The night my boyfriend shot the big 4-0, I walked into his living room holding a cake in my hands, while all of our friends were singing “Happy Birthday.” But the cake I put in front of him was not sweet. In fact, it was my own pastry take on the seven-layer dip, a campy summer classic and a dish that I thought would fit perfectly with the potluck theme of the evening. The cake was topped with crispy potato rings and we wolfed it down with tortilla chips, mezcal and leaf salad.
My toddler’s cake looks more like a fever dream than a real recipe, so play around with the layers inside. While this cake relies on kitchen staples — like canned refried beans, jarred salsa, and frozen toddlers — it would look just as spectacular with your own warm-weather favorites, like zucchini. sautéed, grilled eggplant, fresh corn or sweetened chopped peppers. It can also be made dairy-free and vegan in a snap. (Just substitute sour cream and cheese with your favorite dairy alternatives, or omit them altogether.)
As with the best layer cakes, your keys to success are time (the long rest in the refrigerator allows the ingredients to settle and blend) and texture (alternating wetter and drier ingredients gives the cake structural integrity). Don’t forget the decor up top – for this crucial last step, I like to go completely crazy with fresh flowers, herbs and citrus wheels.
Recipe: Toddler Cake
8 inch cake for 8 to 10 people
40 minutes active time; 2 hours idle time
You will need:
32 ounces frozen tater tots (I used 2 1-pound bags of organic “Spud Puppies” from Cascadian Farms)
1 cup cooked short grain rice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 ripe avocado
Kosher salt, to taste
Hot sauce, to taste
½ cup salsa in jar
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 cup fresh pico de gallo (see note)
1 cup refried black beans (see note)
1/4 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
Garnishes for decoration (such as thinly sliced jalapeños, red onion, lime, or torn radishes and edible flowers)
Large bag of corn chips, for dipping
Cook the tater tots according to package directions, but add an additional 10-15 minutes. (This makes them more crunchy and crunchy, which makes them more resistant to the final cake.) Cool completely and set aside.
Mix cooked rice and cilantro and set aside. Pour the inside of the avocado into a small bowl and mash it with the back of your fork. Add a pinch of kosher salt, a generous drizzle of lime juice and a dash of hot sauce. Cover and reserve.
Build the floor and the walls of the peg in a 9 inch springform cake pan (the kind you would make a cheesecake in), so you can easily remove the sides later. Arrange the cooled bites tightly in concentric rings covering the bottom of the cake pan. Then press the tots, as if you were laying logs, against the sides of the pan, until all the tots have been used up and the “walls” of the cake have been built. (A standard springform pan is about 4 tots high.)
Start building the layers of the cake. Start with the cilantro rice, pat it in the bottom of the pan and smooth it out with the back of a spoon. Pour the potted salsa on top. Spoon a spoonful of mashed avocado on top, spreading it to evenly cover. Spread grated cheddar cheese on top. Then, pour the fresh pico de gallo all over. Spoon a spoonful over the black bean mash, smoothing it evenly. And finally, spread the sour cream at the very top in a thin layer.
Transfer to the refrigerator and let the cake rest for at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day. When ready to serve, carefully wiggle the ring of the springform pan up and out of the cake, revealing the tater-tot walls. Decorate the sour cream surface with garnishes like lime wedges, radish pieces, or edible herbs and flowers. Eat immediately with plenty of crunchy corn chips to scoop. (Leftovers can be refrigerated, well wrapped, up to 2 days.)
Notes: I prefer to make my own refried black beans and pico de gallo as it gives me more control over the salt and acidity. To make your own bean purée, simmer a can of canned black beans (in their liquid) with a tablespoon of butter, a peeled clove of garlic and a few dashes of hot sauce in a small saucepan until thickened. until they have reduced and look sticky and thick, about 15 minutes. Leave to cool completely then mash coarsely with the back of a fork. Add a large pinch of kosher salt for seasoning. To make quick pico de gallo, roughly chop a cup of cherry tomatoes, a quarter of a medium-sized white onion, and half of a small jalapeño. Add the juice of a lime and a large handful of coarsely chopped cilantro. Add another pinch of kosher salt. Stir it and taste – it should be crisp, fresh and shiny.
Natasha Pickowicz is a Brooklyn-based professional chef and writer best known for her pastry pop-up Endless taste and she community bake sales, who have raised over $175,000 to date. Natasha’s first cookbook, which weaves baking recipes with stories of her family, social justice and food history, will be published by Artisan Books next spring. Find her on Instagram here.