I have a very large and scary birthday coming up in two weeks. Last fall I pledged to lose twenty pounds to confront it and, while I did manage to lose 8 pounds, I am painfully aware that I fell short of my goal. I think I will drown my sorrows in birthday cake.
I have always liked making cakes and am surprised by how many people who otherwise like to cook think cakes are too scary or too hard and resort to mixes. Mixes taste nasty. They taste like salt and metal and baking soda. Even a failed homemade cake that barely rises is better than cake mix.
The best part about making birthday cakes is that you get to decorate them. Birthday cakes are a lot like jack-o-lanterns; you can take out a stencil you bought at the store and produce a perfect witch flying across a night sky, or you can give the pumpkin a jagged mouth full of dangling seeds, a carrot nose, garlic-head ears and six eyebrows. My birthday cakes tend toward the latter.
For many years I made my each of my three sons a pirate cake for his birthday. It was a family tradition that sprang from the fact that I found some cool looking pirate cake toppers. We have always eaten healthy food, much of it home grown, but we part ways from the food police at whole grain birthday cakes. Although I am not big on food coloring, I make an exception for birthday cakes, so the pirates were usually on a sandy yellow beach on a green island rising from the blue and white sea, digging into the chocolate earth to bury their ill-gotten gain. But after ten years of so of pirates, I got bored and busted out with a 15 layer cake for Rudi’s 15th birthday. The layers were flatish and overcooked, and the whole thing listed alarmingly, but no body cared.
I went to a chemistry lecture on baking a few months after I made the 15 layer cake and found that the problem was that I mixed all my batter at once. While I baked the layers in batches, the baking powder fizzled and died in the batter, leaving the last batches of cake more pancake-like than fluffy.
- The time from the mixer into the oven is critical because you want to maximize air space inside your cake and if you take too long, the air spaces collapse.
- Beating the batter, but not overbeating it, is critical.
- Beating your egg whites separately and folding them in gently is critical.
- The salt is critical.
- Cake flour is critical.
Cake batter is serious business, but frosting is forgiving and can cover your sins. I opt for simple, non-cooked frosting. While I like cooked icing, and absolutely adore cream cheese frosting, I use a no-nonsense, straight-forward butter frosting that can be made stiff or runny depending on how much milk you add. I divide the frosting into batches and mix the colors I want in separate bowls using food coloring I buy in the supermarket. Some frosting gets layered on with a frosting spatula, some gets piped on through a plastic bag with a corner snipped off. No fancy equipment needed. Sprinkles are optional, depending on your design.
My granddaughter and I make cakes together almost every time she comes to visit, birthday or not, and no matter how critical I feel about the results, she always likes them. Cakes I make with her tend to be heavy on the sprinkles and bristle with candles, even if it no one’s birthday. It is an intergenerational art project.
I am not sure what kind of cake I will have for my birthday, but I will probably bake and decorate it myself. Maybe I will make it look like a social security check. Or maybe like an old lady with wrinkles and white hair. Or maybe just chocolate with nuts, a true adult cake.
This is a basic yellow cake recipe that almost always works. I wrote down this recipe years ago and don’t remember where I got it.
The recipe is for a three layer cake. Once the cake layers are completely cool, you can frost the top of the bottom layer, then plop the middle layer on top of it and frost the top of the middle layer. Once the top layer is added, frost the sides, then frost the top and smooth over any irregularities as needed. You can also cut up one of the layers and use it to make odd shaped pieces, like caves or ears or lolling tongues. Or you can bake the cake in one 9 by 13 sheet pan for around 30 minutes and decorate the top of it as you wish. If you use glass pans, reduce the heat by 25 degrees.
RECIPE: YELLOW CAKE
- 2 2/3 cup cake flour
- 2 ¼ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup milk
- 4 egg whites
Prepare three nine-inch round cake pans by buttering the bottom and sides, then dusting the pans with flour. Knock any excess flour out of the pans and into your compost bucket. If you prefer, you can cut out circles of parchment paper to cover the bottoms of the pans after you butter and dust the sides. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Sift flour, baking powder and salt together and set aside. Using a mixer, cream butter at medium speed until soft, then gradually beat in sugar and cream until light. Beat in egg yolks one at a time.
Add vanilla. On medium-low speed, add flour mixture to butter mixture in three parts, alternating with milk. Stir the batter until smooth after each addition, but do not stir more than that. Total mixing time once you start adding the flour should be no more than two minutes.
Whip egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff but not dry. Gently fold them into the batter by hand.
Divide batter evenly into the pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes until tops of the layers are light brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle of the layer comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pans to a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.
RECIPE: VANILLA BUTTERCREAM FROSTING
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- 4 cups confectioner’s sugar
- 6 tablespoons milk or cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Cream the butter with a mixer, gradually work in the sugar, alternating with the milk, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. If too thick add a little more milk, one teaspoon at a time. If too thin, refrigerate it for awhile.