Several years ago, food writer Amanda Hesser wrote a story about crepe cakes, rightly noting that the concept had been around for years. Hers was filled with lightened pastry cream and topped with a caramelized sugar brulee.
Since then I've come up with many versions. This one is especially suited to the holidays; it features a rich, gingery ricotta filling evocative of blintzes. The surprise comes when you cut the cake to reveal its 25 layers. Browning the butter used in the crepe batter imparts a nutty and more complex flavor.
Make Ahead: The crepes can be made up to a month in advance and frozen with pieces of parchment paper or plastic wrap between them. Defrost in the refrigerator before using. Otherwise, prepare the batter and refrigerate at least 1 day and up to 2 days in advance, then make the crepes and filling, assembling the cake 1 day in advance.
- For the crepes
- 3 cups whole or low-fat milk
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 8 large eggs
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups flour
- For the frosting and filling
- 12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature (do not use low-fat or nonfat)
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
- 2 1/2 cups whole or part-skim ricotta cheese, at room temperature
- 5- to 6-inch piece peeled ginger root, pureed (3 tablespoons)
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- For assembly
- 1 cup (about 5 ounces) raw unsalted macadamia nuts
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 4 ounces (about 3/4 cup) crystallized ginger, finely chopped
For the crepes (about twenty-eight 10-inch crepes): Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat, until it begins to steam and small bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Remove from the heat and let it rest for 10 minutes.
Melt the butter in a small saute pan over medium heat; cook for several minutes, until the milk solids have cooked into browned bits. (It will resemble bacon grease.) Remove from the heat.
Whisk together the eggs, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl, then add the flour, which will make a lumpy batter. Whisk in the milk in 2 additions, just until no lumps remain. Add the browned butter and whisk to combine. Transfer the batter to a tall pitcher. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to make the crepes, have ready an unrimmed baking sheet and thirty 8-inch squares of parchment paper. Place 2 parchment squares on the baking sheet, spaced a few inches apart. (You will be making 2 stacks of crepes, alternating additions between the stacks and placing a square of parchment between each crepe.)
Use nonstick cooking oil spray to grease the inside of a 10-inch nonstick crepe pan; use a paper towel to distribute it evenly. (This is mostly for peace of mind, just to ensure that the first crepe doesn't stick. There is no need to use the paper towel or add oil for making subsequent crepes.) Heat the pan over medium-high heat.
For each crepe, pour 1/4 cup of the batter into one side of the pan, swirling it around to fill in the edges and then the entire bottom of the pan, tilting to evenly coat the bottom of the pan. Cook undisturbed for about a minute, until the edges begin to brown. Use a flexible spatula to coax an edge up just enough for you to grasp it with your fingers; quickly peel the crepe off the pan surface and turn it over. Cook on the second side for only a few seconds. Transfer the crepe to the prepared baking sheet, alternating additions in 2 stacks and placing the sheets of parchment paper between the crepes as you go. Repeat to use all of the batter, and allow the crepes to cool completely before using. (At this point, they can be covered and refrigerated or frozen.)
For the frosting (makes about 4 cups): Combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on high speed for about 1 minute, until smooth and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low; add the vanilla extract and beat to incorporate, then add half of the confectioners' sugar and beat to incorporate. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a flexible spatula, then add the remaining confectioners' sugar and beat on low to medium speed until well combined. Transfer 2 1/2 cups of the frosting to a separate bowl to make the filling. Cover both and refrigerate if not using right away.
For the filling (makes about 5 cups): Use a flexible spatula to fold the ricotta cheese into the 2 1/2 cups of cream cheese frosting, then fold in the ginger, cardamom and almond extract until well combined. Cover and refrigerate if not using right away.
To assemble: Place 1 crepe on a 10-inch cardboard cake round or similarly sized round cake plate. Use an offset spatula to spread 2 heaping tablespoons of filling evenly over the crepe. (It will be a very thin coating.) Repeat with the remaining crepes, ending with a crepe, until you run out of either crepes or filling.
Use 1 cup of the remaining cream cheese frosting to cover the sides and top of the cake. Transfer the last 1/2 cup of it to a pastry bag or resealable plastic food storage bag to reserve for decorative piping as a final touch; refrigerate until ready to use. Carefully insert 4 bamboo skewers vertically in the cake to secure the layers. Transfer the cake to the refrigerator for several hours to allow it to set.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Combine the nuts and sugar in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly; the nuts will become toasted and the sugar will seize up, but keep stirring and eventually the sugar will caramelize and the nuts will begin to separate as caramel-coated pieces. This will take only a few minutes. Be careful not to overcook; when the nuts begin to get dark, you're done. If there are a few large grains of sugar on them, that is okay. Transfer the nuts to the parchment-lined sheet to cool completely, then break them apart, transferring them to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the nuts several times to chop them until no large chunks of nuts remain. Transfer to a medium bowl.
To add finishing touches, remove and discard the skewers. Hold the cake round or cake plate in one hand, suspended over the parchment-lined baking sheet used to cool the caramelized nuts. Use your other hand to firmly press the bits of nut crunch into the sides and just over the top edges of the cake, picking up and reusing whatever has fallen to the paper.
Set the cake down, then press the chopped crystallized ginger into the frosting on top. Use the reserved 1/2 cup of frosting to pipe over the top edge of the nut crunch. Place the cake in a cake keeper and refrigerate. Remove 30 minutes before serving.
From columnist David Hagedorn, using adapted recipes from a 2005 New York Times article and from "Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary," by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer and Ethan Becker (Scribner, 2006).
Tested by David Hagedorn.
E-mail questions to the Food Section at email@example.com.