Birthdays in Quarantine
I never minded birthdays. I know some folks, especially as we get older, want to dismiss the occasion as nothing more than another day. But I always liked having something a little special to look forward to. Every year growing up my mom would always bake me a giant cookie "cake" since I was never a regular cake kinda gal. Imagine your favorite thick chewy chocolate chip cookie, but the size of a small pizza! I was keen on baking one myself this year, except a few days prior I fried up the last of our eggs for breakfast, not even thinking that I would need one for my celebratory dessert. That's the trouble with quarantine, you need to prepare ahead, as unnecessary trips to the grocery store just aren't worth it. Moose Man surreptitiously borrowed an egg from our neighbor and whipped me up a cookie cake as a sweet surprise. It was promptly inhaled before any photos could be taken.
His birthday was just two weeks after mine and I wanted to treat him to something extra special, because, let's face it, quarantine birthdays are just plain weird. He fell in love with Venetian cookies (a.k.a Italian rainbow cookies) at Christmas. My sister always makes a huge batch to share and we'd long run out of the stash we had in the freezer. Since I did't want to make a whole recipe (it makes 6 dozen cookies), I halved it and made it into a few mini cakes, doing a double stack on the layers.
This is what happens when you watch the Great British Baking Show once and think you can do anything! The almond flavor is quite prevalent in this dessert and the chocolate on top I always felt was more for a textural contrast to the soft cake than for flavor. We always used semi-sweet chocolate chips growing up, which really don't have a lot of lasting chocolate punch to them. This time around, however, I used my dark chocolate over top and I was pleasantly surprised at how much the floral notes came through. Almond isn't stealing the show anymore! It also offset some of the sweetness, which was a bonus. Adding to the nuanced chocolatey experience, I used cacao fruit jam instead of the typical apricot preserves. For those who don't know, a white fruit surrounds the cacao beans in the pod and aids in the fermentation process before chocolate can become chocolate! Cacao fruit is a little tart and tastes similar to lychee or wild apple.
Venetian Cookies (aka Italian Rainbow Cookies)
1 (8 oz.) can almond paste filling
1 1/2 c. (3 sticks) butter, softened
1 c. granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 tsp. almond extract
2 c. sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
10 drops green food coloring
8 drops red food coloring
1 (12 oz) jar preserves (apricot is traditional, my family always uses raspberry)
2 oz chocolate of your choosing
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease three 13 x 9 x 2-inch pans. Line with waxed paper, grease again. In a small bowl, beat egg whites with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form.* In a separate bowl, break up almond paste filling with a fork. Add butter, sugar, egg yolks and almond extract. Beat with electric mixer until light and fluffy, 5 minutes. Beat in flour and salt. Gently fold egg whites into almond mixture. Separate batter into three bowls. Add the green food coloring to one and the red to another and fold the batter until each color is incorporated; the last third will remain uncolored. Spread batters evenly into your prepared pans. The batter doesn't spread or rise much in oven, so it's best to try and keep the layers even and roughly 1/4 in thick, even if that means you don't go all the way to the edge of the pan. Bake for 12-15 minutes or just until edges are golden brown.
Remove cakes from pans immediately and place onto large wire racks. Cool thoroughly. Place green layer on a jellyroll pan. Heat apricot preserves gently in the microwave so it's just loosened. Spread half of the warm preserves over green layer to the edges. Place yellow layer on top. Spread with remaining apricot preserves. Place pink layer on top of the yellow layer.** Cover with plastic wrap; weigh down the top with some canned tomatoes or a pot with something heavy in it. Place in refrigerator a few hours or overnight.
Melt chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave, making sure not to heat it above 90°F. Spread over the top of the pink layer to the edges. Let stand until set. Trim the rough edges off the sides and cut into 1-inch square pieces.*** Makes about 6 dozen tiny, layered cake-cookies, striped like Venetian glass.
*Make sure you beat the egg whites first. They won't form peaks if there is any yolk on the beaters.
**It really doesn't matter how you layer the colors, but if you do it in the order prescribed above, they resemble the Italian flag.
***Don't throw away those scraps! Keep them as a snack, stash them in the freezer, but don't let them go to waste. I've been known to slather them with more preserves or dunk them in extra chocolate. Cook's rules.