Last week, we were invited to a potluck called “Dinner of Lies.” The directive: bring a dish that looks like something other than what it actually is. I love a good food-challenge, and decided to scale a mountain that had been tempting me for a while. It was time to tackle the Swedish sandwich cake.
For those of you who don’t spend as much time falling down foodie rabbit holes as I do, the Swedish sandwich cake—or Smörgåstårta—is a savory cake where the layers are bread, the fillings are usually fishy, and the frosting is cream cheese. They’re elaborately (some might say garishly) decorated, the kind of thing you might have made for a blowout party in the 1970s. I decided to adapt that idea into a pretty, elegant cake…
…that’s actually a multi-layered sandwich.
This was a PROJECT. Here’s how I tackled it, one element at a time (with pictures!):
The cake layers
I started with two loaves of homemade sandwich bread, baked in 9-inch round cake pans rather than loaf pans. I chose the heartiest whole-wheat bread recipe I could find, since it needed to hold up under layers upon layers of creamy stuff. (If I ever do this again, I’ll use a lighter bread like this one, since the interior of the cake turned out a bit dry.)
I decided to make things easier on myself by spreading out the work over several days:
- The first day, I made the bread dough and let it rise overnight in the fridge.
- The next day, I baked the loaves and let them cool on a rack. Once they were completely cooled, I used a serrated knife to cut off the domed tops, then sliced each loaf in half horizontally to create 4 thin layers. I stacked the layers on a baking sheet with wax paper between them, then popped the whole thing in the freezer to keep the bread fresh.
- The day of the party, I took the bread-layers out of the freezer and assembled the cake while they were still frozen. By the time we were ready to eat, the layers had thoroughly thawed.
You could fill this cake with just about anything, but creamy fillings seem like they would hold everything together best. I chose three fillings that reminded me of tea sandwiches:
- Smoked salmon salad – A riff on this trusty old recipe. I flaked 6 oz of hot-smoked salmon (the firm stuff) into smallish pieces with a fork, then mixed it with 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 2 tbsp dijon mustard, a heaping 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill, 3 thinly sliced scallion tops, and the minced peel of one preserved lemon, plus salt and pepper to taste. (This layer was by far my favorite–the preserved lemon really made it.)
- Cucumber and cream cheese – I sliced one English cucumber on the diagonal, and tossed the slices in a colander with 1 tsp kosher salt. I let the colander drain in the sink for 30 minutes, then dried the cucumber pieces as thoroughly as I could with paper towels. Normally, I would have set aside 8 oz cream cheese to come to room temperature on the counter. But…see the next section for more details.
- Egg salad – I hard-boiled 8 large eggs in the Instant Pot (1 cup of water, eggs in a steamer basket, 4 minutes at low pressure, 5 minutes natural release, ice bath). After peeling the eggs, I grated them on the large holes of a box grater, then mixed the grated eggs with 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 2 tbsp whole-grain mustard, 3 thinly sliced scallion tops, and 2 tsp chopped fresh tarragon, plus salt and pepper to taste. (To me, this was the least successful layer–I should have used plain dijon mustard and cut way back on the tarragon.)
If I were an ordinary person, with an ordinary amount of patience, I would have mixed 16 oz room-temperature cream cheese with 1/2 cup (4 oz) Greek yogurt, plus salt and pepper to taste. But because one of the hosts of this party is mildly lactose-intolerant, I decided to make my own low-lactose cream cheese instead. Yes, I am ridiculous.
I took two 32-oz containers of full-fat Greek yogurt and dumped them into a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Then I refrigerated the whole thing overnight, and 12 hours later I had a strainer full of thick, softly spreadable, slightly tangy yogurt cheese! I seasoned my “cream cheese” with salt (I was going to add some white pepper, but I forgot) and used it for the cucumber layer as well as the frosting.
If you Google “Swedish sandwich cake,” you’ll find photo after photo of riotous decorations. Smoked salmon roses! Ham and cheese cigars! Baby shrimp! Chopped herbs! Cherry tomatoes! Cucumbers! Radishes! Hard-boiled eggs!
Though I was tempted by these, my cake decorating abilities fall firmly in the category of “Pinterest fail.” Plus, I wanted to make the exterior of this cake as deceptive as possible. So I decided to use edible flowers: nasturtiums, borage, and chive blossoms, picked from the garden of a generous friend. (Full disclosure: I enlisted my husband to do the actual decorating, since he has an eye for food styling and I really, really don’t.)
Putting it all together
To assemble the cake, I started by putting a smear of cream cheese in the center of the plate, to keep everything anchored. I put down one bread layer and spread over the salmon salad. I added a second bread layer and spread over a layer of cream cheese, then lay down the cucumber pieces, followed by another layer of cream cheese. I added a third bread layer and spread over the egg salad, then placed the final bread layer on top.
After assembling the cake, I “frosted” it with the remaining cream cheese, then popped it in the fridge for a few hours to let everything meld and firm up. When we arrived at the party, I pulled out my baggie of edible flowers and called Sam over to decorate. Then we set the thing on the table and watched people’s eyes bug out of their heads.
And there you have it. The monstrosity that is the sandwich cake. I can’t say I’ll be doing this again, but it was great fun to waltz into a party with it.