QUEEN OF CAKES : Simple can also be grand

Rose Dosti is a Times staff writer.

Anyone who has eaten at The Pasta Place in La Jolla will know that, despite its plebeian name, there is hardly more elegant or beautiful food to be had anywhere. Will Howard, the owner-chef, is an artist who cooks. Howard spent 15 years in the computer-telecommunications field before opening his deli, choosing the deliberately casual name as a spoof. His intent in opening the restaurant was self-entertainment, but soon his cooking gained fame and he was forced to add tables and set regular dining days and hours. Now, reservations are booked weeks in advance.

The beautiful lemon-filled sponge cake--called La Reina Nobile--pictured on the previous pages will offer some inkling of the chef's talent. But unlike most of the innovative and experimental cooking done by Howard, this cake has a past. It was, according to Howard, something he baked for his grandmother every Christmas since he was child.

Obviously, he was no ordinary child. Howard spent most of his childhood in Europe with his mother and artist father, who traveled wherever the spirit moved them. The family dined at the best tables in Venice, Lisbon, Vienna, London and Paris, and Howard learned to cook from his mother, who attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.

Although Howard's methodical nature drew him toward classical methods of cooking and presentation, the interpretation is strictly his own; he learned through experimentation and prides himself on being able to duplicate any taste. You will see, when you prepare La Reina Nobile, that it is easy enough to make. The trickiest part is in the mixing.

First, the egg yolks are combined with juices and dry ingredients. Then egg whites, beaten until fairly stiff but not too much so, are folded into the yolk mixture with a spatula to combine gently and thoroughly. The batter is then divided between two springform pans. Howard suggests using a small scale for dividing the mixture evenly, and he recommends cutting the cake layers while the cake is still slightly warm. LA REINA NOBILE

5 extra-large eggs, separated

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 cup flour, sifted 4 times

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Lemon Curd Filling

Powdered sugar

12 candied violets

Fresh strawberries, raspberries and blueberries

Fresh mint sprigs

Beat egg yolks until thick. Add 3/4 cup sugar and beat slightly. Add orange and lemon juices and blend well. Add flour, baking powder and salt and beat until well combined.

In separate bowl, beat egg whites until foamy and thick. Beat in remaining sugar until fairly stiff peaks form. Do not over-beat. Fold beaten egg whites into yolk mixture with rubber spatula. Combine gently but thoroughly. Spray bottom and sides of two 9-inch springform pans with vegetable spray. Fill each pan with exactly half the mixture. Bake at 325 degrees 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Place pan on wire rack and immediately run a thin paring knife gently around sides, then in a vertical motion, around cake. Carefully remove sides from pans. Let cakes cool 10 minutes.

Slice each cake in half horizontally. Place top layers cut sides up to cool completely. Remove bottom of each cake from springform pans and place cut sides up on wax paper.

To assemble, place one of the cake bottoms on a 12-inch round plate, cut side up. Spread about of the Lemon Curd Filling evenly over top of cake layer. Do not spread to rim of cake. Place another cake bottom over first cake layer and spread with half the remaining Lemon Curd Filling. Top with one of the cake tops. Spread with remaining filling. Top with final cake layer, browned side up.

To serve, sift powdered sugar over top of cake. Place 12 candied violets evenly around perimeter of cake. Surround cake with strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. Add mint sprigs for garnish. Lemon Curd Filling

6 egg yolks

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup cold unsalted butter

1 1/2 tablespoons minced lemon peel (lemon portion only)

Strain egg yolks into saucepan and beat slightly with wire whisk. Whisk in sugar until blended. Gradually stir in lemon juice. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with wire whisk until mixture coats back of wooden spoon or registers 168 degrees on candy thermometer. Do not boil. Remove from heat and whisk until slightly cooled, about 3 to 5 minutes. Cut cold butter into small bits and whisk a few bits at a time into yolk mixture until melted. Stir in lemon peel. Cool completely.

Note: Lemon Curd Filling can be made ahead and stored tightly covered in refrigerator for up to 1 week.




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