A Tale of Two Cakes

November 1, 2013 § Leave a comment


Well, hello. Since I was last here, I started my day job again, spent 9 hours on a plane with an almost one year old, spent 11 hours on a plane with a newly one year old, hosted two birthday parties for said child, romped around the New Forest a bit, and got not nearly enough sleep. Because my readers are of course the kind who don’t miss a trick, you’ll already have worked out that two birthday parties meant two birthday cakes. (Actually, it meant three, but we’ll focus on the sweet and gooey ones for now, and I will write up the being-a-virtuous-mom child-friendly banana cake another time.)

The tale proper begins in England, in a beautiful country house, stuffed full of friends and family. Our days were spent taking out the kids to see the horses and sheep, picking blackberries from the hawthorns along the way. A ten minute walk yielded one of the best pubs in the area, where dinner was local crab, or a bubbling-hot fish pie, or pork topped with a horn of crackling, and dessert was everything on the menu. The bucolic setting got to us viscerally: the perfect scene of real or imagined childhood walks, where the Famous Five might be building a tree house around the corner at any moment. As Ollie and I took ourselves for a long run one bright morning, it was hard to discuss anything other than that clearly we were crazy for not figuring out how we could instantly transplant ourselves to this rural idyll for good.

Even though we were far from our actual home, there was no way I was outsourcing Henry’s first birthday cake. So to fete our little guy turning the grand old milestone of a year of age (and our survival thereof), I figured out what was going to be feasible without reliable equipment, tasked my wonderful sister-in-law with bringing a few essentials, and settled on Deb’s Monkey Cake. Can we take a quick aside to shout out loud how brilliant Deb is? I would make any single dish from her site without feeling the need to test in advance, because you know she has done that testing for you, and that her standards are basically much more persnickety than yours in any case. Deb, we salute you. You can find the full recipe and instructions for the cake over on her site. No need for my embellishments other than to say that I beat that cake batter from scratch, with a wooden spoon, and have the calluses to prove it. It still came out light and fluffy, and was gobbled by kids and adults alike. Word.

First cake down, back to our existential crisis. We landed back in San Francisco with a huge poof of relief at being back in our own beds, going out for our coffee ritual, ambling down to the amazing playgrounds on our doorstep. Torn, as ever, by where we are from, and where we make our home. By Henry’s joy at being around family, and joy at being back in his own little kingdom. I was grateful for the birthday party that we had very sensibly arranged only a few days after getting back to pull us out of the paralysis of introspection and into the reality of friends, ballponds, and cake number two.

What I knew about the second first birthday cake was that it needed to be big, and I wanted it to be a bit of a chocolate overload. I recently acquired Flo Braker’s classic baking book, and couldn’t resist having a go at the devil’s food cake – twice over. I admit that there are more steps than the mother of a one year should have to tackle, and that making the cake uses every damned bowl in your kitchen. But, honestly, the end results live up to the fiddlier aspects of the method, yielding a rich and light cake that withstands a good slather of frosting – not an easy combination to pull off. Going for broke, instead of a single 9×13 cake that you halve and stack as per the original recipe, I made two 9×13 cakes, froze them while we went on our trip in a moment of fore-planning genius, then used the same icing from the monkey cake to help stack them together (before they had defrosted as it’s a pretty delicate cake at that size) and to frost the whole creation.

In the meantime, my incredibly patient husband had begun to sift bags of M&Ms by colour, ready for us to cover the cake in what I had ambitiously thought of as a pointillistic homage, but really was bit more like the colour-blindness tests they give you at school. Either way, the painstaking process of dotting the candy all over the frosting was weirdly satisfying and the end result was suitably show-stopping for the event at hand. The final result is super-charged with chocolate sweetness, although not at all cloying. It’s the cake I want Henry to beg me to make when he turns 5, and 8, and (with teenage reticence) 14. Whether we’ll be in the city or in the country by then, who knows.


Devil’s Food Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Flo Braker’s The Simple Art of Perfect Baking and Smitten Kitchen’s Monkey Cake

The recipe here will yield one 9×13 sheet cake. You could halve this and stack into layers for a smaller cake, or do as I did and double it to serve a party-load.

