Thursday, August 19, 2010

Birthday Cake Week

It’s Birthday Week for the Little Chef and me, and it should surprise nobody that I have spent a lot of this birthday week baking decadent cakes. But lest you think that everything that comes out of this fiddler’s kitchen is a starry-eyed triumph, I must disabuse you of that notion. I do try to share my most successful dishes with you on this blog, presenting them at their most photogenic whenever possible, but sometimes my best efforts are a total flop. While my baking efforts haven’t been exactly unmitigated disasters this week, I do know that my kitchen rhythm is just OFF. I’ve been making stupid mistakes in my baking, such as forgetting to add key ingredients to the batter, only to realize the omission after the pans are in the oven. The perfectionist in me is smacking her head against the wall, but the chocolate/whipped cream/caramel-loving side of me is still pretty happy.

The Little Chef’s birthday was first, and we got very excited looking through some of the hilarious posts on Cake Wrecks, the website devoted to professionally decorated cakes gone horribly wrong. We were inspired to try our hand at decorating, and with two little Wilton cake decorating tips and some disposable icing bags, we were ready for action. I made a basic buttercream and we practiced on a piece of waxed paper while the cake was in the oven.

Writing with icing is harder than I thought it would be, but we both started to get the hang of it. I was impressed with Mac’s icing-printing, and I found that my icing-cursive resembles my good little 5th grade schoolgirl handwriting.

We both enjoyed making icing dots. I created a small lattice, and then we played tic-tac-toe. (The Little Chef won.)

For those of you familiar with my CocoaRoar truffles, try to imagine the beloved PeanutButter & Sea Salt truffle expanded into an icing and lavished all over vanilla buttermilk cake layers. Crazy-yummy, right? It seemed like a very grown-up cake for a 9-year-old, but then again this is the Little Chef we’re talking about, a boy who goes absolutely bonkers for my PB&Sea Salt truffles. We went out on the roof with the cake to sing to the birthday boy, and the wind was so fierce that it kept blowing out the candles. Finally, my brother grabbed all the candles in his fist, lit them all at once, and Mac had a 2-second window to make a wish and blow them out. I think it’s a major understatement to say that this cake was rich. Maybe even TOO rich, and you know those are unusual words coming out of my mouth. I love the idea of a chocolate-peanut-butter-sea-salt cake, but I’ll have to do some tweaking to this experiment to get the balance better.

I made my favorite Chocolate Praline Cupcakes to bring to my “South Pacific” orchestra on Sunday afternoon to celebrate my own forthcoming birthday. This is one of my all-time favorite recipes as this chocolate-buttermilk cake is moist and not too sweet, and it lends itself very well to being capped with a swirl of amaretto-spiked mascarpone and a chopped candied almond praline. Moments before I whipped up the cupcakes, I’d had an animated online chat with my cousin Jenna about using buttermilk in chocolaty baked items. Recipes were exchanged, ideas for future baking projects were swapped, and I was all fired up to go make my cupcakes. It wasn’t until the cupcakes were in the oven that I realized that I completely forgot to add the buttermilk to the batter, even after all that discussion! The buttermilk-less cupcakes were definitely a little more dense than I would have liked, but they were still okay enough to be absolutely gobbled up by my whole orchestra.

For my rooftop birthday party the next night, I did another experiment, trying to reinterpret another favorite CocoaRoar truffle into cake-form. Next to my PB&Sea Salt truffles, the Caramel&Sea Salt truffles are another huge crowd-pleaser, and I decided to expand that filling into a more spreadable ganache to go between layers of vanilla cake. Learning from my mistake with Mac’s cake the week before—making a cake so rich that everyone had to go lie down for a nap before they even finished their entire slice—I opted to fill the layers with the salted caramel ganache and then frost the cake with a caramel-laced whipped cream.

Once again, the concept was good but the execution fell a little short in my estimation. I overbeat the chocolate ganache, rendering it grainy instead of silky smooth. (Yet another major rookie mistake for someone who has mixed up thousands of batches of ganache in her lifetime!) I didn’t handle one of the cake layers carefully and it split into three pieces, but I thought the ganache would hold it all together. However, you can see where the cake sections slid apart, leaving large pockets of grainy salted caramel ganache inside! But I guess there are worse things. I’m going to fine-tune this recipe too before I share it with you so that the proportions are just right. The Little Chef took one bite of the caramel whipped cream and said, “Louise, can I have THIS cake for my birthday next year?”

My actual birthday dinner was at Ouest, my favorite restaurant in the neighborhood. Dinner was superb, the company was sparkling, and my birthday dessert was pitch-perfect: the most elegant little mascarpone cheesecake topped with bitter orange sauce and strips of candied orange zest. After my baking mishaps that week, I was all the more appreciative to be served such a beautifully balanced dessert. It was definitely the right way to end a week of birthday cakes on a very high note.

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