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Tropical cake is a tribute to Mama D

Tropical Twist Cream Cake is soaked with rum syrup and layered with citrus cream. Photo by Sue Doeden1 / 2
Put the Tropical Twist Cream Cake together with a thick layer of fluffy citrus cream in the center and on top. Photo by Sue Doeden2 / 2

I was feeling sad and nostalgic as I pulled Mama D's Homestyle Italian Cookbook from the shelf. I had just heard of her death.

Giovanna D'Agostino, known as Mama D, owned a restaurant in the Dinkytown area of Minneapolis for many years. As newlyweds, my husband and I ate at her restaurant, enjoying wonderful Italian meals. In 1975, I received Mama D's newly published cookbook as a Mother's Day gift. She signed the book with a message to me: "To Sue, Love is the main ingredient for any menu, especially life. Love, Mama D."

As I paged through the book, I stopped at all the recipes I had marked with a penned check of blue ink. I noticed I had made her Everybody Loves Lasagne menu - Baked Lasagne with homemade sauce and filling, Romaine Salad, Parmesan Garlic Bread and Sicilian Fruit Plate. It brought back memories of friends seated around our oak pedestal table, joining my husband and me and our toddler-aged son for an Italian meal.

I decided I would prepare one of Mama D's recipes in her memory. I chose Italian Rum Cake. With a half dozen eggs, a little sugar and flour and some fresh citrus juice along with rum flavoring, this recipe that I'd never tried sounded like a sponge cake. I'm sure back in the '70's the thought of folding beaten egg whites into an egg-yolk batter was a bit intimidating to me. With cookbook in hand, I headed to the kitchen.

First, the eggs. Yolks and whites are easiest to separate from one another when the eggs are cold. Egg whites will beat up with more volume when they are at room temperature. So if you have time, allow the whites to warm up for about 30 minutes.

Mama D's recipe uses fresh lemon and orange juices to flavor the cake. I chose to use lime rather than lemon for a hint of tropical flavor. The recipe calls for cake flour. Milled from soft wheat, it gives cakes high volume and fine texture.

Use a gentle folding motion with a rubber spatula to incorporate the beaten whites into the yolk mixture. Aim to keep the batter light and fluffy.

After the cake cools in the pan, you can serve it as Mama D suggests, with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. But here is where I give the cake a twist. With a long serrated knife, I slice the cake in half. Sweet, rummy syrup gets brushed over the layers. Allow the syrup time to seep into the cake, using the entire amount. Then put the cake together with a thick layer of fluffy Citrus Cream in the center and on top. Store Tropical Twist Cream Cake, covered, in the refrigerator. I like to let it sit out at room temperature for about half an hour before serving.

So, here's to you, Mama D. Your Italian Rum Cake made with a tropical twist and lots of love in memory of your 94 years of life.

Tropical Twist Cream Cake


6 eggs, separated

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice

2 teaspoons rum extract

1 cup cake flour

Pinch of salt

Rum Syrup:

1/4 cup light or dark rum or 1 tablespoon rum extract

1/3 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

Citrus Cream:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

Grated zest of 1 lime

Grated zest of 1 orange

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1/2 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 pint heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit into the bottom of the pan. Butter the parchment paper. Set pan aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat egg yolks until thick. Add sugar, juices and rum extract. Continue to beat the mixture until well blended. Sift flour twice. Add flour gradually to the bowl, beating at low speed until the flour is incorporated into the batter.

In another bowl, beat egg whites until frothy. Add a pinch of salt and continue to beat the whites until stiff. Fold some of the egg whites into the yolk mixture, using a gentle touch. When the whites have been folded in, add the remaining whites and continue to fold them gently into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until cakes tests done when a wooden skewer is inserted into the center. Cool the cake in the pan.

To make the Rum Syrup, mix rum, water and sugar in a small saucepan and place over medium heat. When the mixture just begins to bubble, remove from heat. Continue to stir until sugar is dissolved. Set the mixture aside to cool.

To make Citrus Cream, cut butter into pieces and place in a heavy saucepot. Add lime and orange zest, juices and sugar. Place pot over moderate heat. Stir until butter melts and mixture just begins to simmer. Remove from heat. In a bowl, whisk eggs together until light and frothy. Gradually add hot liquid, whisking constantly. When mixture is well blended, pour back into saucepot. Whisk constantly over moderate heat until the mixture thickens and just begins to bubble. Pour citrus curd through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl. Cool slightly. Place waxed paper directly on top of the curd. Chill thoroughly.

Whip 2 cups of heavy whipping cream until stiff peaks form. Gradually fold the whipped cream into the cooled citrus curd.

Assemble cake: Remove cake from pan. Using a long serrated knife, slice cake into two layers. Position bottom layer, cut side up, on cake platter. Brush the cut surface generously with Rum Syrup. Place a layer of Citrus Cream over the surface. Place remaining cake layer on top of the Citrus Cream, cut side down. Brush the top of the cake with Rum Syrup. Spread Citrus Cream over the top.