If you’ve spent time in Evanston, Illinois (or if you haven’t), you may know (or you may not know) that there’s an unassuming (just like me!) café on Noyes Street called Fraîche. Despite my refusal to speak the restaurant’s name aloud – I feel like a dweeb attempting the French pronunciation, but neither will I be the tacky redneck calling it “Fraysh” – it’s one of my favorite places to eat in the Chicago area. The food is rustic yet vaguely gourmet, and the menu rotates frequently to incorporate seasonal ingredients. I’ve had any number of noteworthy meals there – an oozing brie, pear and arugula panini springs to mind, as does a pretzel croissant (!) topped with a runny egg, roasted red peppers and tarragon aioli – but true as my teeth are sweet, what keeps me coming back like a repressed gay cowboy is the pastry case.
Specifically, the carrot cake. Three moist, mildly spiced layers, each groaning beneath roughly an inch of tangy cream cheese frosting. (Should you be in the neighborhood, the chocolate toffee scone, the pumpkin whoopie pie or Fraîche’s homemade take on the Twix bar probably won’t ruin your life, either. Wait, is this a Yelp review? Love me some Fraysh.)
Though cupcakes may have served as an effective gateway drug in my days as an amateur eater – I like to think of myself as at least a green belt these days – I’ve deduced over time that the layer cake possesses the most flawless ratio known to confectionery. It’s cake as nature intended it: happily wedded to frosting, but with enough of each element that the individual personalities still shine through. There’s no clear imbalance of power, like TomKat. It’s not inseparably fused, like Brangelina. Just mutually kickass. Like Will and Jada.
Please adopt me, Smith family. I just want to be part of your world.
There’s a problem with my layer cake habit: it ain’t cheap. At $5 a slice, springing for bakery goods on a regular basis is hardly cost-effective, particularly given that I typically have the ingredients on hand to make my own. But there’s a problem with making my own: I can’t eat an entire layer cake. And while I regularly pawn off cookies and brownies on unsuspecting friends, lovers, co-workers and strangers (you’d be amazed how many people demand samples on public transportation. Where did these fools go to kindergarten?), there’s something about the heft and fussiness of a straight up cake that’s not as easily shared in the absence of a celebratory event.
Here’s an event that I think demands celebrating: it’s Thursday.
Enter my new obsession. The TLC (Tiny Layer Cake). If you thought this post was on a fast train toward a recipe for carrot cake, feel free to deboard now (though I will direct you to one here, perfectly scaled to TLC proportions). This isn’t a recipe so much as a method for making your life and your cake ratios more consistently satisfactory. Because I’m a caring person. And I never want you to choke down a dry, underfrosted cupcake again.
The TLC’s secret weapon? The four-ounce ramekin. You can use a muffin pan, but your TLC will come out slightly conical. Maybe you’re into that. I don’t judge. But lest you think I’d bully you into buying a specialty dish only suitable for one purpose (yep, this is what bullying feels like), stop it. I’ll post another ramekin-ready recipe that’s more suitable for everyday use next week.
So here’s your agenda for today. Buy, beg, borrow or steal your way to two four-ounce ramekins. Lurk it on the site linked above, or just whip up a quarter-batch of your favorite cupcake recipe (you know you can beat an egg and then only use part of it, right? Save the rest for when your next TLC craving hits). When your cakelets emerge from the oven in all their jumbo muffin-esque glory, let them cool completely before lopping off the tops to create even layers. Immediately consume said tops to ensure you didn’t, you know, double the baking soda or something otherwise unforgivable (I call this “having your cake and eating your muffin tops, too!”).
Assemble. Frost. Decorate. Devour. Unfortunately, this TLC doesn’t subscribe to Left Eye’s “No Scrubs” philosophy, so you’ll probably want to do your dishes as well.
Voila! Layer cake. Don’t fork over your cash to put a fork in it.
TLC, I wish I knew how to quit you.