Neapolitan Checkerboard Cake

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This was a lot of (good) cake. My wife’s grandmother turned 89 today, and I was commissioned to make dessert. Since there was the potential to have a relatively large crowd (15-20 people), I decided I should increase the size of my preferred 3-layer, 8″ cake. This cake was a giant 4-layer, 9″ cake. Like massive. The final product probably easily weighed over 20 lbs. Seriously. I mean, what do you do when you run out of cake? (Well, I also made two batches of cookies, so…)

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I actually made two different cakes here, one chocolate and one vanilla. Both cakes are quite good. They are both light and fluffy with a delicate, moist crumb, exactly what you would expect from a great cake.  I’m probably partial to the chocolate cake if I had to choose, though, because chocolate.

Each cake had very similar texture, too, and they baked to approximately the same height. This made it easy to match the cakes for the checkerboard design without needing to torte any of the cakes. Assembling the checkerboard was easier than I thought. I chilled the cakes in the refrigerator overnight so the cake was more firm to cut and handle, which I think helped immensely.

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For me, the most difficult part was the buttercream. I was really worried I was not going to have enough frosting to coat such a big cake, so I checked with the source and multiplied the recipe by 2.5x just to be safe. Well, this was a great decision (I ended up using about twice the original recipe), but I had to split it between my two stand mixers (4.5 and 5 quart capacities, respectively). Yup. Dueling mixers. This worked swimmingly, however, despite the self-inflicted high degree of difficulty.

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Unfortunately, the chilling of the cake overnight also meant that the frosting I had prepared also had to chill. In the morning, when the frosting came to room temperature, I think the strawberries warmed faster than the butter/mascarpone, so when I tried to beat it, it separated. My wife came to the rescue donning her “damage control” hat and figured out how to re-incorporate the frosting with a little patience and a quick Google search. I should also note that she did a great job helping to frost in between the cake rings for the checkerboard cake and to crumb coat the cake, as my patience waned throughout the morning (as pictured).

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The added pressure of an 89th birthday and serving to such a large audience led to such high anxiety for the first slice. Both my wife and I were unsure whether the checkerboard would work and were hoping it would stay together. Fortunately, and to our surprise, the checkerboard came out fantastic, with nearly perfect squares. I was so pumped!

This was a great cake, probably one of the better cakes I’ve made (thanks CPP!). Each of the chocolate and vanilla cakes were worthy of their own cakes. The Swiss buttercream was silky smooth with the perfect amount of strawberry flavor. The Neapolitan flavor pairing of the strawberry frosting with the chocolate and vanilla cakes was exactly what I was trying to accomplish.

NEAPOLITAN CHECKERBOARD CAKE
Based on recipes found here, here, and here.

INGREDIENTS

Chocolate Cake:
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup (4 oz.) hot espresso or boiling water
1/2 cup (45 g, 1 1/2 oz.) dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups (227 g, 8 oz.) all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups (396 g, 14 oz.) granulated sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 cup (240 g, 8 1/2 oz.) sour cream

Vanilla Cake:
1 1/4 cups (170 g, 6 oz.) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (170 g, 6 oz.) cake flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups (340g, 12 oz.) granulated sugar
4 tbsp. vegetable oil
4 large eggs
1 1/2 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups buttermilk, room temperature

Strawberry Mascarpone Buttercream:
2 cups (16 oz.) egg whites, from carton
4 1/2 cups (908 g, 32 oz.) granulated sugar
2 tbsp. (28 g, 1 oz.) light corn syrup
4 cups unsalted butter, softened
12 oz. (340 g) mascarpone, softened
4 tbsp. vanilla extract
2/3 cup strawberry puree
2 tsp. strawberry extract
Pinch of salt

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Butter and flour four 9″ cake pans. Line the bottom of each cake pan with parchment paper, then butter and flour the parchment paper.
  2. For the chocolate cake: In a medium bowl, combine chocolate and espresso, whisking until smooth (microwave as needed for 30 seconds). Set aside to cool to room temperature.
  3. In a separate medium bowl, whisk cocoa, flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
  4. In the stand mixer, beat butter and sugar for 2 minutes on medium-high speed.
  5. Add the eggs one-at-a-time on medium speed until incorporated, then stir in vanilla.
  6. On low speed, add the melted chocolate mixture until incorporated.
  7. Add half of the dry ingredients followed by half of the sour cream, then repeat.
  8. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl, then beat on medium-high speed for 1 minute.
  9. Divide batter evenly between two cake pans (~27.5 oz. per cake). Bake 40-50 minutes (mine took ~48 minutes), or until cake tester inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean.
  10. Let the cakes cool 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the cakes. Double wrap cakes in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator to cool and firm.
  11. For the vanilla cake: In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
  12. In a stand mixer, beat butter and oil on medium-high speed for 2 minutes.
  13. Add eggs one-at-a-time, beating until combined, then add vanilla.
  14. Add dry ingredients, then beat on low speed until just incorporated.
  15. Add buttermilk, then beat on medium speed until well combined.
  16. Divide batter evenly between remaining two pans (~26 oz. per cake). Bake 40-50 minutes (mine took ~45 minutes), or until cake tester inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean.
  17. Let the cakes cool 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the cakes. Double wrap cakes in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator to cool and firm.
  18. For the frosting: In a blender, blend strawberries into puree. Strain into a small saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, stirring occasionally, allowing the puree to reduce over 10-15 minutes. Refrigerate while preparing rest of the frosting.
  19. In a double boiler over simmering water, whisk egg whites, sugar, and corn syrup until sugar is dissolved and mixture reaches 160 degrees. Pour mixture into a cake pan (or two) and chill in freezer for 20-30 minutes until mixture is 45-60 degrees.
  20. In a stand mixer with paddle attachment, beat butter and mascarpone on high speed for 2 minutes.
  21. Switch to whisk attachment. Add the cooled syrup in two additions, beating 30 seconds after each addition.
  22. Add the vanilla, strawberry puree, strawberry extract, and salt. Beat 30 seconds until smooth.
  23. For the assembly: Using a 3″ cake ring, cut a circle in the middle of each cake, then, using a 6″ cake ring, cut a circle around the 3″ circle. This should leave each cake in three ring-shaped pieces.
  24. Remove cake pieces, then add alternate chocolate and vanilla cake rings to create the checkerboard effect lightly frosting between the rings.
  25. Frost and decorate the cakes as desired.
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