When you have a friend who has devoted an entire wall of his living room to photos and postcards of monkeys and apes of every variety—not to mention a hanging display of more stuffed chimps and gorillas than you could possibly count—it only makes sense that you should make him a birthday cake like this:
I personally have a thing for lions myself, but my dear friend Jorge truly loves all creatures in the simian family. In fact, he is the only person I know who, in all honesty, has claimed a serious need to “finally organize my monkeys this year.” No joke. His monkey wall is truly beyond the scope of what my camera lens could capture without switching it to a panorama setting. However, this photo does give you a slight indication of what’s going on.
I mean, really. With a wall like this, how could I NOT make him a banana cake with chocolate frosting, complete with cutout little ears and a sweet monkey face? Come on.
I’ve written in the past about how I often find myself baking on the afternoon of a big concert, and Monday was no exception to that ritual. I played a recital that evening of all solo violin works by Bach and Ysaye, the second in a series of three concerts I’m doing here in NYC. (Shameless plug: Recital #3 is on Monday November 1st. Email me at kitchenfiddler (at) gmail (dot) com for details!) I worked hard this month to prepare for this monster program, but on the day of the recital, I knew that I needed to conserve my energy for the actual performance. After warming up with slow scales in the morning, I went straight into the kitchen and spent the rest of the afternoon finishing this Monkey Cake. If that didn’t make me giggly and take the pressure off of what I had to do onstage that night, I don’t know what else would.
These bananas won’t win any beauty contests, but they were perfect for this cake. Keep in mind that the riper and more speckled they are, the more fully they’ll blend into the cake batter, flavoring it with sunshine and sweetness.
This brilliant cake comes from Deb Perelman who is the author of Smitten Kitchen, one of my favorite food blogs. She created this recipe to celebrate her son’s first birthday this month, and she provides elaborate instructions for making a multi-layered cake with separate cupcakes to form the monkey’s ears, in addition to an individual “smash cake” for the birthday baby to smear all over his face. I encourage you all to click here and see what she did, for it is truly too adorable for words.
I opted to make a simple 2-layer cake, as there was obviously no smash cake required. My oven is so small and I didn’t have time to bake the little-ear cupcakes in a separate batch. Instead, I simply carved away the sides of the cake to make my own version of little ears.
The cake itself was incredibly moist and full of banana flavor, but the chocolate fudge frosting was outrageous. TO DIE FOR, actually. I’ve never made icing in a food processor before, but I think I’ll be doing it this way from now on. I have sent powdered sugar absolutely flying all over my kitchen on many an occasion when making frosting, forgetting to mix it in on low speed at first. The food processor kept all the ingredients contained and it came together in a snap.
It’s a good thing that the Little Chef and I had some cake decorating practice this summer, for I was a little more comfortable with the piping tube this time. However, if I were doing this professionally, my decorating attempts might still wind up on Cake Wrecks. I think I’ll stick to playing the violin and instead make the cakes just for fun.
The recital was a blast, but I think the Monkey Cake was an even huger hit at the post-recital/birthday party. Not only was it Jorge’s birthday last weekend, it was also Carol’s and Kathe’s birthdays too, and I managed to snap a photo of the three of them with the cake before my camera battery died. There was much laughter when I unveiled the cake, sending Jorge’s jaw dropping to the ground, but as my friends began to taste it, the laughter turned into variations on “Good Lord, this cake is outrageous!” I couldn’t have agreed more, and luckily for me there was a little bit leftover the next morning. When enjoyed with an iced double espresso, it made for a very festive post-recital breakfast.
I am so excited to share this recipe with you, and I cannot wait for an excuse to make it again. This Monkey Cake needs to be a standard in my repertoire, and I think you’ll feel the same way once you try it for yourself. Even if I make it as a simple banana cake with fudge frosting without the specific decoration, this is a cake that is capable of making people blissfully HAPPY. And that is a beautiful thing.
