dazzling and interesting on a shoestring
At our house, a cake baked is not just a receptacle for birthday candles, but a gift of love as well, and so, our birthday cakes are homemade ones. They usually taste pretty good, offer an activity for creative hands and often provide a few laughs. Who can say that about a bakery-bought birthday cake?
We used our tried-and-true 1-2-3-4 Cake Recipe from Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Panisse, and as per my little helper’s request, we mixed up some turquoise frosting—turquoise is fast replacing pink as the color of choice for… just about everything.
Humorously enough, I started this post, thinking that this cake would bake and get put together just as easily as the Thunder Cake we made last month. My cake, however, had other plans.
It mixed up just fine, thanks to the ol’ Scovil hand mixer and seemed to fluff properly when I folded in the egg whites. In hindsight, however, I vaguely recall thinking that it might look a bit deflated. But I carried forth anyhow.
I planned to fill it with strawberry jam for the very specific reason that it was what we had in the house. At the end of April, even in Northern California, the local, in-season fruit selection is minimal. Strawberries are your best (almost only) option, if you don’t want to be eating fruit that hopped on a plane to get to your local supermarket. Kiwis are an option, but I don’t like them, so I feed them to everyone else in my family. Babies ate their first kiwi today, as a matter of fact. Fortunately, I loooooove strawberries. I eat them for lunch, breakfast, dinner, snack and with my bedtime nightcap (herbal tea). I try not to cry in July when they’re really too pale and dry to be delicious. I am, however, easily placated by the arrival of peach season.
But anyhow, we made another cake. And this time, I was going to try and make it pretty, too. Not beauty pageant, high-maintenance gorgeous, but down-home pretty. Think more Emma Stone and less Kim Kardashian. Okay, great. Now imagine that they are both birthday cakes…
And then my oven limitations and my baking abilities got into the mix with my pretty Hollywood Starlet fantasies and I ended up with Franken-cake. For some reason, one of the cake pans decided not to cook her cake all the way through. The other decided to sink in the middle like the Titanic in a sea of icebergs (and Leo DiCaprio when he couldn’t hold on to the wreckage). It was a sad, sorry sight. But I was not to be deterred. I don’t toss food just because it’s ugly—unless of course, it’s ugly because of the gray-green fuzz growing on it. So I performed a bit of surgery. I cut off the good parts of the half-baked one and then cut the other in half, for a double half-layer cake—in other words, a single layer cake with jam in the middle.
Post-confectionary surgery, we needed to frost the cake. My trusty assistant determined that blue and just a bit of green to achieve the desired turquoise. Only we didn’t have enough powdered sugar. As I said before, we were determined to make this cake—it was my birthday cake, darn it, and I was not going to let a simple lack of powdered sugar keep me from my frosting. Unfortunately, my neighbors are not the baking types, otherwise I would’ve had my five year-old trot over and beg a cup from them. The technique is fun and old-fashioned, almost always reciprocated and a great way to get to know people. But luckily, we now own a Vitamix (that’s another birthday story for another time) and I made, yes, made powdered sugar.
Thank you Vitamix and thank you, Internet. Nifty, no? So, after my trusty assistant came back to the kitchen after the Vitamix was done making noise, we mixed a little bit of pink and a bit more turquoise, with the pre-determined amount of food coloring.
Together, we decorated it with pink flowers (of course) and had a mini spelling lesson—that’s M-O-M-M-Y.
I want to live in the Midwest, simply so I can have fireflies, church potlucks and thunderstorms. Patricia Polacco’s book, Thunder Cake, really makes me long for chickens, antique Russian Orthodox iconography scattered about, a cat, some bright turquoise furniture, a samovar (don’t ask me why on that one, I just do) a few odd goats, and a good, old-fashioned thunderstorm.
So, even though we don’t have thunderstorms in Northern California, my eldest and I made Thunder Cake. It helped that it was raining that morning. And the weather was obliging enough to rain again the following week when I whipped up the frosting and my little helper was there to top the cake with the strawberries and lick the leftover frosting off the spatula.
The rain and wind didn’t stop my neighbor from walking around in his athletic shorts, barefoot and without shoes. He’s out sunbathing by the pool the second the temperature breaks 60 degrees. He won’t be vitamin D deficient, that’s for sure. Ah, apartment living is always so lively! Ahem, but I digress…
So we made mixed up the cake batter with help from Julia, the Kitchen Aid mixer, and whipped those egg whites into a frothy frenzy with my mother’s Scovil hand mixer from 1972 (I say ‘we’, but my helper had to go to her room and close the door, because the Scovil battering against the metal bowl was too loud) and baked our two layers of chocolate cake. I froze those puppies for a few days, and then thawed them to celebrate the end of my husband’s abstinence from eggs and dairy. And what a way to celebrate—we’re all on the verge of a diabetic coma, and there’s three quarters of a chocolate cake left over. Who wants to come over and help us eat it? (Said the Little Red Hen.)
Note: for further fun and games, literary adventures and updates on one of the coolest children’s book author/illustrators ever, visit Polacco’s site. (click on the nifty link here and make your own postcards from Thunder Cake.)
Our version won’t win any beauty pageants, but here are a few tips to help round out the frighteningly brief recipe at the end of Polacco’s book. I supplemented the directions with the 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe from Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Pannise cookbook. The instructions are written for children (and when it comes to baking cakes, I am a beginner at the elementary level) and anything from Waters’ is bound to be a gem.
I scoured epicurious for a simple buttercream recipe, and was completely bamboozled by the one I found that suggested a 1:12 ratio for butter and powdered sugar. Yikes. I ended up with a powdery mess, then figured that there had to be more butter in it, especially since I added 1/3 of a cup of cocoa, and made it even drier. So here’s what I did instead—learn from my mistakes.
Easy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
2 sticks butter (1 cup) at room temperature, so it actually mixes
4 cups powdered sugar (sifted!)
1/3 cup cocoa (sift this, too. I didn’t, because I was annoyed and in a hurry, and the cake has a bit of a grainy, pimply complexion—like I said, it’s no Beauty Queen)
1 tsp. vanilla
Mix the butter all by its lonesome until it’s nice and smooth. Add half the powdered sugar and mix until creamy. Then add the cocoa, the vanilla, and little by little the last 2 cups of the sugar. You may not need it all. Just mix it until it looks like, well, frosting. It should have a nice, smooth, spreadable quality about it. Don’t dip your finger in and lick it until the cake’s all frosted.
Note: I added a thin layer of strawberry jam to the middle instead of frosting, just for a little change-up, and because it is my nature to rebel against the recipe. I suppose you could cook down and macerate your own strawberries, but the jam is cheap and easy, and that’s just the way we do things around here.