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Dessert Sun Nov 25 2012

Another Year, Another Cake

Some think it's strange to make your own birthday cake. But before you judge, consider the advantages:

• Not having to look delighted at another box of Magnolia cupcakes.
• Justifying the purchase of single-purpose cooking implements as "birthday presents."
• Spending as much time on it as you goddamn want.
• If all else fails, eating the evidence and never mentioning the project to anyone.

I'm no stranger to baking my own birthday cakes (or as I call it, auto-caking). I like getting exactly the cake I want every year, and it gives me an opportunity to go all out on a fancy cake project that I don't have to explain to anyone. The problem is, these cakes are usually a touch on the ambitious side, and walk a very thin line between epic and epic disasters.

cupcake.jpegThis year, it all started with the brown butter frosting on a Molly's cupcake. I loved that the frosting was not too sweet and even a little salty, but a vanilla cake would not do. It got me thinking about a salted caramel tart with bananas and chocolate cream that I had at GT Fish and Oyster a few months back, and other sweet-salty combinations. Clearly, I was onto something. Then, one bite of an Alliance chocolate cupcake filled with salted caramel and frosted with ganache sealed the deal. This would be my cake, and it would be incredible.

I had 14 hours to pull off this cake if I didn't sleep at all, which seemed pretty reasonable (A note to the reader: intensive cake projects are best attempted on weekends. If you're going to pull a Wednesday night cake extravaganza like me, well, you're probably full of other bad ideas, too).

I started on a salted caramel buttercream frosting. First step: make caramel. No problem! I had done this plenty of times. Bada-boom -- caramel. I was off to a strong start.

I left the caramel to cool while I began the Swiss buttercream frosting. If you don't know, this is the fussy version of buttercream, made by "tempering" egg whites over boiling water before whipping them into "stiff peaks". (Another note: although this is not the place for a suggestive joke, please know that I do have one in mind)

Things were looking OK until I added the butter to the whites, when the glossy, stiff peaks turned into curdled butter soup. What had gone wrong? Had I overdone the egg discipline? I thought about apologizing, but the directions urged me to press on: "If the frosting curdles, don't worry, just keep beating it and it will come together." Fifteen minutes later, I stood over a mixer full of still-curdled soup, wringing my hands and trying not to worry.

OK, change of plans. I dumped the entire bowl of un-frosting and started over with plain old, Betty Crocker-style buttercream, which I knew could not fail me. Being only the first problem of the night, I was not too concerned.

After an amount of butter and powdered sugar that could only be acceptable in another era, I had a passable buttercream and was ready to mix in the caramel. However, it seemed that the spoon was completely stuck in a solid mass of cooled caramel. Not one to be beaten by a confection, I pulled and pulled on the spoon until I yanked out a bowl-sized caramel lollipop.

Well this is unexpected, I thought. What would Martha Stewart do? Martha's image rolled her eyes at me, "I would never have gotten into this mess." I poured myself a drink and gave the block of caramel the stink eye.

After much experimentation and several minor burns, I developed a technique of microwaving tiny chunks of the block of caramel one at a time into a scalding liquid, then quickly mixing it into the buttercream before it turned stringy and solid. Eventually, this paid off in a decadent, salty-sweet frosting that was better than I had imagined. "HA!" I screamed at the bowl, "I win!"

However, by this point it was 11pm and all I had was one frosting and a kitchen splattered with egg whites. I rushed to finish the bittersweet chocolate ganache, sneaking spoonfuls for sustenance and gaining speed as I went. Finally, I got to the cake itself. I had combined a few of my favorite recipes to create what I thought could be the ultimate chocolate cake -- a cake that would become legend, a cake so good people would think about the rest of the year, wondering if it had been a dream.

I added melted dark chocolate, dutch-processed cocoa powder, and a cup of espresso (one for you, two for me!) for extra punch. With the cake in the oven, I ate the rest of the chocolate scraps and congratulated myself. Not too bad, I thought, I get better at this every year.

It was about this time when the fire alarm went off. My new springform pans had leaked batter onto the oven floor, where it smoked more than I thought cake batter could. This led to a frenzied charade of dripping hot batter, flailing a towel in front of the fire alarm, and calling out the front door to my neighbors that everything was alright, which it clearly wasn't.

Once the smoke had cleared, I reassessed the situation. I now had two frostings and one surviving layer of a cake, plus an oven that needed to be cleaned and no eggs. Now, this is the point that some people would break down and buy a dozen Crumbs cupcakes, but I had been here before, and I was sure I could turn this into a win.

It was now 1am and I found myself at the 24-hour Jewel, trying to explain to a bewildered clerk what a springform pan was. I caught sight of myself in the freezer case: dried caramel in my hair, shirt covered in chocolate ganache, looking like a refugee from Cake Boss. I'd better just take the eggs and go, I thought. When I saw my kitchen, I decided that this would go better if I took a nap -- things always look better in the morning. I'll just start the last cake layer first thing, frost it, and be off to work. Yes, this is a solid plan.

Maybe it was the grogginess or the chocolate hangover, but the next morning I started to get sloppy. First I baked the second layer of the cake in a pan that was an inch smaller than the first. Then, I realized I had refrigerated both frostings overnight and they were now solid blocks of deliciousness. I had about an hour to go and here I was scrubbing chocolate off my walls with one hand and googling "how to defrost buttercream" with the other.

But the stupidest mistake was not accounting for how long it would take the cake layers to cool before I could frost them. All I could do was put the piping hot cakes directly in the freezer and think cold thoughts. Every thirty seconds, I would stick my hand in the freezer and check the cakes. After what seemed like an hour but was probably only a few minutes, I reasoned that the layers were probably cool enough to frost, right Martha? Martha was nowhere to be found.

They were not cool enough to frost. The buttercream and ganache melted right off into a delicious pool of pale brown cream (frosting idea for next year?). I was now running very, very late. I began alternating between frosting and freezing the cake layers, doing only small sections at a time as fast as I could to keep them cool. I flew around the kitchen in a ballet of frostings and cakes -- I could hear the judges marveling at my grace under pressure in the background as the clock ticked.

Finally I stacked the frosted layers, closed the cake box, and drove as fast as I could to work, willing the frosting not to melt. It did melt some, and the top layer slid off, but I had just enough time to touch up the frosting and pipe the lettering at my desk before anyone saw it.


Given all its challenges, it wasn't the prettiest cake I have ever made, but it was by far the most delicious. My coworkers ate it in a stunned silence, giving each other meaningful looks and gazing at me with awe. You made this? "Sure. I whipped it up after work last night," I said, as if I do this every week.

cake1.jpgThis cake was indeed legendary. People still talk about it wistfully, about the perfect bite with all three elements like some magical alignment of forces. I'll take that as an epic win.

If an all-night cake extravaganza is not your idea of a happy birthday, here are some excellent store-bought options:

• Fudge & fudge & caramel cake from Bittersweet Bakery
• Milk Chocolate Salted Caramel Hazelnut Tart from CafĂ© Floriole
• Chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache frosting and a salted caramel center from Alliance Bakery

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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