yellow birthday cake with chocolate frosting

This blog does seem to have an overarching plot arc, with my blossoming love for JM tracing a fortuitous parallel to foible-rich adventures in the kitchen. And, like any almost-two-year narrative, it also features a few subplots.

One prominent secret menu sideline, as some of my more frequent visitors may have noticed, is this whole issue of baking. Baking, in the secret menuverse, is a metaphor for insecurity. My failures as a baker have been alluded to frequently in past posts, often in connection to my lack of precision and general impatience. Baking is the thing I repeatedly claim that I cannot do, despite only three noteworthy blunders to substantiate that claim and a rapidly growing mound of gluten-packed evidence to the contrary.

So let’s just get it all out on the table, shall we?

When I was in college, I made my brother a birthday cake from scratch. It was exquisitely decorated but tasted awful, because I used all-purpose flour instead of cake flour. This cake debuted at a party. Other details of this trauma are features in my post on whole wheat crepes.

Later, when I was in graduate school, I made a chocolate cake for my immediate and extended family during a holiday gathering. It tasted awful, because I used whole wheat flour instead of cake flour. This cake debuted in a garbage can, but only after an epic kitchen meltdown that made my mother laugh her herself halfway to an asthma attack.

Finally, when I was making a meal for Canadian Thanksgiving (yes, sometimes I celebrate Thanksgiving twice), I made an apple pie with a cardboard crust. It wasn’t actual cardboard – I’d just used extra water instead of extra butter to bind the flour. You could have cracked some heads on that crust, let alone teeth. So, after I’d spent hours telling my friend that I make the greatest apple pie ever, I was almost responsible for shattering his incisors.

Yet all the while, amidst these disasters, I have baked several loaves of bread, a few pies, and even a couple of pastries (though often with the assistance of friends). I can also make a mean chocolate-chip cookie – secret ingredient: one whole bottle of vanilla extract per batch – if I do say so myself. So why all the baking defeatism? Why the refusal to just get back on the cake ‘n’ pie horse and go for a little trot around the park?

It’s simple, really: I expect myself to be instantly good at everything without making any mistakes or getting any help, and when I’m not an instant genius I redefine myself as a person who is irrevocably bad at whatever thing I just tried.

Luckily, I live in a world that does not support this line of reasoning. In fact, my world – in the guise of various individuals who appear at decisive moments – regularly tells me that I can do all sorts of stuff once I stop whining about how I can’t do it. And this past week, that more rational world collided with my deepest insecurities in the form of a lovely young woman I met at a potluck a few years back and who emailed me last Friday, out of the blue, wondering if I could bake a cake for a birthday party.

I won’t go into the particulars of why this young woman – who happens to be the author of the wonderful food blog, Fattractive – thought I might be able to successfully bake and decorate a cake. The point is that, upon reading her email, I made up my mind to say No, No Way. There’s No Way I can bake a cake. I am a terrible baker. So I hit ‘reply’ and starting typing this, yet, despite my best efforts, it came out like: Yes. Absolutely Yes. I can definitely bake and decorate a birthday cake by Sunday night.

Sometimes the hands know what the mind can never grasp. Because, really, I can totally bake and decorate a cake. Who am I kidding? If every other recipe blogger on the internet can make a cake, I can gosh darn make a gosh darn cake. Even if it takes me three days. Which it did.

Yellow Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen
(makes one 9-inch round layer cake)

Cake Ingredients & Supplies:
-2 9-inch cake pans
-a hand mixer (or stand mixer)
-wax paper or parchment
-a long serrated knife
-cling wrap
-cooking spray (or extra butter)
-4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (480 grams) cake flour, not self-rising
-2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder
-1 1/2 teaspoons (around 8 grams) baking soda
-1 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt
-2 sticks (1 cup, 1/2 pound or 225 grams) unsalted butter, softened
-2 cups (400 grams) sugar
-2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract
-4 large eggs, at room temperature
-2 cups buttermilk (475 ml), well-shaken

Day 1: Figure out the game plan. Are we making two layers? Three layers? What flavors are we talking about, here, anyway? Since I was working on commission, a lot of the heavy lifting had already been done by my patroness: I needed to make a basic 9-inch round yellow cake with chocolate frosting and a spider web drawn on top. Once we decided on the type of spider web (as you can imagine, a Google image search yields endless options), all I needed to do was borrow an extra cake pan from my neighbor and purchase ingredients.

