Production of a Yuletide cake house has become a tradition in my household. I don’t come close to having the skills of a professional baker; these are purely for entertainment (and eating) purposes. Once upon a time I made gingerbread houses (one of them is pictured at right), but I couldn’t get people to eat the house at the end of the holiday season. No one hugely loved gingerbread cookies, or the royal icing used for glue and decoration, plus the cookie house got stale. I felt, though, that the point of constructing something out of food was that you eat it.
For many years I worked at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, and more than once we hosted Tibetan monks who would create an intricate and beautiful sand mandala over the course of several weeks, then scatter it into the Schuylkill River as part of a meditation on the transitory nature of existence. I’m not a Buddhist, but I find some parallels in the preparation of elaborate desserts. Fruit tarts, for example, take hours to create. They are beautiful. And they vanish in minutes — but those few minutes are happy ones.
In graduate school I’d made a few non-seasonal cake houses, for dissertation parties when fellow students completed the Big D. One of these cakes was a pre-Columbian Andean metallurgy site. Another was an aboriginal Northwest coast plank house. None of these cakes was highly decorated, but I adopted the basic technique for the Yule cake houses.
I build the houses from a combination of pound cake and mud cake, baked in loaf pans. A traditional pound cake recipe, or something close to it, can be found just about anywhere — I usually add lemon or orange zest for extra flavor. The mud-cake part is always most in demand when it’s time to sacrifice the house to the cause of transitory delight, but there are, in this world, people who don’t like psychotropically chocolate cake, and pound cake is also a more reliable building material, so it’s best for the parts that are a bit fiddly.
I use the fabulous Union Hotel mud cake recipe from one of the Fanny Farmer cookbooks:
Preheat oven to 275 °F/ 135 °C
Butter and flour one or two loaf pans, depending on the size (see note below).
Sift/whisk together in a bowl:
2 cups cake flour
1.5 cups sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
(salt, if you use unsalted butter)
Melt over low heat, in a big saucepan of at least a 4 quart capacity:
7 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate (yes, seven, really)
.75 cup butter (1 and 1/2 sticks)
1.5 cups strong coffee
Stir while it is melting, then set aside for about 10 minutes to cool. When the chocolate-butter-coffee mixture is lukewarm, whisk in:
1/4 cup bourbon (yes, really)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Add in the dry ingredients and beat until smooth. Fill your pan(s) and bake until you can insert a knife and it comes out clean.
Note: If you have smaller-size loaf pans (say, 8.5 x 4”) you will need two pans for this recipe, and baking time will be 45-55 minutes. I used to have a large 9” loaf pan that would fit a whole recipe’s-worth of batter, and that baking time was about 1.5 hours. I’ve also used pans that I mistakenly thought would fit the whole recipe and had messy oven incidents (but they meant lots of scraps).
Once cooled, the loaves get trimmed into rectangular bricks, which can then be cut into smaller blocks or used as is, depending what’s needed for the house plan. Raspberry jam coats every face of each block of cake; this sticks the pieces together and also helps keep the cake moist. The whole is covered in a layer of marzipan (sweetened almond paste), which you roll out like cookie dough, but using confectioner’s sugar instead of flour. The jam on the cake is usually enough to glue on the marzipan, and if all is carefully applied, the cake inside will stay moist for a week or more.
Then you decorate. When I lived in Philadelphia I would load up on fancy seasonal bits of candy and chocolate at the amazing Muellers Chocolate Company at the Reading Terminal Market, but these days I have to work harder to find the ornaments. I do use royal icing (egg white and confectioner’s sugar) to glue these on. The cake in the photo heading this post was finished with a food-coloring wash on top of the marzipan, but I’ve also used frosting. While living in Dubai, I made the Arab fort pictured here and left the marzipan with almost no decoration.
The baking, construction and decoration are time-consuming, but there’s something satisfying about the complete lack of utility of a cake house, about its festive look, its subsequent utter destruction, and — a feature it does not share with a sand mandala — its yumminess as you destroy it.
P.S. If you make mud cake for non-architectural purposes, it is delicious with whipped cream, gourmet vanilla yogurt, or cream cheese frosting.
Judith Berman is a brand-new member of Book View Café. Her fiction, which has been short-listed for the Nebula, Sturgeon, and Crawford awards, will be forthcoming from BVC. Her website is www.filomancer.com.