Yield: 12 to 15 servings
6 cups granulated sugar plus more for rolling cranberries, divided
2½ cups cranberries, divided
Sparkling sugar, for rolling cranberries
11 large egg whites, room temperature, divided
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature, divided
1½ pounds (6 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2¾ cups sifted cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
Zest of a whole orange
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped into half-and-half
2 cups half-and-half, divided
¼ cup cornstarch
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons plus 4 teaspoons Grand Marnier, divided
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 /3 cup cool water
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice
2 cups sliced almonds
1. For the sugared cranberries, begin at least 1 day ahead: Make a simple syrup by bringing 1 cup water and 1 cup granulated sugar just to a simmer in a medium saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Let the syrup cool for a few minutes; then pour over 1 cup of the cranberries in a heat-proof bowl (if the syrup is too hot, the cranberries will burst). Cover and refrigerate overnight.
2. The next day, drain the cranberries well and toss them with sparkling sugar or other medium-grain sugar until they are well-coated. Do this in small batches so the sugar doesn’t get too wet. Place the coated cranberries on a baking sheet to dry at room temperature for a few hours. Toss cranberries a second time with granulated sugar; this will fill in any bare or sticky spots on the cranberries. Let dry another hour.
3. For the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 2-inch dot of cooking spray in center of 3 (8-inch) cake pans and line bottoms with parchment paper (cut circles to fit); spray a 2-inch dot of cooking spray in center of parchment. Set aside.
4. In small bowl, mix 5 egg whites and ¼ cup of the buttermilk. Set aside. In a mixing bowl, beat ½ pound (2 sticks) of the butter and 1¾ cups of the granulated sugar until creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in 2 tablespoons of the vanilla extract. Add in cake flour, baking powder and kosher salt, and mix until combined. Slowly add in egg white mixture. Beat in remaining ¾ cup buttermilk for 1 to 2 minutes until fluffy. Pour evenly into prepared cake pans. Bake about 25 to 28 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean with a few clinging crumbs. Remove and cool in cake pans 5 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack and cool completely before frosting. Cake can be made 1 to 2 days before serving, wrapped at room temperature in plastic wrap.
5. For the pastry cream: In a small saucepan, combine scraped orange zest, vanilla bean, 1½ cups of the half-and-half and ½ cup of the granulated sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking to dissolve the sugar. In a medium mixing bowl, combine a pinch of salt, the ¼ cup cornstarch, the egg yolks and the remaining ½ cup of half-and-half, and whisk well.
6. Remove the half-and-half mixture from the heat and add some of the hot liquid to the egg yolk mixture while constantly whisking. Add the egg mixture to the pan with the remaining half-and-half and bring to a brisk simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly. Once the mixture thickens, immediately remove from heat and whisk in the cold butter. Stir in 2 teaspoons of the Grand Marnier. Press the mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl. Discard any solids. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the pastry cream and transfer to the refrigerator to keep cold until ready to use. This pastry cream can be made 1 to 2 days before serving.
7. For the berry filling: Add 1½ cups of the cranberries, ¾ cup of the granulated sugar and ¼ cup water to a saucepan and heat until the berries are soft and begin to pop, about 8 minutes. Transfer to food processor and puree until smooth. Combine the 1/3 cup water and 1 tablespoon cornstarch in a cup. Return the berry puree to the pan, add the cornstarch mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring consistently until mixture thickens and comes to a boil, about 5 minutes. Boil for 1 minute, then remove from heat. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. This berry filling can be made 1 to 2 days before serving.
8. For the simple syrup: Bring ½ cup water and ½ cup granulated sugar to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of the Grand Marnier. Set aside to cool. This syrup can be made 1 to 2 days before serving.
9. For the frosting: In bowl of stand mixer, combine remaining 6 egg whites, remaining 1½ cups granulated sugar and a pinch of salt. Place over a pan of simmering water and whisk continuously until temperature reaches 160 degrees on a candy thermometer and the sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes. (If you don’t have a thermometer, the mixture should feel smooth when rubbed between your fingers). Attach bowl to mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Starting on low speed and gradually increasing to medium-high, whisk until stiff peaks form and mixture is fluffy and glossy, about 10 minutes. The bowl should no longer feel warm to the touch. Switch to paddle attachment, and with mixer on medium speed, add remaining 1 pound (4 sticks) butter a few tablespoons at a time, mixing well after each addition. Continue mixing until icing is smooth and silky, about 10 to 15 minutes.
10. Add remaining 2 teaspoons vanilla, remaining 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier and orange juice, and mix until well-combined. If the icing looks curdled, continue mixing and it will return to a silky texture. If it is too runny, simply refrigerate it for 15 to 20 minutes and then mix it again until it comes together into smooth mixture.
11. To assemble cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Add sliced almonds to a baking sheet and toast them until light golden brown, about 7 to 8 minutes, stirring periodically. Remove from oven and cool completely. Place 1 layer on the cake board or serving plate and brush about ¼ cup simple syrup over top. Pipe a ring of frosting around edge and fill center with ¾ cup or less of pastry cream, smoothing out with an offset spatula. Top with ¼ cup berry filling, smoothing carefully over the pastry cream and trying not to mix them. Place second cake layer on top and repeat steps. Top with third layer and brush with syrup. Cover cake with a thin coat of frosting. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
12. Cover cake completely with frosting, making sides smooth. Press the cooled, toasted almonds into the sides, working from top to bottom. Make swirls and dips in icing on top of cake and then decorate with almond-cranberry flowers: Place a sugared cranberry 1 inch in from the edge of the cake all around perimeter. Poke pointed end of sliced almonds around the berry on an angle to look like a daisy petal. Add some berry-nut flowers to center of cake, as desired.
13. Keep cake refrigerated. Remove from refrigerator an hour before you plan to serve to allow frosting to soften.
Per serving: 970 calories; 50g fat; 25g saturated fat; 154mg cholesterol; 10g protein; 132g carbohydrate; 84g sugar; 2g fiber; 386mg sodium; 155mg calcium.
Nutrition analysis calculated for 15 servings.
Recipe by Ellen Trovillion