I’m Italian. Not really, but my grandparents and great grandparents moved here from Italy. While I have traveled to Italy, I can’t really say I’m from Italy. I did, however, absorb bit of the language from five years of studying Italian in school. Does this qualify me as an expert on Italian cooking? Absolutely not, but Italian Rum Cake is really more of an Italian-American thing than an Italian thing anyway. Not surprising when you think of it. How many rum producers originate from Italy? Mmmnot that many.
Rum cake sounds decadent. Really, what kind of a cake goes running around with rum anyway? In defense of Italian Rum Cake’s good judgement, it’s not actually made with rum. It’s made with rum extract. The cake gets its name because the bottom layer of cake is brushed with the rum flavoring. Use actual rum, and it will make not only the cake soggy, but also the guests, and nobody wants that at an afternoon birthday party.
Now that we’ve cleared Italian Rum Cake’s good name, on to the other details. Italian Rum Cake is essentially a layered sponge cake consisting of a bottom layer drenched in rum extract, topped with a layer of vanilla pastry cream, a second layer of cake, a layer of chocolate pastry cream, and a third layer of cake. The whole glorious morsel is then, finally, enveloped in white buttercream frosting, and the sides are coated in slivered almonds. Preferably slivered almonds that are dyed green. Don’t ask me why.
I developed this recipe for my mother’s birthday in an attempt to replicate my family’s favorite Italian Rum Cake from the hallowed Antoine’s Bakery in Newton, Massachusetts. My family has been going to Antoine’s for their authentic Napoleons, Italian Rum Cake, miniature Ricotta Pies, and pretty much anything else behind their cheerful blue awning since it was founded in 1955.
So why replicate when we could just buy the cake? We now live many, many miles away. Also, I don’t think there’s any competition here. Despite my thought that this is a pretty good stand-in given the circumstances, Antoine’s has got a good 57 years on me. In fact, I’m sure if anyone from Antoine’s is reading this, they’re having a good chuckle at my recipe. And seriously, who’s going to want to invest three hours of their time to bake this thing, when they can just order one? Maybe all you readers from places far from here? TexArKana, anyone?
Frugal Tip: I like to save butter wrappers to grease baking pans. This frugality affords me the added resources to buy beautiful butter dishes, like the one pictured here from Tuscan Designs, one of my favorite stores.
The following components can be made a day or so in advance and then assembled, as instructed below under the assembly instructions.
A note on my pastry skills: I’m not a pastry chef. I’m just very determined and I have a lot of free time to perfect stuff. However, there’s only so much one can do about decorating a cake with just a piping bag from the supermarket and zero training. So while my flowers may not look like the most professional, they are a close enough proximity, given that the cake itself is pretty good.
Additional Frugal Tip: If the pastry cream comes out lumpy or too thin or too thick, don’t toss it! Instead, pour it into your ice cream maker with some of the heavy cream left over from the frosting recipe to make a WICKED chocolate gelato.
Italian Rum Cake – serves 12
(Note: This recipe takes a little while. Like a couple hours. So be sure to wear your orthopedic slippers in the kitchen.)
The Cake Component:
6 eggs, separated
1 C butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 C sugar
1 t vanilla
2 C flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 C milk
1 T rum extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour two 9″ round metal cake pans.
Using a stand mixer or electric beater, cream the butter, egg yolks, sugar and vanilla. Combine the flour, salt and baking soda in a medium bowl and sift them into the butter mixture. Gradually mix in the milk until smooth.
Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form.You may have to transfer the batter to a different bowl in order to use the stand mixer, unless you have two stand mixer bowls. Fancy pants!
(Important note: If you transfer the batter from your mixer bowl to another bowl in order to use the mixer to whip the egg whites, be sure to rinse the excess batter from the bowl! Yes, they’re all getting folded in together eventually, but even the smallest amount of fat in the bowl will prevent the egg whites from aerating.)
In a large bowl, fold the beaten egg whites into the batter. Pour batter into the cake pans and bake for 25 – 30 minutes, until the top is a nice bubbly golden brown.
While it’s still in the pan and still hot, brush the top of one layer with the rum extract. Doing this while it’s still hot will allow any alcohol in the extract to evaporate off. Allow cakes to cool entirely before removing from the pans.
The Pastry Cream:
1 T + 1 t cornstarch
2/3 C sugar
1 C milk
1/4 t vanilla
3 eggs, beaten
1 T cocoa powder (only add to half)
Blend the sugar and cornstarch together in a bowl and sift. Sifting will prevent lumpy pastry cream.
Combine the milk, eggs and vanilla in a small saucepan. Add the sugar/cornstarch mixture. Stirring constantly, bring to barely a simmer over low to medium heat. This will take a few minutes. Once the mixture begins to simmer slightly (when the first glug rises from the the bottom of the pan and a thermometer reads about 185 or 190 degrees) remove from the pan from the burner and continue stirring for one minute. The pastry cream should thicken to the consistency of American yogurt by this point.
Pour half into a small bowl and refrigerate. Whisk cocoa powder into the rest. Refrigerate to cool and set for at least one hour.
The Butter Cream Frosting:
1 C unsalted butter, room temperature
4.5 C confectionery sugar, sifted
1 t vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
3 – 4 T heavy cream
A couple of drops of food coloring as needed
Using a stand mixer or beater, cream the butter, sifted confectionery sugar (Seriously, dude. Sift the sugar or you’ll have lumpy frosting.), vanilla extract and salt. Mix in 3 to 4 tablespoons of heavy cream, depending on desired consistency.
If you’re making pretty little flowers or some such decoration on top (assuming you’re leaving the rest white), take about a half cup or so as needed for each color. Use a piping bag (not a bag pipe) to decorate.
The Almond Component:
1 C slivered almonds
1 t water
2 drops green food coloring
Toss the almonds in a bowl with the water and food coloring until evenly coated.
Place the cake layer that’s been brushed with rum flavoring onto a serving dish. Spread with chocolate pastry cream, leaving about a half inch margin all around so that it has space to spread out once the next cake layer is places.
Slice the cake layer that hasn’t been brushed with rum flavoring in half. Place one piece over the chocolate pastry cream. Spread this second layer with the vanilla pastry cream. Place the third cake layer over the vanilla pastry cream
Frost the cake with buttercream frosting, starting by carefully spreading the sides with a rubber spatula. Spread the frosting onto the top by placing several dollops and carefully spreading them out.
Using a spoon, press the almonds into the side of the cake.
Decorate if desired with frosting colored with food coloring.