Saturday, June 11, 2011

Birthday Cakes!

Today is my birthday. My forty-sixth birthday. I'm not afraid of "growing old" or reaching a big number like fifty or sixty or ninety. In fact if I reach ninety I'll be tickled pink. Although my goal is to get to my eleventy-first birthday and then I'm going to have a hobbit birthday party and give everyone presents. But today I am just forty-six. It's just a number. Saying I am twenty-nine is not going to make me twenty-nine. And besides when I was twenty-nine I had a two-year old and was pregnant, so it wasn't very fun. I like being where I am. I've enjoyed growing in maturity, wisdom and understand (stop laughing) and still retaining my youth and frivolity.

Cakes and birthdays go hand in hand. And I love birthday cakes. I would have to say that my very favorite birthday cake is actually yellow cake with a traditional real buttercream frosting. Although yellow cake with a creamy chocolate frosting is pretty high up on the enjoyment list. I'll never refuse chocolate cake, though. In preparing for this post, I wondered what kind of cakes are made around the world and throughout history. I went to that compendium of never-failing information, Wikipedia (yes; you may laugh at that) to see what it had to say about birthday cakes. They're pretty old. In fact there are references that date back to the Greeks and Romans. I knew about medieval birthday cakes, but the recipes I have found for medieval cakes are more like sweet breads rather than what we think of as cake today. They were yeast risen and contained fruits and nuts. Think more German Stolen than Betty Crocker. It wasn't until the the middle of the eighteenth century that we started getting cakes that actually look like what we envision as birthday cakes today. Tiered cakes dripping in icing and floral decorations.

When searching for literary references for birthday cake, Google was somewhat a failure in producing anything truly useful. Although there was a Wiki question asking what color Bella's Birthday cake was in New Moon (It was pink.) And I did find this quote: “Birthdays are nature's way of telling us to eat more cake.” So go eat cake. (BTW, cake wasn't referring to cake when Marie Antoinette suggested that the peasants go eat cake. The actual word was brioche not gateau. Brioche was a savory bread made with eggs and milk rather than starter and water. Both, though, require flour, which the bakers had none of, but Marie did not know this and thought one was just a substitute for the other. And it is also doubtful that Marie Antoinette actually uttered the words.)

This is my favorite recipe for a good basic yellow cake:

1 cup butter
2-1/2 cups white sugar
3 eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups buttermilk
3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2-1/4 teaspoons baking powder
2-1/2 teaspoons baking soda

Bring the butter, eggs and buttermilk to room temperature!

Grease three 8" or 9" pans. I like to sprinkle mine with a little flour as well. Preheat your oven to 350°F. Using a mixer, cream your butter and sugar together until it is soft. Next add in your eggs one at a time and beat this for a good 5 minutes. You want a nice light fluffy cake. Add your vanilla and buttermilk (if you don't have buttermilk you can substitute regular milk, but add a dollop of Greek yogurt or sour cream to add just a pinch of tartness to it which will work well with the amount of sugar that is in this cake).

While your wet ingredients are beating away, sift together your flour, baking powder and soda. You do not need salt because everything you need is in your powder and soda. Trust me. It will be fine. Slowly add your dry ingredients to your wet ingredients, scraping the bowl as you go. Let it mix for just a few more minutes. Evenly divide the batter into your three prepared pans and bake for 35 minutes or until it tests clean.

Remove them from the oven and let them sit for 5 minutes before removing them from the pans and letting them cool on racks.

Sometimes I like to add a bit of orange or lemon zest to this recipe just because it is so darn good. In those instances I will sometimes bake this as a loaf and slice it, toast it and put butter on it. No frosting needed. But most of the time I put frosting on it.

What kind of frosting you ask? OK, here's my favorite recipe for that: Go to the store, look for the tub that reads, "Duncan Hines Milk Chocolate." Spread liberally. But when I do make my frosting from scratch this is what I use:

1/4 cup butter
2 cups confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons milk

It's pretty easy and fairly foolproof. Just mix the first four ingredients adding the 2 tablespoons of milk a bit at a time until it is spreadable. It's simple, basic and so delicious on cake.

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