For whatever reason, this recipe is nowhere to found in most Louisiana Creole/New Orleans cookbooks (never mind the Internet). Legend has it that the cake dates back to 1872, when the Grand Duke Alexis of Russian visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras (the song “If I Ever Cease to Love” was written for the very same occasion). The trifle is made with leftover pieces of cake, pie crust, muffins, and cookies which are moistened with a binder (in this case seedless raspberry jam, anise flavoring and rum). I have heard that the original Russian cake used vodka and not rum, but I am not able to verify that.
If you’ve never had one of these, it’s quite an experience for the senses. My grandparents used to get one of these every year for their birthdays (they were 2 days apart) from Mr. Lawrence’s Bakery (Mr. Wedding Cake) on Elysian Fields. My grandmother would come home with one of those pink bakery boxes and out would come this fragrant and colorful cake. It smells vaguely of licorice and something almost tropical. It’s also this very bright almost garish ruby red and the top is covered with white frosting and colorful sprinkles, you can imagine how appealing that is to a kid. I was only allowed a very small piece as a kid (I’m not sure if actual rum was used in Mr. Lawrence’s recipe, but my grandmother seemed to think so) and I loved every bite of it. This past March, I was reacquainted with Russian Cake when we were shopping at Dorignac’s in Metairie. G. and I split one piece before bed and apparently I tossed all night like a rotisserie chicken. I think it was worth it.
Russian Cake (Creole Trifle)
6-8 cups of diced cake pieces
1 box yellow or white cake mix (plus ingredients needed to bake this; will vary from brand to brand)
8 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam
1 to 1-1/2 cups white rum (will depend on amount of cake pieces)
1 teaspoon anise flavor (look for the real stuff)
red food coloring (just in case, my jam wasn’t red enough)
pre-made (or homemade) buttercream frosting
colored sprinkles (the spherical kind)
Mix rum, anise, jam and (optionally) the food color with a wire whisk until everything is well integrated; the alcohol in the rum helps dissolve the jam quickly so it shouldn’t be more than 30 seconds. Pour evenly over your cake pieces and place bowl in fridge for a few hours or overnight (covered). The more cake pieces you use for the inside, the denser and heavier the cake will be. The Russian cakes I remember weighed several pounds and seemed very heavy for their size. When ready to assemble cake, bake your boxed cake according to instructions in a 9-inch cake pan. When cool split the cake evenly down the middle. Place one half in a 9-inch springform pan (one used for cheesecakes) and “fill” with your soaked cake pieces. Try to get this even as possible. Place top layer over “filling” and cover with saranwrap, the plastic touching the top of the cake. I placed my cleaned cake pan over the top of this and weighed it down with jars from the fridge. The reason I did this was to make sure that the cake was flat, number one, but also I wanted some of the “juice” from the middle to seep into the top and bottom layer, thereby binding the cake together. Place in fridge overnight (make sure it’s covered). The next day, frost the top and cover with sprinkles. Voilå!