Day 2: Make the cake. This requires taking the butter out of the fridge as soon as you wake up so that it can soften before you start baking. You can also cut 9-inch circles out of parchment paper, which you’ll place in the pans later on. Once the butter is soft, you’re ready to preheat the oven to 350°F and douse the pans in cooking spray. Place the parchment circles in the bottoms of the pans and spray again.

Now mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a mixing bowl. In your stand mixer (or in a large bowl, using a hand mixer), beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until creamy. Add the vanilla, and then one egg at a time, still mixing on medium. Scrape down the bowl from time to time, if you can remember to do it. Slow the speed to low and add in the buttermilk (warning: this makes the batter look disgusting), mixing until it’s just blended. Now add the dry ingredient mixture, one cup at a time, until the batter is smooth. Pour the batter into your pans, and bake until a wooden toothpick stuck into the center of the cake comes out clean. This took my oven about 40 minutes to accomplish.

When the cakes are done, let them cool completely. If you’re ready to get a-frostin’, proceed to Day 3 (below). If not, invert each cake on to a piece of cling wrap, still attached to the roll, and carefully turn it until it’s covered by at least three layers of plastic. No cake should be exposed to air! Your cake should be prepared to fall in the ocean, okay? If you plan on frosting your cake within a day or two, just leave the wrapped layers out on the counter at room temperature (as long as it’s not insanely hot outside). If you don’t plan on frosting that puppy any time in the near future, stick ’em in the freezer and allow a full day to defrost before doing any decorating.

Day 3: Frosting!

Frosting Ingredients & Supplies:
-A stand mixer or food processor
-a large freezer bag and a pair of scissors
-a frosting spreader spatula (or a large, broad knife)
-a 10- or 11-inch round piece of clean cardboard (you can wrap it in aluminum foil or parchment if you’re extra hygienic like me)
-3 sticks of unsalted butter, softened (about 350 grams)
-6 tbs half and half or milk
1 tbsp vanilla extract
-4 1/2 cups of confectioner’s sugar (450 grams)
-6 ounces of unsweetened baker’s chocolate, melted and cooled

This is the easiest thing ever: blend the butter, milk, vanilla, and sugar together at medium speed. Voila! You have white frosting. Take a generous scoop of it out and place it gently in the bottom corner of a freezer bag. Press the air out of the bag and seal it. Voila! You have white frosting to write a name and draw goofy pictures on the top of the chocolate frosting you are about to make. I love typing “Voila!”

Now, this is important: above I listed “melted and cooled” unsweetened chocolate among the frosting ingredients. Melting and cooling, in this case, refers to melting the chocolate in a double boiler and then putting it aside to cool while you start making the frosting. Do not use a microwave, lest you end up with a congealed mess. Anyway, got your chocolate ready? Drizzle it into the rest of the white frosting in the stand mixer bowl, and mix away. You now have some of the most delicious chocolate frosting literally at your fingertips, so try not to eat it all before it gets on the cake.

So remember that long serrated knife you took out yesterday when you were making the cake, because I told you that you needed one? Well, actually, you need it today, because you need to turn your dome-topped cakes into flat layers. If your cakes are still in their pans, you’re all set – if you wrapped them, unwrap them and pop one of them back in the pan. Notice how flat the top of the pan is, due to the marvels of mass production. This flat top will be your guide as you slowly and carefully glide the knife across the top of the cake, decapitating it to form a semi-flat surface. Do this to both cakes.

Center the bottom layer (decapitated side up) on the cardboard round and spackle it with chocolate frosting right up to the edge, making as even a layer as you can manage. Next, gently center the top layer (decapitated side down) on the frosting, making a nice sharp edge.

Youtube is full of helpful videos explaining how to frost a cake, so I’ll keep my directions simple and then you can go look for more details on your own. Basically, the goal is to create as smooth a surface as possible with the chocolate frosting. My secret weapon here was a round wooden serving board with feet that I could turn easily while I spread on the frosting, making it pretty darn smooth considering my lack of professional baking supplies. Once the chocolate frosting is on, go crazy with the decorating: snip a tiny bit of plastic off the white frosting-filled corner of the freezer bag and pipe it on. If it’s not perfect, so what? It’s a homemade cake. Don’t be so hard on yourself! It’s not like the thing is going to survive for more than a few minutes out in public, anyway.

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