Yesterday, we celebrated my grandmother's 80th birthday. I was asked to bake her birthday cake and because this is the woman who has taught me more about food and cookery than anyone else I know, and I happen to adore her, it needed to be special. Her favourite cake, and indeed ice cream, is coffee, so whatever I made, coffee had to be a part of it. The result of my endeavours was pretty much a feat of culinary engineering.

I served caramel meringues with coffee cream at my recent housewarming party. I knew immediately that I wanted to turn this combination into a layer cake affair, but using a coffee crème pâtissière instead of coffee cream for added unctuousness, so this became my starting point. But this wasn't cakey enough, and I felt the need to introduce a walnut sponge, what with coffee and walnut being a classic combination. I used the bastardised version of my dessert stalwart, the hazelnut roulade, giving me a moist and simple sponge.

It all seemed to come together: the construction had crunch, chew, softness, creaminess, cakey-ness, and sweetness. Nana polished off two slices having already having chomped through a four course meal. I think I got it right.

You will need to approach this recipe with several hours to spare, at least an electric hand-whisk and preferably a mixer or KitchenAid, two 20cm (8 inch) loose-bottomed cake tins, reams of baking parchment, and a good dose of patience.


  • Walnut sponge
    • 4 eggs, separated
    • 125g (4oz) caster sugar
    • 100g (3oz) ground walnuts
    • 1 tbsp cornflour
  • Coffee crème pâtissière
    • 3 egg yolks
    • 50g (2oz) caster sugar
    • 1tbsp plain flour
    • 150ml (5floz) whole milk
    • 150ml (5floz) double cream
    • 1tbsp super-strong black coffee
  • To decorate
    • Whipped cream
    • A scattering of walnut pieces


In an attempt to make this recipe as stress-free as possible, I'd advise making the meringues the night before you make the rest of the cake. They can then cool overnight in the oven, which will stop them from becoming hard and monstrously chewy. However, if you're making the cake all in one sitting, you must start with the sponge layers. The meringues won't have the opportunity to cool, otherwise.

Caramel meringues

Preheat your oven to 140° Celsius or gas mark 1.

Take the base from the cake tins and draw around them on baking parchment. Place the baking parchment flat on two baking sheets.

In a scrupulously clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are stiff. Then, whisk in the sugars a spoonful at a time until all of it is incorporated and the mixture holds glossy, firm peaks. Gently fold in the the red wine vinegar. You should have a decadent café-au-lait coloured mixture.

Share the mixture between the two discs, but do not spread it to the edges of the circles. Leave a gap of approximately ½ centimetre (¼ inch) to allow for the expansion of the meringue.

Place in the oven for one hour, after which time the meringue should be cooked. Turn off the oven and allow it to cool, leaving the meringues where they are.

Walnut sponge layers

When it comes to making the sponge layers, preheat the oven to 170° Celsius or gas mark 3. (Make sure you've removed the totally cool meringues, of course. They should be happy in an air-tight container.)

Line the base of the cake pans with baking parchment.

Beat together the egg yolks and sugar until they form a thick batter that resembles mayonnaise. Fold in the cornflour and ground walnuts.

Whisk the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks and then gently fold into the nut mixture, being careful not to expel too much air. You don't want flat sponges!

Divide the mixture between the two cake pans and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the sponges are golden and springy to the touch.

Coffee crème pâtissière

Whilst the sponges are cooling, get on with the coffee crème pâtissière.

Half-fill your sink with cold water.

Remember those three egg yolks left over from when you made the meringues? Well, this is when you get to use them. Beat them with the sugar and mix in the flour and the coffee.

Heat up the milk and cream until it reaches a simmer.

Pour this over the eggs, beating very gently but constantly as you do so. Return the mixture to the pan and cook it until it is decidedly thick, over a medium-slow heat. You'll need to stir it all the time. Burning, sticking, or splitting are not options.

If you're at all concerned that the custard is splitting—which is shouldn't do because of the flour, but you never know—dunk the pan in the sink of cold water and whisk until everything re-incorporates.

When the custard is cooked and thick, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool. If you're impatient, like me, you can dunk the pan in the sink of cold water...

Construction of the marvel

You should now have two meringue discs, two sponge layers, and a helping of crème pâtissière. Yes? Awesome.

Select your serving plate. I opted for an opaque purple glass number that belongs to my mother, but whatever works for you.

The base layer should be sponge, over which you need to smear a third of the crème pâtissière. Then position on that a meringue layer upside down, smeared with another third of crème pâtissière. On top of that place the second sponge layer and the remainder of the crème pâtissière. Place the second meringue, right-way-up, atop the lot.

If you are so inclined, dollop fresh whipped cream on that and scatter with walnut pieces. But birthday candles work just as brilliantly.

It should last a few hours in its constructed state until everything begins to disintegrate into a gooey splodge.

Then sit back and bask in the glory of your creation as everyone falls silent eating the layers of golden deliciousness.

Music to cook to: The Best of the Hot Club of Cow Town

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