The night my boyfriend turned the big 4-0, I walked into his living room holding a cake in my hands, while all our friends sang “Happy Birthday.” But the cake I put down in front of him wasn’t sweet. In fact, it was my own pâtissière spin on the seven-layer dip, a campy summertime classic, and a dish that I thought would fit in perfectly with the potluck theme of the night. The cake was covered in rings of crispy tater tots, and we gobbled it up with tortilla chips, along with mezcal and a leafy salad.
My tots cake feels more like a fever dream than a real recipe, so please play around with the layers inside. While this cake relies on kitchen staples — like canned refried beans, jarred salsa, and frozen tots — it would be just as show-stopping with your own favorite warm-weather produce, like sautéed zucchini, grilled eggplant, fresh corn, or chopped sweet peppers. It can be made dairy free and vegan in a pinch, too. (Just substitute the 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 fridge allows ingredients to settle and meld) and texture (alternating wetter and drier ingredients gives the cake structural integrity). Don’t forget the decor on top — for that crucial last step, I like to go absolutely nuts with fresh flowers, herbs, and wheels of citrus.
Recipe: Tots Cake
8-inch cake serves 8 to 10
40 minutes active time; 2 hours inactive time
32 ounces frozen tater tots (I used 2 1-pound bags of Cascadian Farms organic “Spud Puppies”)
1 cup cooked short grain rice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 ripe avocado
Kosher salt, to taste
Hot sauce, to taste
½ cup jarred salsa
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 decorating (like thinly sliced jalapeños, red onion, lime, or radishes, and torn edible flowers)
Big bag of corn chips, for dipping
Bake the tater tots according to package instructions, but add an extra 10 to 15 minutes. (This makes them extra crunchy and crisp, which holds up better in the final cake.) Let cool completely and set aside.
Combine the cooked rice and cilantro and set aside. Spoon the inside of the avocado into a small bowl and mash with the back of your fork. Add a pinch of kosher salt, a big squeeze of lime juice, and a dash of hot sauce. Cover and set aside.
Build the tater tot floor and walls in a 9-inch springform cake pan (the kind you’d make a cheesecake in), so you can easily remove the sides later. Tightly arrange the cooled tots into concentric rings covering the bottom of the cake pan. Then press the tots, like laying logs, against the sides of the pan, until all of the tots have been used and the “walls” of the cake have been constructed. (A standard springform pan is about 4 tots tall.)
Begin building the layers of the cake. Start with the cilantro rice, patting it into the bottom of the pan and smoothing it with the back of a spoon. Spoon the jarred salsa on top. Dollop the mashed avocado on top, spreading it out to cover evenly. Scatter the grated cheddar cheese on top. Next, spoon the fresh pico de gallo all over. Dollop on the mashed black beans, smoothing it down evenly. And finally, spread the sour cream on the very top in a thin layer.
Transfer to the fridge and let the cake rest for at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day. When ready to serve, carefully wiggle the springform ring up and off the cake, revealing the tater-tot walls. Decorate the sour cream surface with garnishes like lime wedges, coins of radish, or herbs and edible flowers. Eat immediately with plenty of crunchy corn chips for scooping. (Leftovers can be refrigerated, wrapped tightly, for up to 2 days.)
Notes: I prefer to make my own refried black beans and pico de gallo because it gives me more control over the salt and acidity. To make your own mashed beans, simmer a can of canned black beans (in their liquid) with a tablespoon of butter, a peeled garlic clove, and a few dashes of hot sauce in a small sauce pot until they’ve reduced and look tacky and thick, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely then roughly mash with the back of a fork. Add a big pinch of kosher salt to season. To make fast 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 big handful of roughly chopped cilantro. Add another pinch of kosher salt. Stir it up and taste — it should feel zippy and fresh and bright.
Natasha Pickowicz is a professional chef and writer based in Brooklyn, best known for her pastry pop-up Never Ending Taste and her community bake sales, which have raised over $175,000 to date. Natasha’s debut 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.