Sunday, November 29, 2009

Experimental Birthday Cake

Rebecca: We must be the only bloggers not posting pumpkin recipes.
Sarah: That's because pumpkin is gross.
Rebecca: True.

So if you were wondering why we weren't posting pumpkin recipes, there's your answer.

And now a story: last November, came time for my friend Melissa's birthday. I gave her the choice of a couple of cakes, and she picked one that had a meringue topping. I was still pretty skittish about meringue at the time, and that combined with my ghetto baking made for kind of a disastrous result - namely, an undercooked cake, topped with meringue...that had a heat coil imprint on it from being too close to the top of the oven. Oy.

So for Melissa's birthday this year, I wanted to make a simple but delicious cake, and thus I tried a little experiment. I didn't have a recipe off the top of my head, and so I just looked up "birthday cake recipe" on Google and picked the first result. (Okay, not the first - the first was from AllRecipes, which is wonderful but I worried would be too hit-or-miss for someone else's birthday cake, and the second was from Wilton, so I picked the third result.) It came from Smitten Kitchen, and the author claimed that it was, in fact, the BEST birthday cake. So that was a pretty tall order to live up to.

One thing that I really liked about this cake was how tall it grew in the oven. This is great if you are trying to make a layer cake, which I was! Unfortunately, I am a layer-making moron, so despite the obliging height of the cake, I still only ended up with three layers, and one was cracked. C'est la vie. The actual taste was not quite what I look for in a yellow cake - it was a little too heavy and dry. Then again, I'm probably too used to the Duncan Hines stuff, and who knows what sort of crap they put in their mix to make it taste like that. All in all, I would say it was pretty good.

The frosting was even better. It was easy to make, easy to spread and pretty-looking. I made a crumb coat but I didn't actually need to; the frosting spread evenly and beautifully. Plus, it tasted really good. My suitemates and I were eating it out of the bowl, and one of them commented that it tastes like ganache (only it doesn't have all that heavy cream!)

I thought the cake looked a little boring, so I added some powdered sugar around the edges. Classay. I don't really know what it tasted like altogether, since I gave it to Melissa, but I did get to try the frosting with pieces of the layer that had fallen apart, and I was quite pleased with the result. Definitely better than last year's birthday cake!

Yellow Cake Recipe

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. (Alternately, you can use a cooking spray, either with just butter or butter and flour to speed this process up.)

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just Incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. (I like to drop mine a few times from two inches up, making a great big noisy fuss.) Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.

Frosting Recipe

15 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 teaspoons instant espresso (optional, but can be used to pick up the flavor of average chocolate)
2 1/4 cups sour cream, at room temperature
1/4 to 1/2 cup light corn syrup
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the chocolate and espresso powder, if using, in the top of a double-boiler or in a heatproof bowl over simmering water. Stir until the chocolate is melted. (Alternately, you can melt the chocolate in a microwave for 30 seconds, stirring well, and then heating in 15 second increments, stirring between each, until the chocolate is melted.) Remove from heat and let chocolate cool until tepid.

Whisk together the sour cream, 1/4 cup of the corn syrup and vanilla extract until combined. Add the tepid chocolate slowly and stir quickly until the mixture is uniform. Taste for sweetness, and if needed, add additional corn syrup in one tablespoon increments until desired level of sweetness is achieved.

Let cool in the refrigerator until the frosting is a spreadable consistency. This should not take more than 30 minutes. Should the frosting become too thick or stiff, just leave it out until it softens again.

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