Walking into Untitled, now settled into its new, glass-walled Meatpacking District home at the relocated Whitney Museum, a few things might catch your eye. There’s Robert Indiana’s lightbulb-lined EAT sign (the only remnant of the restaurant’s past incarnation uptown), the low-hanging light fixtures, glowing like UFOs, the serious chefs, shuttling back and forth in the open kitchen. There’s also, on one end of the counter, right next to the enormous floral arrangement, a small array of pastries in glass jars and on stands, which might be less captivating – at least from across the room – if it weren’t for the towering layer cake sitting beneath a glass dome, one large slice carefully removed to show its strata of buttercream, jam, and pastry.
Until about a month ago, this cake was a peanut butter and blueberry cake. But seasons change, blueberries stop growing, and now there’s a new, more fall-flavored cake on the stand. This one is also based on a sandwich flavor: Nutella toast with bananas. It’s a banana cake filled with both concord grape jam and banana jam, frosted with chocolate hazelnut buttercream, and decorated with hazelnut tuile – complicated enough and so far from cloying that you might only recognize the inspiration in passing. Here pastry chef Miro Uskokovic (also the pastry chef for Untitled’s closest sibling, Gramercy Tavern), along with his sous chef Shari Tanaka, show how they build this 12-layered masterpiece.
Uskokovic starts with the cake itself. The restaurant goes through three or four cakes per service, so the recipe he normally uses makes nine cakes. But for the purposes of demonstration, Uskokovic pulls out the rarely used Kitchenaid and makes just one.
The batter is quick and straightforward. Uskokovic starts beating the softened butter and slowly pours in the sugar. He beats this on high until the mixture is good and fluffy, then mixes in the eggs.
Turning to sift out the dry ingredients onto a wide sheet of parchment paper, Uskokovic explains: "It’s very important to sift the dry ingredients. It makes the flour aerated and fluffier, and it gets rid of clumps." You could just use a whisk, he says, but the result won’t be as light.
Next he combines pureed bananas and buttermilk. This is more precise than your favorite banana bread recipe: Uskokovic, like any good pastry chef, measures in grams, not in whole bananas. But it’s usually around five for a single cake, or, for his standard nine-cake recipe, 45. The restaurant orders cases and cases of bananas at a time, waits for them to get dark and mushy, then freezes them.
Uskokovic pours in half the dry ingredients and mixes briefly on low. Then he pours in all the buttermilk and banana, mixes a little more, and finally adds the rest of the dry ingredients. Before the batter is fully blended, he pulls out the bowl and finishes by hand with a few deft turns of the spatula. All this – the alternating, the hand mixing – is to develop the gluten in the flour as little as possible, to keep the cake light and tender.
The finished batter gets divided between three round pans. "A lot of pastry chefs bake their cakes in a big sheet pan," Uskokovic explains, "and then cut out circles from that." But he does it "the good old fashioned American way," with cake pans, so there’s no waste. The round pans also allow for a nifty, cake-saving trick: after smoothing the batter out, Uskokovic bangs the pan down a few times (to get rid of any air bubbles trapped in the bottom), then gives it a quick, forceful spin on the counter. Centrifugal force pushes the cake batter out from the middle of the pan and up the sides. Cakes usually rise more in the center than they do around the edges, but you can cancel out (or mostly cancel out) that effect by putting a concave cake into the oven. And if you don’t have to cut off the domed top of each layer, your cake will have more cake in it.
After about 20 minutes in the oven, the layers come out golden brown and perfectly flat. "You can tell by touching it if the cake is ready," explains Uskokovic. If it feels springy, it’s done, and you won’t have poked a hole in it to find out.
Meanwhile, Uskokovic makes the tuile that will cover the outside of the cake. "We don’t have an ice cream machine yet," he explains, "so we need an extra something" to make each slice interesting. The crunch of the tuile is that something.
He melts butter in a small pot, then pours in sugar, salt, pectin, and glucose syrup ("we don’t use corn syrup at all"). He stirs steadily until the mixture thickens, very quickly, into a pale yellow paste. He’s not making caramel here – that will happen in the oven – so he immediately throws in chopped hazelnuts and bits of crystallized praline, a sugary hazelnut paste often used in French pastries.
The whole thing globs together into a dense, sticky ball, which Uskokovic drops onto a Silpat-lined sheet pan with a thud. Using a spatula, he breaks it up and mashes it down as best he can, spreading the mixture out into craggy pancakes. In the oven, the sugars and butter will melt and flow into an even layer across the entire pan, then darken to a ruddy, toffee brown. While it’s baking, Tanaka occasionally pulls it out to stir the mixture, to keep the edges from burning, but when it comes out it’s perfectly flat and unbroken, and looks like the rocky bed of a river.
When the cakes and the tuile are cool, it’s time for the assembly. Uskokovic slices each layer in half, rotating as he cuts rather than going straight through to avoid accidentally slanted layers. Then he lines a cake pan with plastic wrap (for easy removal) and starts building the cake inside it to keep everything straight and clean.
On top of the first layer goes a glistening scoop of concord grape jam, made by cooking down grapes pureed with sugar and pectin. Once that’s spread out, down goes another cake layer. Uskokovic pipes a line of chocolate hazelnut buttercream around the edge of this layer. The ring of buttercream works like a rim, which helps him fill each layer with about the same amount of frosting every time. The buttercream is Italian-style, made by beating softened butter into billowy, marshmallow-y meringue, and it’s much more satiny and less sweet than its leaden, butter-and-powdered-sugar cousin. Uskokovic guesses they go through about 10 kilos of it a day.
On top of the next cake layer goes a layer of banana jam, made by caramelizing sugar, then cooking bananas in it just until they fall apart. Then another layer of cake, another layer of buttercream, another layer of cake, another spread of grape jam, and the final layer. The whole thing gets wrapped in plastic and put in the freezer, so that when it’s time for frosting the layers are immovable.
To frost it, Uskokovic puts the cake on a spinning cake stand and carefully spackles the top and then the sides with buttercream, eyeballing it closely for uneven spots. To give it a smooth, flawless finish, he heats the blade of a bench scraper with a blowtorch, then swipes it around the cake in one clean motion. The warmth of the blade melts the outside of the buttercream just enough to give it a sheen and erase any imperfections. Uskokovic repeats the process for the top, drawing strokes in towards the center of the cake.
Now, breaking the tuile into shards, he begins carefully shingling the sides of the cake, starting with a ring around the top edge and working his way down. When the sides are thoroughly covered, he dots the top with little Mars grapes, which taste a lot like Concords but won’t result in a mouthful of seeds.
Finished cakes are wrapped and chilled before being cut, so each slice comes out clean and un-smeared. A few pre-cut cakes come to room temperature before each service, so that the buttercream gets soft and the slices are ready to be served, along with a pour of Concord grape sauce and an extra scattering of tuile.
When Concord grape season winds down at the end of November, Uskokovic hopes to have enough jam frozen to last him through December. After that, he and Tanaka will have to come up with something else.