs in this first coat.
Once the two layers are lightly covered, allow the cake to rest in the fridge for about 5 minutes for that layer of frosting to set a bit. After a bit of fridge rest, continue to frost the whole cake.
There are different ways to do this but usually I pile whatever frosting is left onto the top then push it down and over the sides, the mess collects on the parchment at the base. The frosting is much thinner than traditional buttercream so it will not be pipeable consistency, more of a drippy cake so the end result will be more ‘rustic’ but that’s the effect, so don’t worry about being too neat. You have an excuse.
Once you’re happy with the top coat, remove the parchment paper from under the cake. Garnish however you wish.
The cake will hold up ok, frosted in the fridge for a few hours. Bring to room temperature before serving. If you garnish with frozen raspberries serve the cake like, straight away, especially if candles have been on the cake, or pink juice will start to leak and that’s just sad. I did it, not smart.
The cake will also keep in an airtight container in the fridge for about 2 days, but almond meal does tend to absorb moisture from the frosting and then dry out.
* I just put about 1 cup (100g) of real chunky turbinado sugar in a food processor and process till it’s powedery. You can of course always use icing sugar, which will also be lighter coloured , as you can see mine looks almost caramel so if you’re after something really white, seek out some organic icing sugar.
** this guide on the kitchn has some useful visuals for beginners
As I mention, these cakes are tender so really benefit from an overnight rest in the freezer, which makes them handy to make ahead and assemble the day you’d like the cake.
the birthday girl