Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sweet: The Birthday Cake Diaries

This week is my daughter's 5th birthday. In addition presents, favors, decorations, guests, and the rest of the birthday requests, there is of course the cake.

The birthday cake is the centerpiece of a kid's party. It sets the tone, be it through decor or taste, for the rest of the party. Kids notice it, even more so than adults, and talk about it for many days after. So failure is not an option.

I have gotten pretty good at birthday cakes; not as good as my friend Rachel, who actually built a working volcano on her last masterpiece, but I can bake a decent cake. This year, I am challenged by a request for Thomas the Tank Engine, chocolate cake with pudding in the middle. I have my game plan in place, and am going to document it night by night, as I step through the process.

Day 1: Make the frosting and pudding
So the first part of today has been spent delaying as much as possible. This is an excellent waste of time, and terrific way to make yourself crazy later on. Going downstairs to take the butter out of the fridge. There, that's much better.

Here is the recipe for the pudding, shamelessly stolen directly from Martha herself. I have made this before with pretty good results. Just a little time consuming, but well worth the result. All done and mmm...good. Velvety, chocolaty, and very smooth, this a pudding lover's dream come true. Don't let the thickening psyche you out - you can feel when it is ready. Trust your whisk. Out of saran wrap, damn. Parchment paper to the rescue. Think the frosting will have to wait until tomorrow, unless I get a second wind.

Oh yeah, I forgot about all the other birthday food in the fridge...must alert my super organized husband and get him on the job.

Day 2: Make the cakes
Took out all the dry ingredients, mixed and sifted, got ready for the wet and realized none of it is at room temperature. Damn, damn, damn, damn. This gives me a few minutes to blog and berate myself for being such an airhead. It is 9:45 pm the night before the party and even though I took the day off, I have waited until now to begin baking.

This year I am challenged with a Barefoot Contessa Chocolate with Butter Cream recipe that is most likely as delicious as the rest of her repertoire. I really love her best of all the Food Network stars; she seems like the kind of person you would want at your table. Relaxed, casual, elegant. I love when she goes outside to cut herbs or takes us to her local chicken farm. But most of all I love her recipes, which I find to be simple by design although rarely easy in execution. TBC is work, work that is supposed to seem effortless which is not how at all consistent with how I am performing at the moment.

Watching it bake. Its after 11. Not sure if I over-mixed -it seemed a little on the fluffy side for batter. Smells good though.

OK, they seem cooked through and pretty moist, but I really screwed up when I turned one of them out. Cake pieces everywhere - I had to reconstruct them like a surgeon. Not sure how it will hold up tomorrow, but they are cooled, wrapped, and ready to be decorated.

Day 3: Assemble and decorate
Well as usual, the frosting is being done the day of the event. Not a big deal, just frustrating. The frosting is also from TBC. This is a traditional butter cream, the kind with a meringue base. Luckily, I saved the 8 egg whites from the pudding (which required 8 egg yolks), making this a very efficient recipe. I whip the whites into a frenzy, good, good, all is going well.

fuuuck. I just added warm chocolate to cold butter and it is now a soupy mess. Ruined. I have my tantrum until my together husband suggests sticking it in the fridge, which actually works! Super husband saves the day.

Now putting it all together. This is not a duplo set where everything fits together. The lower piece is in at least 20 pieces, all of which I carefully assemble and stick together with chocolate pudding. There, it somewhat resembles a rectangle. Frosting will even it that out later. I slather on a mound of pudding and top it with the remaining layer. Whew.

Now the next step is critical. Known as the crumb coat, it is the first layer of frosting to go on the cake. It gives the cake some shape, but more importantly layers down the crumbs so they are not all over the final product. I grab my bench scrapper, load on a pile of frosting, and stick it in the fridge for an hour. I am starting to feel more calm, and start hunting for decorations. Hey, the paper piece of a party blower works, as does a spare plastic Thomas train bubble blower. This is going to come together, I can feel it.

OK, it's been an hour. Frosting layer number two goes on without a problem. Back in the fridge for another hour.

Time to decorate. Nothing over the top - just happy birthday with some glitter pen icing, a little fringe on the bottom, and add the other pieces, voila. A birthday cake for at least 40 people. Too bad we are only having 20. Oh well, the neighbors will have a good week on us.

Anyway, the cake was a big hit; moist and delicious. Frosting was fabulous, just the right texture with hints of mocha. My daughter really enjoyed it, as you can probably guess. And as you now know,
the entire process was fraught with mistakes, recoveries, and love, as it should be. Happy birthday my beautiful girl. We love you so.

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