Cocoa Buttermilk Birthday Cake

October 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

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Back in the blissfully unaware days of pregnancy, when I thought ahead to being a mom, the things that got me excited weren’t smoochy cuddles with a chubby-cheeked newborn. I’ve never really been that into babies, and I was more worried about that stage of things than anything. The utter dependence, the sleepless nights, the long solitary days. The loss of independence, the overnight identity change. It’s all exactly as hard as it sounds by the way, however much you love your baby. I’m reading more and more these days where women are speaking honestly about this experience and I’m so glad to see the shadow side of early motherhood being aired. There’s such an enormous pressure to be smitten with your newborn and when you’re besieged by well-meaning relatives and strangers only wanting to hear how marvelous the whole thing is, it’s extremely easy to be racked with doubt when faced with these absolutely rational, understandable, fiercely dark emotions that nobody else seems to be experiencing, or at least talking about.

What did always excite me was the prospect of all the fun things that come along with a toddler. The excursions, the crafts, the funny little conversations. The other day I was lying on my bed trying to get an hour of rest, while my recalcitrant child was, for the second week running, not napping in his room. While we’re being honest about parenthood here, I will state openly that I was feeling mildly desperate right then – exhausted, in need of time to myself – when I tuned into a snippet of the running conversation coming from his room. “What are you doing down there spoons? I’m sleeping! I throw my teddies on the floor too! Mama! Get in here now! It’s morning!” And so on, and so forth. It’s pretty hard to stay grumpy for long with a child who talks to his spoons. Don’t get me wrong, I confront breaking point just about every day with the tantrums, demands, stubbornness of the early twos, but there’s something about the chatter and conversation that makes it so much easier than the first year.

And of course the thing that really excited me about motherhood was birthday cake baking. You’ll recall last year’s double creations – banana monkey cake for one party, intense chocolate layer cake for the other – as well as the coconut lime cake I posted recently from a friend’s daughter’s birthday. All great. But what I really wanted this year was a simple cake recipe that I felt could become the blueprint for all birthday cakes to follow. It had to be chocolate, and I had to be able to make and freeze the layers in advance to keep the morning of the party easy. It had to be moist, not saccharine sweet. It had to hold shape for frosting. It had to taste like it would be the cake that Henry would ask for every year until he’s too cool for his mom to bake his cake (sob). I found it.

From Dorie Greenspan’s masterpiece, Baking: From My Home to Yours (if I had to narrow down to one baking book, it would doubtless be this one), came this cocoa buttermilk cake. It’s a straightforward method, yielding a batter enriched with extra egg yolks and moistened with buttermilk. The slight tang from both the buttermilk and the cocoa cuts through the chocolate and the sugar once the cake is baked, leaving a flavor that is subtle enough for adults to enjoy, but nothing that even the testiest toddler would turn down.

Once you have the layers, the choice of decoration is yours. I used the buttercream frosting from Nigella’s How to Be A Domestic Goddess (the second baking book I would keep if at gun point) and it was perfect. If you’re running around setting up ball ponds and precariously hanging streamers from the ceiling, do you also want to have to whip egg whites into a meringue frosting? NO. The buttercream is so much more forgiving, and equally tasty in my view. You’ll need a palate knife to smooth it into the desired decoration. For the frog I used two of the additional cupcakes I baked with the extra batter I made (see notes on quantities below), placed them on top and covered in frosting: that easy. M&Ms are brilliant for all kinds of cake decorating purposes and I simply used those to make the eye pupils, smile and feet. You could make a number in them, pointillism style (see last year’s cake), or buy a cake topper and use that instead. I would just vote for keeping things simple and honest. We’ve got enough going on for anything else.

Cocoa Buttermilk Cake with Buttercream Frosting, aka “Green Frog Cake”, aka Best Birthday Cake

Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours and Nigella Lawson’s How to Be A Domestic Goddess

I made 1.5 quantity of the batter recipe below, to yield two regular 9 inch round layers, 24 mini muffins, and a thinner 9 inch round layer. I used two of the mini muffins for the eyes for the frog cake; the remainder were lightly frosted and set out for kids whose parents wanted them to have a smaller helping. The muffins were ready in about 15 minutes and the thin layer (which I made just to use up the remainder of the frosting) was ready in about the same time. You could of course load any remaining batter into the other two layers if not over-filled, or make more muffins/cupcakes. I lay this out just to suggest possibilities. If your design doesn’t need extra muffins or you don’t want extra cake (who doesn’t want extra cake?!) then don’t fiddle!


For the Cake:

2 cups (230g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (60g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces, 230g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (300g) sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup (250ml) buttermilk
4 ounces (110g) bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled

Getting Ready to Bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9-x-2-inch round cake pans, dust the insides with flour, tap out the excess and line the bottoms with rounds of parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

To Make the Cake:

1. Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

2. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat for about 2 minutes, until it is thoroughly blended into the butter. Add the eggs one at a time, then the yolks one by one, beating for 1 minute after each addition and scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk; add the dry ingredients in 3 portions and the buttermilk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients); mix only until each new batch is blended into the batter. Scrape down the bowl and add the melted chocolate, folding it in with a rubber spatula. Divide the batter between the cake pans.

3. Bake for 26 to 30 minutes, or until the cakes feel springy to the touch and start to pull away from the sides of the pans. Transfer the cakes to racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. (Once the layers are cooled, they can be wrapped airtight and left at room temperature overnight or kept frozen for up to 2 months.)

For the Buttercream Frosting:

300g (2 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
700g icing sugar, sifted (confectioner’s sugar)
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp. milk or cream
food coloring, as needed

Beat the butter in a stand mixer until smooth and creamy – about 4 minutes. Gradually add the icing sugar until incorporated, then add the vanilla extract and milk, one tablespoon at a time (add more if needed for a smooth consistency). Last of all, add the food coloring if using. If you are using a piping bag, a stiffer icing will give you more textural detail at the edges. I like to use the icing while still pretty soft and pliable, then refrigerate the whole cake until an hour or two before it is to be eaten, at which point I remove it to come back to room temperature.

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