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butternut squash cake

Chefs show that cake isn’t just for birthdays

Cakes made with seasonal fall and winter ingredients gain popularity

The Butternut Squash Cake at DBGB DC in Washington, D.C. is nod to the pumpkin spice trend. Photo: DBGB DC.

Cake, which is often dismissed from dessert menus for being considered just for birthdays, is gaining popularity at restaurants.

This fall and winter, pastry chefs are using seasonal ingredients to create a variety of cakes that need no special occasion to be eaten.

“Cake makes people happy. It's very versatile and can be a canvas for so many ingredients,” said Rebecca Merhej, chef de cuisine and pastry chef of Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “You can play with interesting flours, or nuts, or different varieties of fruits with each season. It makes me want to bake a cake just thinking about all the options.”

At Love & Salt, an Italy-meets-California concept, and from her Instagram feed, Merhej is especially known for her custom layer cakes that can be ordered for celebrations outside the restaurant. But she also creates memorable cakes for the restaurant menu.

The Hazelnut Fig Cake at Love

​Merhej is particularly interested in highlighting comforting desserts that are crafted with seasonal ingredients. For instance, her current menu includes a warm Hazelnut Fig Cake made with house-ground almond and hazelnut flours and height-of-the-season figs, topped with whipped crème fraîche and powdered sugar.

At DBGB DC in Washington, D.C., pastry chef Erin Reed is serving a Butternut Squash Cake, a play on pumpkin spice without getting sucked into the trend that dominates dessert menus this time of year. The squash cake is accompanied by Dulcey white chocolate whipped ganache, vadouvan-roasted Honeycrisp apples and coconut sorbet, and is topped with a decorated Dulcey white chocolate disk and pomegranate foam.

“Cake is super versatile, and everyone knows what it is,” Reed said. “This particular version is for a plated restaurant dessert, but could easily be adapted for the home cook, and could stand alone as a layered cake. I would pair it with a cream cheese frosting and garnish with some toasted pecans, and serve it on a Thanksgiving buffet.”

At the soon-to-open Italienne in New York City, pastry chef Rebecca Isbell plans to menu her version of a Gateau Basque, a traditional brandied cherries and cream-filled cake from the Basque region of France, made with quince preserves. Isbell plans to change the flavor frequently, showcasing local farmer’s market finds.

The showpiece of pastry chef Joseph Kim’s current dessert menu at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood, Calif., is Cake in a Box, a large-format dessert for four or more customers served in a keepsake tin.

Inspired by his childhood, the current Cake in a Box flavor is spiced pumpkin with vanilla cream cheese icing, bearer anisette cream and fancifully decorated with maple syrup candied pecans, petit marzipan hidden under chocolate leaf and sugar "dew.” The previous flavor was a carrot cake with citrus cream cheese icing.

“Cake is love!” Kim said. “I am happy when my creation moves or touches the customer. I want to make the finale of their meal perfect.”

Also a huge fan of cake and making customers happy is Rachel Flatley, pastry chef of Townline BBQ and Rowdy Hall in East Hampton, N.Y.

Flatley is currently serving fresh takes on classic cakes using the season’s bounty of local Honeycrisp apples. At Rowdy Hall, she offers Halsey Farm Apple Sticky Cake, a take on traditional upside-down cake featuring cinnamon spice cake glazed in a maple brown sugar sauce with Halsey Farm apples and whipped cream. At Townline BBQ, she is serving Cinnamon Apple Cake, made with cinnamon-apple cake frosted in cinnamon-caramel buttercream frosting. Also at Townline BBQ, and in the spirit of cake as “the sign of a celebration,” she’s serving a Birthday Cake of yellow cake with a marshmallow buttercream and decorated with rainbow sugar crystals.

“There’s endless varieties and flavor options,” Flatley said. “Cake is one of the desserts that bring me the most joy because it brings my customers and clients the most joy.” 

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