2 cups (200g) cake flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (50g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup (115ml) lukewarm water
1/2 cup (115ml) buttermilk, room temperature
1/2 cup (115ml) water
2 tsp vanilla
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 stick/115g unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1 cup (200g) light brown sugar, packed

NOTE: stages 1-5 of this recipe are largely prep. There are odd places you could save on washing up if you really wanted, but my advice is just to embrace your inner pastry chef and surrender to the mise-en-place. Just have a nice clear workspace ready with plenty of bowls to hand.

1. Preheat oven to 350F/175C. Grease and flour a 9×13 pan and line the bottom with parchment or waxed paper. Set aside.
2. Sift or whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl; set aside.
3. Place the cocoa in a small bowl. Add the 1/2 cup lukewarm water, whisk to combine and set aside to cool.
4. Pour the buttermilk, 1/2 cup water, and the vanilla into a measuring cup; set aside.
5. Crack the eggs into a small bowl, and whisk together to combine the yolks and whites; set aside.
6. Place the butter in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer, preferably fitted with a flat beater (you can use an electric hand whisk too – just be careful to beat well at the next step). Cream the butter on medium speed until the butter is smooth and lighter in color, about 30 to 45 seconds.
7. Reduce the speed to low; add the sugars in a steady stream. Then stop the machine and scrape down the sides. The mixture will appear sandy. Increase the speed to medium again, and cream until the mixture is light in color, fluffy in texture, and appears as one mass, about 5 to 7 minutes.
8. With the mixer still on medium speed, pour the eggs in very slowly. Continue to cream, scraping the sides of the bowl at least once, until the mixture appears fluffy and velvety.
9. Stop the machine and spoon in the cooled cocoa mixture (which will have turned almost to mousse consistency). Turn the mixer back up to medium speed and mix just until incorporated.
10. Using a rubber spatula stir in 1/4 of the flour mixture. And then 1/3 of the buttermilk mixture stirring to blend together. Repeat this procedure, alternating dry and liquid. With each addition, scrape the sides of the bowl, and continue mixing until smooth, never adding liquid if any flour is visible.
11. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread it level. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, or until the center springs back slightly when touched lightly and the sides contract from the pan.
12. Place the cake pan on a rack to cool completely. Use the parchment paper to help lift the cake from the pan to a rack (an extra pair of hands wouldn’t go amiss for this step). If the cake starts to break up, you might consider placing it in the freezer for 15 minutes first to firm up and trying again. It will be delicate – don’t worry too much as the frosting stage will cover a lot of cracks if they do appear.

At this point, I did this whole process all over again, then froze my two layer cakes until I was ready for the decorating stage:

Chocolate Fudge Frosting

4 1/2 cups (540g) confectioners’ sugar/icing sugar
1 1/2 cups/3 sticks/340g unsalted butter, at room temperature
90 ml whole milk
1 tbsp (15 ml) vanilla extract
140g dark chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids, melted and cooled

Blend all of the frosting ingredients except the melted chocolate in a food processor until smooth. Add the cooled chocolate and blend until the frosting is light and smooth.

You can make the frosting in advance of decorating the cake and keep it well covered in the refrigerator. Remove and allow to soften almost to room temperature before using. If your kitchen is especially hot, you may need to place the frosting periodically in the fridge to keep it from becoming too soft and oily to spread well.

When you are ready to decorate the cake:

M&Ms or similar candy (approx. 2x 12oz/350g bags although you may need more to give you enough in one single colour depending on your design)

Sort the candy by colour into small bowls ready for decorating as soon as the cake is frosted. Set to one side.

Place the first layer onto a serving platter or cake board, ideally cold from the fridge or freezer. Cover the edges with strips of foil or wax paper that will catch any frosting drips and that you can pull out to once frosted to keep the decorative plate clean. Cover the whole top surface of the layer with frosting. Carefully position the second layer on top.

Proceed to cover the top and sides of the whole two layer cake with frosting, ideally using an offset spatula. If the room is very warm you may want to place the cake in the fridge for 5-10 minutes before the next steps.

Use a selection of candy to create your desired pattern on top – a number, letter, possibly a name. I chose red as the colour for my number, and outlined with white, before filling in the rest with mixed colours. Once decorated, put the cake in the fridge to firm up before wrapping in foil. Remove from the fridge about 1-2 hours before serving to allow to come back to room temperature.


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