Birthday cake was the very first thing I learnt to make, and the very first recipe I knew by heart. My parents were big on homemade birthday cakes for their kids. At least two times a year (on the birthdays of my sister and myself), the big oven would get pulled out from the little storage room beneath the stairs and dusted off. Equal weights of eggs, butter (usually home-churned), sugar (powdered in the mixie) and flour (sifted with baking powder) were set out. Ritually, butter and sugar were creamed together with some vanilla essence. Beaten eggs and flour were added in tandem, a little at a time, until a thick and creamy batter emerged. The batter would get divided into two parts. One part got tutti frutti and chopped walnuts stirred into it, and the other got a few spoonfuls of cocoa powder. The two batters were dropped in random clumps into a cake pan lined with newspaper, and after a hour of baking, a random marbled cake emerged, with swirls of pale yellow and dark brown. Ocassionally, the birthday girl would request a more colorful cake, and then the batter would get divided into four, and two portions would get pink or green food coloring to result in a beautifully ribboned cake with swirls of pastel colors. This pound cake was an all-round favorite, and when I was in high school, my friends and I would bake the cake without supervision. Which is to say that I would bake, and everyone else would sit around and tell me to hurry up so that they could lick the spoons and bowls.
And this is why, to me, birthdays = birthday cake. There may be a party, or not. There may be presents, or not. But a homemade birthday cake made just for the birthday boy or girl is the stuff that is worth turning a year older for. Today, for V's birthday, here is what I made him: a layered chocolate cake with a raspberry filling and a ganache frosting.
The basic chocolate cake recipe came from The Art of Simple Food. In her book, Alice Waters gives several tips for turning out light and airy cakes, including-
1. Using cake flour for a more delicate result. Of course, if you live someplace where cake flour is not available, regular all-purpose flour (maida) can be used.
2. All ingredients should be at room temperature.
3. The first 5 minutes of baking are crucial, so it is important to have an oven that has been pre-heated for 10-15 minutes so that it is is properly warmed up.
4. Beating the sugar and butter together well to make an fluffy aerated mass.
Apart from the usual suspects- flour, butter, eggs, sugar and vanilla extract- this recipe calls for a double dose of chocolate- both cocoa powder and some melted chocolate in the batter. It also calls for some buttermilk. In Indian cuisine, buttermilk refers to either the liquid left over from churning butter, or to simple diluted yogurt. In the US, it refers to tangy thick cultured milk. One can buy liquid buttermilk in quart sizes but I recently took Lydia's advice and bought myself a tub of buttermilk powder. Now I can quickly make buttermilk as required. The most unusual (for me) "ingredient" in this cake is boiling water! Once the main ingredients have been mixed together, more than a cup of boiling water is added to make the batter. It feels downright bizarre to pour water into a cake batter. Unusual or not, it works.
This cake is moist, soft and absolutely chocolatey. I have been trying different recipes for chocolate cakes for several years, trying to find the one recipe that I really like and that I can use as my go-to chocolate cake recipe for making cupcakes, layer cakes and sheet cakes for all ocassions. I have found it!!!
Ingredients (all at room temperature)
4 oz bittersweet chocolate
1/2 C (1 stick) butter
1 1/2 C sugar
2 t vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1/2 C buttermilk
1 1/4 C boiling water
To be sifted together
2 C cake flour (or all-purpose flour)
6 T cocoa powder
2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
0. Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter two round 8-inch cake pans, cover the bottom with a circle of parchment paper, butter it lightly, and coat the pans lightly with cocoa or flour.
1. Melt the chocolate: chop it coarsely, then microwave for 30 second bursts, stirring after each burst. It took me only a minute, or less to get this amount of chocolate melted. This can also be done in a double boiler.
2. In a large bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add sugar and vanilla, and beat very well for 5-10 minutes until very light and fluffy.
3. Beat in the eggs one at a time.
4. Stir in the melted chocolate.
5. Stir in half the dry mixture.
6. Stir in the buttermilk.
7. Stir in the rest of the dry mixture. At this point, the batter was so thick that it was more like a dough. Hang on.
8. Slowly, stir in the boiling water until it is just incorporated. Now you will have a smooth and glossy batter.
9. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes clean. Cool completely before frosting.
Frosting: The cake tastes wonderful just as it is, but adding some frosting is, well, the icing on the cake (apparently we need more metaphors for this phenomenon). Buttercream frosting does look beautiful on cakes, especially if you do some fancy piping. I can't stand to eat it, however, and decided to frost the cake with some ganache- cream and chocolate whisked together to a thick dreamy paste. One could also use plain sweetened whipped cream for this cake- it is chocolatey enough to stand up to that. For the ganache, chop 4 oz chocolate (bittersweet or milk chocolate or any combination of those). Heat 1/2 C heavy cream in a small saucepan nearly to boiling point, then pour it over the chocolate. Let it stand for 5 minutes, then whisk together. The 1:1 proportion of chocolate to cream is important because if you add too much cream, the result will be runny and not a frosting at all (been there, done that, won't be making that mistake again).
Filling: I love the combination of fruit and chocolate and decided on a classic raspberry filling for this cake. I used this raspberry filling recipe from Smitten Kitchen (halved the recipe, but in the end I needed only half of the halved recipe). Except that I was too lazy to strain the seeds out of the pureed raspberries and just left them in (apologizing mentally to the people who are going to eat this cake and will just have to deal with a mouthful of raspberry seeds). Next time, I will definitely strain the puree. Or just buy some raspberry preserves and use them instead.
Assembling the cake: First, I turned out the cooled cakes from the cake pans and gently used a knife to remove the "dome" of the cakes to make even layers. This is going to take me some practice but is not that difficult. An assembled layer cake is difficult to move around, and I found it easy to assemble the cake right on the surface where I was planning to serve it. To keep the surface clean, tear some paper towels/parchment paper into four strips and place them in a square on the surface, then place the cake on these strips. Place one layer on the surface, spread with a layer of filling; not to thick or it will ooze out and make a mess. Then the second layer, then slather with the ganache. I did my best to do a neat job but it was still ...umm...let's call it shabby chic. Garnish with fresh raspberries if desired. The extra ganache/crumbs will drop on these strips. Once the cake is frosted, the strips can be gently pulled out, leaving a clean surface behind.
Have a sweet weekend, everyone!