Great Expectations is the novel that, years ago, sparked the idea for this blog. While I have always been oddly intrigued by cooking and eating scenes in literature, Miss Havisham’s bride cake was the first literary confection that I ever dreamt of replicating. I was a Freshman in high school when my English teacher assigned the novel and I immediately became obsessed not only with Dickens in general, but specifically with the character of Miss Havisham.
It was a muddy, cold, gloomy New England spring when I started reading Great Expectations and the wound from my very first devastating heartbreak was still raw (many more to come), which probably has a lot to do with why I found her so intriguing. In the novel, Miss Havisham is jilted on her wedding day and decides not only to remain in her wedding regalia and stop all of the clocks throughout the entire decrepit, crumbling mansion, but also to keep intact the entire wedding party set-up, food and all.
Rather than fearing becoming like her I was somehow fortified by her unwillingness to move forward and her unabashed display of the very scene of her greatest humiliation and sadness. She turned her heartbreak into a freak-show, a circus attraction, she made it the very center of her universe and for whatever reason I found that immensely comforting.
By the time Pip sees Miss Havisham’s bride cake it is no longer recognizable as such and he is unable to make out exactly what he is seeing until she tells him.
The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centerpiece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”
“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!” (158-159)
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “This is not appetizing, I do not want to make this cake.” But you do. I promise you you do.
Victorian wedding cakes were traditionally pretty disgusting. Usually they were unswallowably dense nut and candied fruit cakes covered in thick fondant icing. I couldn’t bring myself to make a cake like that (blech!) but the following cake gives a nod to the traditional Victorian wedding cake using homemade almond flour and sweet and sour soaked cherries and is, I think, incredibly delicious. I used funny-sized cake pans to make my cake look like a wedding cake but this recipe will make enough batter for a one-tiered layer cake consisting of three 9×2” cakes.
Miss Havisham’s Toasted Almond and Amarena Cherry Bride Cake
Adapted from Gina DePalma
2 cups raw sliced and blanched almonds pulsed in a food processor until it resembles a coarse meal. Don’t pulse too much or you will make nut butter! I took mine out while still chunky and crushed with the back of a spoon until the texture was right. (you can buy almond flour but it’s usually pretty expensive and not as flavorful as homemade. If you do buy it make sure it’s blanched—Trader Joe’s is not and this will make a difference).
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (not self-rising)
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 cups sugar
10 ounces almond paste, broken into small chunks
24 Tbsp. (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
Finely grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon, about 2 tsp.)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
Mascarpone and Amarena cherry filling:
1 1/2 cups mascarpone
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
2 Tbsp. bourbon (optional)
2 cups amarena cherries in syrup, well drained and coarsely chopped (Found these at Trader Joe’s after searching endlessly for them and almost buying a $23 jar off Amazon)
3/4 cup cherry jam
Adjust 2 oven racks to divide oven into thirds. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease 3 (9″ x 2″) round cake pans. Line bottoms with parchment paper; grease paper and dust pans with flour, tapping out excess. Pulse blanched almonds as directed above (in ingredients section). Spread almond flour on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until toasted, stirring once, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool.
In a large bowl, whisk together almond flour, all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda; set aside. Combine sugar and almond paste in a food processor and blend until almond paste is finely ground with the texture of fine sand.
In a stand mixer with paddle attachment, combine almond paste mixture and butter. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Beat in eggs one at a time until well blended. With mixer on low speed, beat in milk, lemon zest, and vanilla until well blended. Beat in flour mixture, scraping bowl. Beat on medium speed until well blended, about 30 seconds. Divide batter among prepared pans and spread evenly. Stagger pans on 2 racks in oven so pans are not directly above one another. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, rotating pans halfway through, or until a toothpick inserted in center of cakes comes out clean. Let cool in pans 10 minutes. Run a knife around sides of pans and turn cakes out onto wire racks. Remove parchment paper and flip again; cool completely.
To make filling: In a stand mixer with whisk attachment, combine mascarpone, heavy cream, sugar, vanilla bean seeds, and 1 tablespoon bourbon (if you want). With mixer on low speed at first and increasing to medium, beat just until firm peaks form; do not over beat. Fold in cherries. Refrigerate 30 minutes. In a bowl, stir together cherry jam and remaining 1 tablespoon bourbon.
Cream Cheese Frosting:
3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup butter, softened
3 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
In a medium bowl, cream together the cream cheese and butter until creamy. Mix in the vanilla, then gradually stir in the confectioners’ sugar. Store in the refrigerator after use.
To Assemble Cake: Spread 1 side of 2 of the cake layers with jam. Place one cake layer, jam-side up on cake stand or plate. Spread with half of mascarpone filling. Top with second cake layer, jam-side up. Spread with remaining filling. Top with third cake layer, top-side up (I wrapped the layers and let them sit in the fridge overnight so the filling would soak into the cake, but if you don’t have time just wait about 10 minutes for the jam to soak in before adding the mascarpone cherry filling). Frost cake with about 1 cup cream cheese frosting to crumb coat cake; refrigerate 1 hour. Frost cake with remaining frosting. Serve immediately or refrigerate; if refrigerated, let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.