Friday, May 10, 2013

Cakes and Cakes!

Baking phases come and go in waves. Inspired by my decorating session with Kristen and Jill, and by the ever-rolling tide of birthdays that fill the spring and summer months in my families, I've been making a lot of cake.

I've also been thinking more about cake, in the sense of giving more thought to the creation of unusual or special taste/texture combinations, rather than just following someone else's recipe. It's easy to over-reach in this vein--most people are happiest with pound cake and whipped cream, or devil's food with fudge. While I'm more than happy to whip up whatever makes the birthday person happiest (my preferred birthday cake is, I'll remind you, biscuits with whipped cream and ample berries), a birthday is a good excuse to work up a new speciality, or a surprise.

When planning a cake, I usually begin with a few pointers from the intended recipient or their spokespeople (i.e. 'Joe loves everything chocolate, but hates nuts.' 'Jane was really excited about some custard she had last year in Italy.') Sometimes, though, people give me too much freedom, and my imagination takes some bold leaps. This year, I was asked to make a birthday cake for my cousin Sophie, to be served at a family reunion. When I asked about her preferences, I was informed that she was a 'good eater,' and liked everything, and that I shouldn't consult her since it could then be a surprise. While the phrase 'good eater' is more associated in my mind with two-year-olds and meat animals than with my lovely 25-year-old cousin, I took the point. The options were endless.

Chocolate and banana layers, with peanut butter cream cheese frosting.
My first idea was a riff on this ever-popular birthday cake, stolen from Smitten Kitchen and wildly popular among my friends (requested for 3 separate birthdays in 2012, if you're counting). Instead of chocolate cake with peanut butter cream cheese frosting and peanut butter chocolate ganache, I would alternate layers of chocolate and banana cake, and top it with the peanut butter cream cheese frosting. For the cake layers, I used Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipes for 'Miette's Tomboy' and banana cake, from Rose's Heavenly Cakes. For sanity's sake, I made six-inch cakes. The result (above) was great but a little on the tooth-achingly sweet side (my co-workers disagreed).

Using the remaining layers from the first cake, I made another. Same cakes, different buttercream. To add a little more austerity (heh) I made a caramel silk meringue buttercream. Not austere at all, actually, but the burnt sugar does cut the richness a bit.
This was an easier cake to work with, and more stable at warm temperatures than the cream cheese, but I did get some comments noting that the buttercream was overkill, and that a thin chocolate glaze might be more appropriate. However, this comment did come from someone who has frequently suggested that strawberry ice cream and/or pie would be better with chocolate, so the grain of salt was firmly in place.

It is true, though, that buttercream can be very very rich, and maybe it was all just shaping up to be a bit too much. I considered all-banana, with mango buttercream, but got some late-breaking news that banana might not be the birthday girl's favorite.

After toying with this for the better part of two weeks, I ultimately decided to simplify. For cake, I went all chocolate (double recipe of Miette's tomboy, baked in 8" pans, split into four layers). Late at night, I made the final choice: orange or strawberry buttercream? For a five year old's birthday party (or mine), I would have gone with strawberry, but I was assured by several sources that orange would be more elegant and more generally preferred. The final cake, pictured below after 25 puncture wounds, was chocolate with orange mousseline buttercream, orange curd, and pistachio cream (from a jar that has been taking up cupboard space--more on cleaning out the cupboard shortly).
Birthday cake for Sophie
Birthdays are one thing, but I also make cakes for no reason at all when I get in this mood, as witnesseth the following masterpiece--Almond Shamah Chiffon (also from Rose's Heavenly Cakes) cake with an apricot mousseline. This is a slightly moister chiffon cake made with almond flour. I think people were a little bit frightened by the lipstick redness of the buttercream, but the cake layers, moistened with a light soaking syrup, were perfectly textured.

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