Women are most fascinating between the ages of 35 and 40 after they have won a few races and know how to pace themselves. Since few women ever pass 40, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely. – Christian Dior
I’d love to say that it’s my birthday too, but it’s not. Not yet, anyway.
But it will be soon, and this year, it’s a whopper. 40. Four. Tee. Fortyfortyforty. Fuck me. Forty.
If you say it a lot, and fast, it’s almost funny.
Now, I’ve always looked forward to my birthday. There are some really good things that are also celebrated on or (extremely) close to that date. It’s Indian Independence Day, France began issuing drivers licenses (not that it has improved vehicular behaviors there AT ALL), Social Security became a law, “I Got You, Babe” hit number one on the Billboard charts, and it is the day that WWII ended.
I love the turn of her ankle. The peek of stocking top, the promise of garter. Her head rested in the curve of his arm. The grip he has on her, as though his life depended on it. As though he had been waiting for years for *that* moment. The only photo that comes even remotely close to this for me is this one:
Oh yeah, it hung on my wall all through the 80s (perhaps a bit further beyond than is strictly necessary, but really, can you blame me?). While I know now that it was staged, I spent many an hour imagining who they were (just your average, overly-stylish Parisian couple), what they had been doing (meeting at 3PM at a tiny, secret apartment in the 4th arrondissement, natch), and adoring that arm around her shoulders, knowing that his hand would never let her pass through a doorway without finding its place at the small of her back, or her head hit the pillow unsupported.
My, it’s warm in here. Where was I?
Oh yes, birthdays.
So, *ahem*, I had big plans for this year’s big day. HUGE. As it happens, this year is not only my 40th, but also Julia Child’s 100th (we share a midnight, herself being born on August 15), and the 50th anniversary of Mastering the Art of French Cooking‘s first pressing, which also lands on August 14th. The idea was to get myself to London (my second home), and pop a bottle of Tatty on the Victoria Embankment in the AM, and then hop the Eurostar over to Paris for lunch, where the requisite Veuve Clicquot would be upended into a few choice people’s glasses.
But events have conspired against me.
Instead, plans are afoot for a (no less fabulous, but far) more domestic adventure. And while I’ll keep those details to myself, I can assure you there will still be a dinner you can only imagine (duck consommé, anyone?), and Veuve Clicquot to to spare.
And what I find myself focusing on is the dessert. Which is only fitting, because, well, cake.
What is actually surprising is that for years, I professed a serious dislike of cake.
Shocking, I know, but true.
Turns out, what I didn’t like was was shitty box cake. Now, we’re all guilty of breaking out that brightly colored box of nothing (really people, it’s just flour and a little baking soda/powder mixed in for you, along with some fairly nasty preservatives and stabilizers), adding the eggs, oil, chucking it in a vaguely cake-shaped pan and calling it a day. And as I am just as culpable as the next person, there’s no judgment here. None. At. All.
But then pastry school happened.
And I realized that cake can be something other than a pan of air covered in overly sugary icing. It can be butter. And eggs. And love.
Because, isn’t that what a birthday cake is?
It’s time, and attention, and caring. It’s picking your underwear up off the bathroom floor. Filling the gas tank at 2AM, when the idiot light comes on *after* the show. It’s letting the other person play Boogie Wonderland for a fifth time in a row, and not looking askance at that second bottle of wine (which is more likely than not, the cause of the repeated Boogieing). It’s not waiting 3 days to call after the first date. It’s saved love notes. It’s the mix tape you delivered anonymously through the slats in her locker.
And it’s not hard. You just need a few tools, that you probably have lying around.
And I’ll admit that while I have a serious dislike for box cake, it has forever defined how I view the perfect birthday cake. It is surprisingly understated. A simple yellow butter cake with chocolate icing. No more, no less.
However, that simple butter cake better be awesome, and that chocolate icing better be more chocolate than chocolate. No lame-ass chocolate buttercreams (which only ever *look* chocolatey, they never *taste* chocolatey) for me, thanks. Ganache is the only way to go here. For fuck’s sake (is that really a posessive?), it’s the simplest icing you can make, and it only has two ingredients.
So, if you have gotten this far, I’m pretty sure you are all “Let’s get to it!”
Well, alrighty then!
Below you will find not only a formula for my favorite yellow cake (used interchangeably for cakes or cupcakes), but also the ratio for chocolate ganache. But what I really want to give you in this post is some tips for making a great birthday cake. Because what takes a birthday cake from “meh.” to “Ohh!” is a little time and attention to detail. So, here we go:
- First, you can’t make a birthday cake in one day. It takes two (to do a *lot* of things, but that’s another story altogether). Do yourself a favor, and never ever try to cover (ice) a cake that you have made the same day. No cake you ever buy in a bakery was baked that day, so why not take a cue from them, and bake your layers, and then store them in the fridge or freezer for a few before you attempt to coat them in chocolate?