One Year Ago: Pasta Pomodoro
Adapted, ever so barely, from a recipe by Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen , which was inspired by a recipe in Sky High Cakes by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne
I’ve cut back the tiniest bit on the sugar and punched up the quantities of vanilla and cinnamon in the batter, but otherwise I’m following Deb’s recipe. Please don’t let the extensive instructions deter you from making this awesome cake for yourself. This is actually a very simple cake to make, as long as you have very ripe bananas and an electric mixer to beat everything together. If you don’t feel inclined to do monkey decorations, by all means just bake two simple 9-inch layers. Skip all the steps about carving out ears and decorating a face with vanilla frosting, and instead just fill and frost the cake layers entirely with the chocolate fudge icing. You won’t be sorry.
For the banana cake:
3–½ cups cake flour (not all-purpose flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1-½ teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 scant cup sugar
1 scant cup golden brown sugar (not firmly packed)
4 large eggs
2 cups mashed very ripe bananas (about 5 or 6 large bananas)
½ cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
For the chocolate fudge frosting:
4 – ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
1 – ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
½ cup whole milk or half-and-half
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
Make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350°. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper cut to fit, then butter and flour the paper and the sides of the pan.
Combine the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl, whisking to blend well.
Place the butter and both sugars in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; combine on medium speed until blended. (Alternately, you can do this with a hand-held mixer and a large bowl.) Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add the mashed bananas, yogurt and vanilla. Beat in the dry ingredients in two additions until just combined.
Divide the cake batter between the two prepared pans. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. (If you have a small oven and have to bake the cakes on two separate racks inside the oven, as I do, switch the pans to the opposite rack halfway through the baking time so that they cook evenly.) Let the cakes cool in their pans on a baking rack for 15 minutes, then turn them out of the pans onto the rack to cool completely.
Make the frosting:
Combine all the frosting ingredients EXCEPT the melted chocolate in a food processor and blend until it turns into a smooth frosting. Reserve a generous ½ cup of the vanilla frosting which you will use for decorating the cake. Add the melted chocolate to the rest of the vanilla frosting and pulse until smooth.
(If you don’t have a food processor, you can do this in a large bowl with an electric mixer. Start by beating the butter till fluffy, then gradually beat in one cup of sugar at a time on low speed. When all the sugar has been incorporated, add the milk and vanilla and beat until the mixture is smooth. Reserve ½ cup of vanilla frosting, then beat in the melted chocolate to the remaining frosting until smooth.)
Tint the reserved ½ cup of vanilla frosting with a small spoonful of the chocolate fudge frosting. You will use this to make the monkey’s face.
To assemble the MONKEY CAKE:
Start by trimming the cake layers. This is easier if you’ve let your cake layers firm up in the freezer for a bit, making them less fragile and easier to cut. I like to level off the top of the cake if it has domed a bit while baking, and I use a serrated knife to create an even flat surface on the top of each layer.
Carefully trim the layers into a round monkey head with two little half-circles for ears on the sides, at the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions. I didn’t trust myself to do this free form, so I traced the ear shapes on parchment paper, but you might be more skilled than I and not need tracing paper for your little ears.
Place one layer on a serving platter. I like to put strips of wax paper underneath the cake to protect the platter from errant blobs of frosting that might go astray while decorating. Top this bottom cake layer with a thick layer of chocolate frosting. Put the second layer on top, lining up the little ears with each other.
Pipe some of the reserved vanilla frosting into a piping bag fitted with a round tip or into a small plastic baggie with the tip snipped off. Outline the shape of your monkey’s face with the vanilla frosting, then use an angled icing spatula or a small butter knife to fill in the rest of the face with a smooth layer of the vanilla frosting.
Coat the remainder of the cake and the sides with a very thin layer of the chocolate frosting. This creates a “crumb coat”, which seals in the crumbs so that they don’t stray into the final frosting. Place the cake in the refrigerator to firm up the frosting, about 15 minutes. Once the crumb coat has chilled, generously slather the rest of the cake with more chocolate fudge frosting. Put a few spoonfuls of the chocolate frosting into a piping bag fitted with a small round tip or into a small plastic baggie with the tip snipped off, and use it to create your monkey’s eyes, nose and mouth.
Makes one very rich 9-inch tall layer cake which can serve at least 12 people, and even more if you slice it thinly.