- Torte your cakes. What does that mean? It means cut each layer in half, and make yourself a four layer cake, rather than a plain old two layer cake. You get a better cake/icing ratio, it doesn’t take anything more than a bread knife to accomplish, and your end result is a boatload prettier.
- Choose your fillings wisely. For this particular version, I went with a chocolate/strawberry jam mix. With four layers, you get three opportunities to add flavor to your cake, so I say, use. them. all. No need to be consistent. If you want to do three different flavors, go right ahead and pay attention to that instinct. The don’t have to match, but they do have to go together.
- Stop using a butter knife for everything. True, for years I was a big fan of the Irish woman’s toolkit (is there anything around the house that a spoon and/or a butter knife can’t do?), but in this instance, I’m going to have to tell you to get your hands on a serrated knife for torting your cakes (a bread knife is fine), and an offset spatula for covering your cake. You’ll thank me later.
- Decorate the damn thing. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just thoughtful.
- I always keep a bottle of bubbles in the fridge and a package of birthday candles around the house. Both are good for cakes, and very short blackouts.
- Always wonder how bakeries get the cakes covered right down to the edge? It’s cake boards. Get yourself some in the same size as your cake pan. They are readily available at your local craft store, or here. They let you move the cake around, lift it, store it, and eventually, put it on a pretty little stand.
- Put a crumb coat on the thing. What is a crumb coat? It’s a thin(ish) coating of icing you put on the cake before you cover it completely. It’s great for sealing in loose bits, filling, and ensuring that the second coat (after you stick your cake in the fridge for 30 mins or so) goes on smoothly, and covers everything. It doesn’t have to be perfect (after all, you are just going to go over it again). Think of it as a primer for deliciousness.
Once you’ve got your cake covered and decorated, it’s time to light the candle, sing a (most likely horrifying) Happy Birthday, and enjoy.
Classic Yellow Layer Cake
Adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet
You will need:
- 2 8″ cake pans (preferably with straight edges)
- 2 sheets parchment paper to line pans
- 1 mixer
- 1 spatula
- 1 offset spatula
- 1 pastry brush
- 1 medium bowl
- 1 small bowl
- 1 set dry measuring cups
- 1 liquid measuring cup
- 1 bowl scraper (or just use the spatula)
- 12 oz. (3 sticks) unsalted butter @ room temperature
- 10.5 oz.(1 1/2 cup) sugar
- 6 large eggs @ room temperature
- 2 tbsp vanilla extract
- 14 oz (4 cups) cake flour
- 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2/3 cup (6 oz.) sour cream (or plain yogurt)
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Lightly coat your cake pans with melted butter, using a pastry brush. Cut a circle of parchment for each pan and place in the bottom. Butter pans again.
Cream the butter with the sugar for 5 mins, until the mixture is white and fluffy. Really, you have to a go for a bit of time with this in order for the sugar to beat air into the butter. It’s OK. Just roll with it.
While the butter and sugar are making friends, sift the dry ingredients together into the medium bowl. Measure out your sour cream into your liquid measuring cup, and in the small bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla together.
Once your butter is ret to go, add the egg mixture a tablespoon at a time, allowing the egg to fully incorporate before adding more. Once all the egg is in, turn the mixer down to the lowest setting and add in the sour cream and flour in alternate additions, starting with the flour. Once it’s all incorporated, stop your mixer and use the spatula to fold in anything stuck to the bottom, and mix by hand until you have a smooth(ish) batter.
Divide the batter between the two pans (or into 24 cupcake papers rested in two muffin pans), using the offset spatula to even it out (you don’t have to even out the cupcakes, they’ll sort themselves out). This batter is going to be far thicker than you are used to baking, if you have relied on box mixes. Trust me, it is going to be awesome.
Bake the cake until it bounces back when touched in the middle, or a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto cake boards. Once the cakes are completely cool, wrap in plastic wrap and store in the fridge or freezer until you are ready to torte, fill, and decorate.
You will need:
- 1 saucepan
- 1 medium bowl
- 1 whisk
- 16 oz. by weight of good quality untempered chocolate (chocolate chips are just fine)
- 16 oz. by volume heavy cream (a pint container)
- Vanilla extract (optional)
- A pinch of salt (optional)
Put heavy cream in saucepan along with a splash of vanilla extract. Heat on medium heat until you see bubbles around the edges (just prior to boiling). While the cream is heating, put chocolate and a pinch of salt into your medium bowl.
When cream is heated, pour over chocolate and let sit for 3-5 minutes. Then, using your whisk, combine the cream and chocolate until you have a smooth, fully incorporated mixture. THERE SHOULD BE NO LUMPS. AT. ALL.
When the ganache is still fairly liquid, use it to put the crumb coat on your cake. This will be messy. That’s all right. You are washable.
Let the ganache cool for 20-30 mintues longer, or until it’s at the consistency of icing. Don’t worry if it takes a little longer. It *will* get there.
Bonus: There will be leftovers. Just a bit, but also just enough to make licking the bowl a pretty good reward for all of your hard work.